Italian design, Japanese engineering. Perfect.
Engine in the front. Drive to the rear. And no roof in the middle.
For a long time, that was the recipe for a fun time behind the wheel. Before the advent of hot-hatchbacks and performance saloons, all you ever needed for a giggle was a light, peppy compact sports car with no roof and no weight to impede the relative lack of power from the nose.
The before the Mazda MX-5 burst onto the scene in the 90s and reignited that love of the sports car, the adoration of such enthusiast-driven cars were formed thanks to cars like the original Fiat 124. Beautiful, light, and ever fun to drive, the 124 became a style icon, though it didn’t really catch on farther afield than Europe because… reliability, obviously.
So what if we told you that you can have that Italian Riviera experience, but now with bulletproof Japanese engineering?
That Italian-Japanese union comes in the form of the new Abarth 124 Spider, which is actually a Mazda MX-5 under the skin. The two companies jointly developed their products and as such, the 124 Spider was already a tidy handling little thing before the uniquely-Abarth things got added on, like the 1.4-MultiJet turbocharged petrol mill.
Available in a sole trim with only a couple of options, is the Abarth 124 Spider the better MX-5 that Mazda won’t sell you, perhaps?
“There’s more to the Abarth 124 Spider than just a new set of clothes.” — TopGear UK
There really is a Mazda MX-5 hiding beneath that bodywork, we’re not lying. Because joint-ventures achieve the sort of economies of scale that make accountants very happy, Mazda and Fiat worked so closely together during the development of the chassis and platform that the transition from Japan to Italy was effortlessly smooth.
While the MX-5 looks pert, compact, and ready-to-pounce, the Abarth looks more purposeful, more elegant, more classic in its proportions than the uniquely-contemporary Mazda. The looks of the two roadsters has actually divided the CarShowroom office right down the middle, with equal fans for the MX-5 as for the Abarth. It’s really that subjective.
With its long bonnet, more upright tail, and smooth lines in between, the 124 Spider is such a throwback to the sports cars of the 60s that you just can’t help but fall in love with it. We especially like the headlights, with their LED DRL outline and sharp LED projectors (optional).
Though, the matte-black bonnet and bootlid… that’s up for debate.
Engine & Drivetrain
“It’s the torque rush that makes the difference here, giving the Abarth stronger drive from the bends and better in-gear acceleration.” — CarsGuide
The Abarth 124 Spider is available with only one engine choice, that being a 1.4-litre MultiAir 4-cylinder turbo-petrol mill. Thanks to forced induction, the little Abarth puts out a healthy 125kW and 250Nm, notably some 7kW and 50Nm more than the Mazda.
While those numbers may seem inconsequential, behind the wheel, you soon realise they’re really not. The torque on offer is really substantial, and it kicks you in the back a lot sooner than it would in the Mazda. As a result, you’ll never accuse the Abarth of being sluggish, with turbo-lag only evident if you’re lazy with the manual gearbox. Keep the car in its sweet spot, or above 2500rpm, and you’ll be just fine.
Speaking of gearboxes, the Abarth 124 Spider is available as a six-speed manual, or as a six-speed automatic. They’re both good units, with the former enjoying a really slick shift, and the latter with fast responses. So really, it depends entirely on you.
“If you’ve seen inside a Mazda MX-5 then you’ll know exactly what to expect from the interior of the Abarth 124.” — Practical Motoring
You don’t have to get the Abarth 124 Spider next to an Mazda MX-5 to know that they’re different cars, visually. But if we’d gotten you into the cars and taped the badges, you’d have to be truly, truly obsessed about the automobile to tell the difference.
Fiat tweaked the exterior extensively, but left the cabin untouched. Really, we’ve struggled to find any significant difference in the cabin from the Mazda. What it lacks in distinction it does at least gain in quality, because everything is fixed together solidly, and it’s clear that everything was considered lengthily before decided upon.
You’ll find a big tachometer in the middle of the instrument panel, and an MZD Conncet infotainment system in the middle (no FCA Uconnect system here). You sit low in the cabin, with the architecture designed to hem you in as much as possible. The seats are supportive and cosseting, with the steering wheel falling to hand so perfectly as if it were divine ordinance.
We can’t help but wonder what would have transpired had the Italians been given clearance to retool things in here.
Behind The Wheel
“The little roadster is sensational when given its head, offering playful dynamics that represent a return to the lightweight, rear-wheel-drive dynamics of old.” — Drive
This is a bloody good car to drive.
We would love to just leave this section at that, but we’ve been told that that’s not okay. But truly, there’s nothing more that we need to say about the 124 Spider, because it’s really amazing from behind the wheel.
