Italian job – one day affair with Fiat Abarth 124 Spider

I was always quite open regarding my lack of love to MX-5 ND design.

I somehow still don’t get how Mazda could let through such unconvincing rear part of the car. And than, it turned out that in design department rescue came from an unexpected direction – from Fiat.

This automotive brand has had its ups and downs, recently trying to prove that one can survive mainly on marketing several varieties of the same dated car (yup, 500).

But in the past the company offered a variety of models, like a lightweight front-engine, RWD roadster, namely 124 Sport Spider.

By Lothar Spurzem, published under CC BY-SA 2.0 de

Fast forward, someone, probably in an office in Turin, figured out that it would be a brilliant idea to recreate one of iconic Italian roadsters in a modern variant, taking current MX-5 generation as a basis.

Kudos to him.

At first FCA/Mazda cooperation was expected to bring fruits in a shape of a small but sporty Alfa Romeo.

Then a guy named Sergio realised that Hiroshima is not necessarily a city in Italy and all Alfas are supposed to be built on Italian soil.

Fortunately Fiat is a more of an international brand, so this showstopper was off the table and that’s how current 124 Spider was born.

I have to admit, when I saw first photos, I was sold. The design accurately captured spirit of the original Spider, kept little from exterior of ND and simply was way more to my liking.

Before long, next thing that happened was handing over current 124 Spider to Abarth guys, to tinker with the basic car a little just like in old days.

Outcome is mechanically beefed up, somehow more brutal and visually flamboyant version, sporting still the same 1.4 MutliAir Fiat engine and great chassis design of Mazda.

Out of the box you get engine pushing 170 HP/250 Nm (compared to 140/240 of regular EU spec 124 and 160/200 of 2.0 ND), Abarth tuned suspension, Brembo brake package, special interior trim and as many scorpion emblems as it was possible to put on such a small car.

Result is probably the fastest factory built, MX-5 based, car that you can buy new – it is capable of 0-100 in 6.8s and top speed of 230+ km/h.

So basically, Abarth version is a Japanese base married with Italian styling and powertrain, additionally tuned by Italians and with MOPAR logos on all windows.

And it’s built in Hiroshima. Quite an international blend.

I was looking for opportunity to test drive 124 Spider for quite a while to compare it to Japanese compatriot. Then, suddenly, it turned out that a colleague of mine, spontaneously, went to Fiat dealership and decided to buy one.

Actually, he went one step further and bought Abarth version… and was so generous to hand over keys to me so I could enjoy the car for a day.

The car itself is an interesting and uneven combination.

From the outside it is a bit of an uncivilised rascal, with all the red add-ons, redesigned, more aggressive front and rear end and, in my case, optional Record Monza exhaust.

It has surprisingly high “wow” factor as well, which is not so obvious in Germany, where likes of 911’s and AMG’s are common. People in general turn their heads when Abarth is passing, give thumbs up and take the car as an exotic.

Probably exhaust has something to do with it too. While idling it is plainly loud and has for me a bit too vulgar note.

When you rev up, it gets even louder but better sounding as well. And of course, with reductions and on lifting the throttle you get pops and crackles all the way.

Inside, it’s an ND with scorpions here and there and red plastic rev gauge. You get leather seats, which are quite comfy but Recaros are still only an option. Gauge cluster and door panels were slightly restyled.

What is the most disappointing thing is that Abarth is a step backwards in terms of interior quality compared to ND.

You get this strange mix of alcantara and cheap plastic next to each other.

Although you also get personal badge with car number.

Trying to do justice to Italian part of the car I started to figure out where would be the best to take it for a spin.

Luckily, I picked up the car quite close to Mosel valley, with its vineyards and curvy back roads.

Location maybe is not exactly 100% Italian but still it seemed like a perfect match.

After a quick research I planned my test route – around 100km of curves, hairpins and views to enjoy, with starting point close to Koblenz and finish in Zell, located at the banks of Mosel.

