2018 Abarth 124 Spider: Italian Passion meets Japanese Precision

    Posted by Shane Kalicharan about 6 months ago

    Many of us view classic cars with rose-coloured glasses. We might tell ourselves how cars back then were built better, drove better, easier to work on and more enjoyable back then. There is, arguably, a grain of truth to it, but the reality is, living with a classic car isn’t a practical endeavor for the majority of us. There’s the issue of reliability, fuel economy, amenities, safety, and environmental friendliness. But when driving a classic car, many of us will forget about these apparent downfalls and get lost in the old school charm and experience. But what if there was a way to capture that same classic feel, but in a modern, reliable and efficient package?

    The Fiat 124 Spider is a call back to the iconic sports car of the same name. While its heritage is pure Italia, the modern 124 is decidedly more Japanese, sharing almost everything with the tried and true Mazda MX-5 (reviewed here). But don’t let that make you think you’re buying a rebodied Miata. The heart of the Abarth 124 – a 1.4L turbocharged inline-4 - comes straight from Italy. In fact, on the Abarth version of Fiat’s Spider, the car takes a trip to Turin to Fiat’s workshop, Officine Abarth, where various model-specific parts like the optional satin black hood and trunk, alcantara interior and Record Monza exhaust are fitted.

    Mazda’s MX-5 is, by most accounts, one of the best driver’s cars money can buy. It’s a reputation it’s held since the little roadster first launched. So how similar is its Italian sibling? The Spider, with its nostalgic body work, ends up being just over 5-inches longer than the MX-5, with a slightly larger trunk too. But their wheelbases are the same. Suspension is also tuned differently. We felt the Abarth favoured more spirited driving with a firmer ride, while the MX-5, while no slouch by any means, was tuned for everyday driving, absorbing bumps and rougher roads a little more gently. But make no mistake – both cars will carve corners with composure and grace while leaving you laughing all the way through. They are both genuinely fun to drive. But what about the thing that arguably matters most – the engine?

    For the Abarth variant, Fiat retuned the 1.4L turbo engine that lies under the hood of all 124 Spiders, giving it a modest 4hp power boost, pushing its total to 164 horsepower, giving it a 9hp advantage over the MX-5. It’s worth noting that the 2019 MX-5 will see an increase in power to 181hp – and we hope Fiat will respond in kind. Paired with a short-throw, slick shifting 6-speed manual (sourced from the previous generation NC MX-5), the Abarth – after a little bit of turbo buildup – packs a lot of punch. It’s not all that much more powerful than the MX-5, but it is torquier, making it feel like it’s about to skyrocket towards the horizon. You of course, are not going to. In fact, you probably just got up to highway speed at best. But that’s okay. The point of the 124 and the MX-5 is the driving experience, not the power. And the Abarth 124, especially with the top down, delivers unquestionably.

    Inside the cabin, you’d be hard pressed to tell the 124 apart from the MX-5 at a glance. The dashboard configuration, infotainment and centre console layout are the same between the two siblings. But given the market position as an entry level open top sports car produced by the same factory, it’s more than understandable. You can also see the same practice in effect in the Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ twins. But that’s not to say they’re identical. The Abarth features body hugging Recaro seats over the MX-5, hinting at its more aggressive nature. You’ll also find a more squared off shift knob, which to us, felt a little strange at first, but got comfortable once the right hand position was found. For our money, we’d prefer the standard ball in the MX-5 though.

    So all in all, it seems like the little Abarth has a lot to offer. What’s the downside then? We’d say it’s primarily the cost – and this applies to the MX-5 as well. The base Fiat 124 Spider starts at $34,795. Bump that up to nearly $38,000 for the Abarth. Then start adding options like our tester’s $2,995 hand painted hood and trunk lid and the numbers quickly start to add up. Fully loaded, the Abarth 124 came in at a pretty staggering $48,800. On the Mazda side, a fully loaded MX-5 GT will set you back just under $44,000. That’s a lot to pay for what is realistically, a fun weekend car for buyers. But if you can swallow the costs, the ultimate reward is (not to sound too cliched) sheer driving pleasure.

    Fiat, Abarth, Abarth 124 Spider, Fiat 124 Spider, Italian car, Roadster, Convertible, Sports Car, Mazda, Mazda Miata, Miata, Mazda MX-5, MX-5

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