With a perfect driving position, well-matched gearbox, and bounds of effortless torque, the Abarth isn’t a car that just tracks well, but one that rewards you for taking the long road home. The exhaust note may be overbearing in traffic but it’s terrific when you open the taps, delivering the sort of raspy, characterful noise that just begs you to drive harder and harder in a car like this. Drop the roof and the sensation is heightened, giving you a taste of what drivers used to enjoy back when the world was sepia-toned.
The balance of the 124 Spider is truly remarkable, with a chassis setup that can be described as tail-happy, though never overly so. It’s predictable, manageable, and confidence inspiring, and makes for a right laugh on the right roads. In fact, it’s here where there’s a distinction between the Italian and the Jap: Where the Mazda feels more telepathic, more delicate, the Abarth is more demanding, more meaty, and to us, more rewarding.
Safety & Technology
“Four airbags might not sound like much, but it’s a full-suite in a drop-top two-seater.” — WhichCar
The Abarth 124 Spider is actually pretty well kitted in this regard, when you take into account the sort of car it is. As mentioned earlier there are four airbags in here, as well as the usual range of electronic safety aids, as well as automatic headlights and wipers.
Further, all cars get keyless entry and go, cruise control, and a reversing camera. There’s also climate control, leather on the steering wheel and gearknob, and a leatherette/fabric upholstery mix. You’ll also find a 7.0-inch MZD Connect infotainment screen, which you control with a rotary dial on the central tinnel, as well as a Bose audio system, which is pretty awesome.
Under the skin, there’s a limited slip differential to aid with grip, and high-performance dampers and brakes from Bilstein and Brembo respectively.
There are some optional items, though. Naturally, the automatic gearbox will set you back a bit, by $2000 to be exact. There’s a ‘Visibility Pack’ on offer that tacks on things like LED headlights with daytime running lights, with the former able to swivel around corners depending on steering wheel input. There’s a blindspot monitoring system too, as well as rear parking sensors and rear cross-traffic alert.
You’d be a fool to dismiss the Abarth 124 Spider as just a Mazda in an Italian suit, because there’s so much more to it. The unique suspension setup, the tailored driving experience… the Abarth feels similar to the donor Mazda MX-5 sure, but you walk away from the two cars with distinctly different tastes in your mouth.
What helps the Abarth’s case further is that sensational design, which is so reminiscent of classic roadsters that if were total idiots, we’d call it a classic. In fact, we could probably get away with calling it that now, because there’s no question that this will become a car coveted by enthusiasts and collectors alike.
Like we said at the beginning of this piece, the recipe for driving fun used to be engine in the front, drive to the rear, and no roof in the middle. And after having driven the Abarth 124 Spider, it must be said… it’s still the same now.
WhichCar — 4.5/5.0 — “The Abarth 124 Spider is a front-engine, rear-drive sports car built for wind-in-the-hair enthusiasts from the lightweight Mazda MX-5. A sprightly turbocharged engine makes the drop-top Italian two-seater both more eager and more economical with fuel than its Japanese sibling, and slightly firmer suspension adds poise in fast cornering. The name is a nostalgic nod to a 1970s rally roadster from Abarth, which is the Fiat motorsport brand.”
Motoring — 85/100 — “Can Abarth’s Mazda-based roadster beat the MX-5 at its own game? The answer, is yes.”
Practical Motoring — 4.0/5.0 — “The Abarth 124 might share a lot with its sister car, the Mazda, but Abarth has breathed enough on it in several key areas that it feels very different indeed. It’s better to drive, is sharper, punchier out of the corners, and it sounds better to… that it’s priced only a tad more than the Mazda means this is the one you should be going for.”
Drive — 6.5/10 — “The Abarth 124 Spider is not a Mazda MX-5, and that's fine by us. The Italian-branded version has a character of its own, an element of edgy charm and naughtiness not present in its Japanese cousin.”
The Motor Report — 4.5/5.0 — “This is a car that can still be bucketloads of fun at reasonable speeds - there’s no need to break the law just to have a little fun - and in speed-limit obsessed Australia that’s no bad thing at all.”
Autocar — 4.0/5.0 — “Spunky turbo roadster has the soul of a hot hatch. Bravo, Abarth. Bravo.”
TopGear UK — 7.0/10 — “A good-natured daily driver that's rare, looks sporty and offers lots to enjoy.”
WhatCar? — 3.0/5.0 — “The Abarth 124 Spider is based on the Fiat of the same name, but offers ore power and a sportier character.… albeit at a higher price.”