The drive was simply amazing with not much local traffic blocking my efforts test the car handling and engine capabilities.

Curve after curve, braking after braking I got to know this black scorpion.

It’s hard not to start with engine and power delivery and avoid comparing it to 2.0 SkyActive in MX-5.

In 124 you can see that it’s a small engine with a big turbo bolted to it.

On low revs the car feels a little lazy, you need to be quite firm on the throttle to get it going.

When you push the car, you get this “wait-for-it” moment related to small but noticeable turbo lag and then you get to feel all the torque being delivered to the wheels. I’d say that if you’ll stay above 3000 rpm the power delivery is better and more aggressive than in ND.

But you’ll pay the price at the pump – spirited driving ended with 15+ l/100km consumption, far above result I got when testing ND RF last year.

Interestingly, Mazda somehow had this notion of fragility of ND gearbox and in Abarth and Fiat you get… good, old 6-speed taken straight from NC. Probably someone realised that 250Nm is a bit too much to handle for newer design and that’s why there are no reports about killed gearboxes in 124’s.

So in regard to shifting precision, throw of gear lever you get everything that you can expect from seasoned mechanism known from Mk3. The only thing that worried me was around 1 cm of play of the gear knob when in any of the gears.

Other thing that you notice is the braking setup. In standard you get 4-pot (or that’s how they look) Brembo calipers at the front wheels which is quite an upgrade compared to regular set.

I’d question the idea to marry them with the same 280 mm brake disc as you get in 2.0 ND but all in all the set proven to be highly efficient and I didn’t reach the point where they started to fade.

Yet again, I don’t know what pads are installed as OEM but I was caught off guard at first one or two hard brakings before hairpins – I simply expected the car to stop quicker. Later on either I readjusted my expectations or pads got up to temperature and it was all good.

You’d expect that the biggest difference between ND and 124 would come from engine.

That was exactly the assumption I made when getting into the car.

But I learned quite quickly that, to my surprise, the biggest contrast was in how both cars handle.

Abarth advertises that the suspension was tuned by them, so you get Bilstein springs and stiffer sway bars and depending on the source and maybe even market, Abarth branded, Koni or Bilstein dampers.

On the flip side, car is way firmer than stock MX-5 and wheel arch gap is reduced to acceptable levels from factory. But that’s as far as good things go.

When driving MX-5 you feel it’s precise like a katana and in comparison 124 feels more like a bokken.

You simply don’t get this level of feeling of direct connection to wheels and road.

You need to make up for lack of precision with additional moves of steering wheel while pushing the car hard.

Overall it may just be the alignment that needs to be fixed but checking different reviews of Abarth I was not alone with the handling assessment.

Clearly point for Mazda and a message to Italians that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Last thing that is hard to overlook is value for money.

Starting price at te dealership is around 38,5k EUR and that’s a lot of extra cash for a difference in spec between either 2.0 MX-5 (starting at 23,5k EUR) or vanilla 124 (26k EUR).

Especially that US-spec 124 Spider is almost identical on engine figures, so in Europe you pay apparently just for a different ECU tune and not engine internals.

For less money you could get (order is random): Clio RS, Toyobaru GT86, Golf GTI (even R), Focus RS or Civic Type R. All of them more powerful and each with character of its own.

Price level of the Abarth is right up there with likes of BMW 230i.

For me the car could use some refinement but even as it is, it’s a joyful little imp and it was a blast to drive it for a day. But if I’d have to pick and choose and pay from my pocket I would carefully look at the list of alternatives above.

Photos: A. Kozłowski & I. Zakrzewska

Acknowledgements: Big thanks to Krzysiek for making the car available and trusting that I will bring it back in one piece. Also, I need to appreciate Iwona, who survived Record Monza exhaust and testing the limits of suspension and brakes for more than half a day.

Cutting room floor

Related Images:

Andrzej Kozłowski
Owner of a Miata trackday rat, petrolhead, casual traveller, amateur photographer.

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