Car reviews - Abarth - 124 - Spider
Game-changing LSD, sweet engine, hot looks, playful handling, value
Room for improvement
No black bonnet/boot option yet, lack of knee support/padding
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20 Oct 2016
STYLING is such an impossibly subjective element of a car that it is often not worth dwelling on for a review, but in the case of the new Abarth 124 Spider its looks are the first key point of differentiation from the Mazda MX-5 with which it shares much of its construction.
Beauty is, without doubt, in the eye of the beholder, but there are a number of observations one can make here without fear of conflict, including the Abarth’s traditional approach, while the Mazda has gone for a more modern look.
While the Mazda is certainly a pretty car, it doesn’t have the same aggressive stance and presence that the Abarth exudes on the road, which will sway some potential customers.
First impressions of the interior were also positive with the cosy cabin highlighted by optional two-tone red and black seats that are as good to sit in as they are to look at and a beautifully sharp steering wheel and instrument cluster combination.
The layout of centrally mounted tachometer flanked by speedo and digital information gauges is unchanged over the Mazda but with a sporty red makeover for the tacho, smarter number font and even a red 12 o-clock marker for the leather steering wheel, the Abarth creates more of a sense of occasion.
With peculiar 30km/h speed increments and no digital double-up, the speedo can be a little confusing to read but we are prepared to forgive that minor offence in the name of style.
We love the driving position which is typically sportscar oriented with a comfortable recline and deep footwells, but a telescopically adjustable steering column in addition to the tilt would have made it that little bit better.
At the back end is a 140-litre boot, which may not sound cavernous but is a versatile shape, while interior space is supplemented by a useful cubby under the roof mechanism between the two seats.
But pondering the practicalities of a sportscar is rather like criticising the international space station for not having a pool. The Abarth is all about driving.
Up front (but mounted with a majority of its mass behind the front axle) is Fiat’s excellent 1.4-litre MultiAir four-cylinder turbo which is a good fit in many other models such as the Abarth 595 compact hatch and Jeep’s Renegade, but in a 1100kg convertible the little engine is a dream.
It may only have 7kW over the Mazda’s 2.0-litre atmo, but an extra 50Nm has made all the difference with strong acceleration that doesn’t leave the driver yearning for more grunt without overpowering the chassis.
We also like the character of the turbo engine and the manner it delivers power. A relatively high boost threshold has resulted in a little lag but that only adds to the involving and lively experience along with a little whistle and satisfying exhaust note.
The optional Monza exhaust that Abarth describes as “earth shattering” was not available in time for the Australian launch but we can’t wait to try out the shoutier version when it arrives.
An automatic gearbox is available for an extra $2000 but we stuck with the six-speed manual for the duration of our test drive. From a pure sportscar perspective the manual is the only way to go, especially as the transmission is such a gem with precise short shifts and tightly-spaced ratios.
Pedal positioning was also a surprise, benefiting from the Mazda’s dead-ahead location rather than the typical Italian trait of offsetting. The throttle is also perfectly aligned with the brake for heel-and-toe if you get really stuck into it.
While the engine and gearbox combination gets a big tick from us, it’s the final drive which is the really big news for the Abarth. Instead of a more conventional differential or an electronically controlled version that many car-makers experiment with, the Italian car has a meat-and-two-veg mechanical limited slip differential and it has transformed the car compared with the MX-5.
In combination with a Sport driving mode and ESC that can be completely deactivated, the 124 Spider delivers power to the ground in a beautifully predictable but playful manner.
Turn in is as sharp and fast as the Mazda and the likeable tail-end roll into corners has also been retained, but the tighter locking diff with a little pre-load allows the Abarth to power through corners more aggressively without frustrating inner wheel slip.
On a skid pan the 124 is a complete hoot with the LSD allowing frivolous oversteer that is easy to control.
The Abarth’s approachable character and predictable nature is just as enjoyable on the track and its huge red Brembo four-piston brakes can take a pounding without missing a beat, as well as looking the business through the spokes of the 17-inch wheels.
While the beautifully-styled seats provide excellent support, after a few enthusiastic laps of the track the nobbly interior trims became uncomfortable where our knees contacted the car, but shorter-legged driver may fare better.
Thrashing the little convertible through winding roads in Sport mode is highly rewarding with enough performance to make brisk progress without straying into the blurry world of supercar performance and jeopardised driving licences.
The latter part of our time with the Abarth was on more relaxing roads and at the helm of the limited Launch Edition which gains lipstick, blusher and a beauty-spot in the form of a red front spoiler, mirror cap and towing point trims.
Unfortunately the mean-looking matte black bonnet and boot is not yet available Down Under but our steed still looked gorgeous in white with red leather and the contrasting gun-metal colour 17-inch wheels.
Top down and cruising Queensland’s freeways in balmy conditions was the perfect conclusion to the Australian launch and gave us time to fully appreciate the Abarth’s comfortable cabin and generous equipment such as heated seats, navigation and top notch Bose stereo.
Thanks to a mix of perfect weather allowing topless motoring almost the whole time, a diverse range of roads and the versatility of the Abarth, our time in the little Italian was one of our favourite motoring experiences this year.
There is no denying that the Mazda MX-5 is an excellent car with irresistible handling and good looks, but the Abarth takes all of the elements that we most like about the Japanese car and adds an extra dose of Italian passion and performance.
Getting into the top-spec 2.0-litre MX-5 GT will cost you $39,550 before on-road costs, but Abarth is offering all of the same features with the addition of a sensational diff, better brakes, sweeter engine, more grunt and arguably more appealing looks for $41,990.
For us, the relatively small price premium puts the Abarth 124 Spider at the top of the pack and ahead of the handful of direct competitors in the lightweight but affordable sportscar market.
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