Italian cars have a certain kind of reputation. Japanese cars have a certain kind of reputation. You don’t have to think too hard about what we’re referring to, because the stereotypes are generally true. But what if you could have a car with Italian style that’s built by the Japanese? That is exactly what the Fiat Abarth 124 Spider is.
There is no Fiat badging whatsoever on the Abarth version of the 124 Spider. All badges show the Abarth scorpion. But the car itself is mostly built by Mazda. It is impossible to tell from the outside, as the 124 Spider is completely different from the Mazda MX-5 “Miata” on which it is based, sharing only the windshield and manually-operated soft-top maybe. You’ll only notice the fruits of this joint venture from the inside.
The cabin is taken straight out of the MX-5, but upgraded with better materials such as soft-touch padding all around, alcantara on parts of the dash and Abarth embroidery on the leather seats.
The Abarth is a fair bit longer than the Mazda by virtue of more prominent overhangs, so there is no gain in interior space. There is no glovebox, just one cubby between the seatbacks, and an awkward clip-on cup-holder that was actually missing in our test car. It is still spacious enough for two average-sized adults, and the boot can fit more groceries than the Mazda MX-5 and even Fiat’s too-rich-to-talk-to-you-any-more cousin, the Ferrari Portofino. There is a huge lump in the passenger-side footwell that restricts space severely, but it’s not a problem if your passenger sits still in one specific position.
It comes in one spec, with a Mazda touchscreen system whose secondary rotary controller takes up potentially-useful space on the centre console. The multimedia tech is as you’d expect from a modern car, except for the shoddy rear camera video and the lack of navigation — there is a nav option on the screen that shows coordinates, but it also shows a message advising you to go get nav software and maps at the dealer (probably not for free). The a/c takes time to cool, but gets there eventually.
Powered by a 170 hp 1.4-litre turbo 4-cylinder Fiat engine mated to a 6-speed automatic, it makes 250 Nm of torque. These figures are barely a smidge above the 160 hp non-Abarth 124 Spider (which is not sold here), and out on the road, it still doesn’t feel like a particularly quick car at full throttle. Acceleration feels pretty linear as the turbo is small, but the gearing feels tall as well, and the transmission is hesistant to downshift unless you’re really pouncing on the go pedal, even in sport mode. Using the paddles at times can be a good idea.
We estimate it takes about 8 seconds to hit 100 kph on a summer night, and might do better in the winter. It sounds fast though, with a somewhat loud guttural exhaust note that’s not particularly pretty, but commands attention and pops when you get off the throttle.
As expected from a short-wheelbase sports car, the ride feels unsettled, even though the Bilstein suspension is not overly firm, as it floats a bit too long when going over bumps as small as expansion gaps. The roof is mildly padded, but it’s still kind of noisy on the highway. However, with the roof down, the wind buffeting is not bad thanks to the clip-on wind deflector, and quieter than expected with the windows up.
Handling is a bit of an oddity. The car has somewhat-narrow 205/45 tyres on 17-inch alloys. So on various high-speed corners, it feels like the car is understeering (or even oversteering) way too early, but without the tyre squeal. Cough up the guts to go harder, and there actually is a higher limit before the rubbers start squealing.
Part of the blame could be due to the steering, which is well-weighted and offers some feedback, but feels somewhat vague and lacks the ultimate sharpness expected from a sports car. The Brembo brakes are fine though, with decent pedal feel.
You might be wondering how the 124 compares with the Mazda MX-5 or even our Honda S2000.
The Abarth 124 gets a lot of items standard over the Mazda, such as larger 17-inch alloys, a limited-slip diff, Brembo brakes and the padded soft-top, aside from a turbo engine with more power. We haven’t driven an MX-5 because Mazda is too shy to hand over a test car, but we do know that the Roadster has been discontinued in the UAE and only the automatic RF “coupe” is available now. Some say the Mazda is more agile since it’s smaller, but the longer Abarth looks better-proportioned, has a bigger boot, better cabin materials, more power and better brakes.
And let’s not drag the S2000 into this. The Honda has much more power, less modern equipment, more noise and a driving experience that’s sharper and intentionally more frantic, made more so by the standard manual gearbox to milk 9000 revs.
For prices and specs, visit the Fiat buyer guide.
Photos by Mashfique Hussain Chowdhury.