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Heart rules head in this Italian roadster

Road tests

Johannesburg – If there were a prize for being the least knowledgeable car guy on Earth, my dad would be a shoe-in for the big gold trophy. Here’s a guy who couldn’t tell a Maserati from a Mahindra, so you can imagine the perplexity on his mug when the obscure Abarth badge arrived in his driveway for a recent visit.

Before I could even begin a futile explanation of Italian racing heritage and the resurrection of the historic performance brand by modern Fiat, he had already muddled three mispronunciations of the famous (with car guys) nameplate. But here’s the thing his daily driver is an original red MX-5, a car he adores. 

And because I know his automotive interests are limited to little Japanese roadsters, of the Mazda variety in particular, I’ve been around to show him each of the three subsequent MX-5 generations over the past decade and a half – latest edition included. It was only moments before he detected something fishy about the Abarth 124 Spider.

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“Yes dad, this is an MX-5 under the skin.”

Scratches head.

“Well, it’s actually a Fiat but built in partnership with Mazda.”

Squints eyes.

“It costs R200 000 more.”

Turns around and goes inside.

That's the thing with obscure badges. They're almost always attached to hefty price tags, and in the R649 900 Abarth’s case it's hard to justify the premium over the R441 700 Mazda MX-5. What do you get for the extra money? Besides the cachet associated with an Italian marque, not a lot. Standard features are plentiful, and the list includes navigation, keyless entry, cruise control, heated leather seats and a nine-speaker Bose sound system. But remember, all of that's included in the Mazda too.

Fiat has gone to town mechanically though, with some serious tweaking in the engine and suspension departments. There's more muscle under that long snout, and though the Abarth’s turbocharged 1.4 is at its core the same as you get in Fiat’s hopped-up 500 microhatch, the wick’s been turned up to 125kW and 250Nm here. The added kilowatts might hardly be worth a mention over the 118kW naturally aspirated 2.0 in the MX-5, but the extra 50Nm go a long way to giving this roadster a driving identity of its own.

With a broader torque spread the Abarth is a much more relaxed drive. Where the MX-5 requires frequent gearbox stirring to keep its revs on the boil, the 124 is awake from lower rpm.

Picture this: you pull up behind a truck on a single carriageway in fifth gear. In the Mazda you'll have to downshift to fourth, maybe even third, to access the power needed to make the pass. In the Abarth you can leave the lever alone, put foot, and cruise on by with a sweeping, unflustered surge. No muss, no fuss.

That said, you might find yourself changing gears just for the fun of it. The six-speed manual used here (and in the Mazda) is a magnificent piece of short-throw engineering with a nice, clickity action that almost begs to be worked. In a market full of cutting-edge autoboxes, as excellent as they are, it’s refreshing to get the left leg working and experience gear changes the old fashioned way, especially with such a nice transmission, and especially in this genre of car.

Unfortunately, I can’t report any real performance gains with the Abarth’s turbo power. Our Vbox test equipment showed a best 0-100km/h sprint of 7.9 seconds and a quarter mile time of 15.7 – identical numbers, to the 10th, as the MX-5 we tested in 2015. A slightly damp surface might have pinched a bit of time, but it’s unlikely the Abarth would have come close to its factory-claimed 6.8 seconds even with ideal traction.

All MX-5s, including the newest one, are considered icons of handling and thankfully the Abarth inherits a nimble nature from its Japanese doppleganger.

Still, Fiat couldn't help but to tinker with pretty much all suspension components and it’s thrown in stiffer Bilstein shocks, firmer springs, fatter anti-roll bars and a new strut brace to help with chassis rigidity. Even the steering ratio has been altered but, even with all the fettling it'd take Fernando Alonso to pick up any discernible difference between the two cars.

That’s not a complaint. It's a compliment. It might be a tiny bit more jittery on bumpy roads and a tiny bit more focussed on the limit, but for the most part the Abarth 124 is the same fun to chuck around, rear-wheel-drive package as any enthusiast driver could hope for in a compact sports car. It's tight and taut, and steering inputs are met with instant direction changes. Nope, no torque vectoring or other fancy electronic handling aids to corrupt feedback here. Again, it's a fairly old-fashioned set-up and all the better for it.

Like the MX-5, there's a proper mechanical limited-slip differential between the back wheels to help with grip on corner exits, and if you're forceful enough you can provoke a tail wag when traction control is turned off. Note, I said tail wag and not power slide. There's nowhere near enough grunt for any smoky sideways action, but there is just enough to keep it playful when a bendy road presents itself.

Thank goodness Fiat didn’t toy with Mazda’s simple folding roof mechanism because it’s one of the best in the business. Not because it’s electronic and works at the push of a button, but because it’s not. This ragtop unclips with one locking lever above the rear view mirror, and then whips down or up with one quick arm motion, without ever lifting a cheek from your seat.

Fiat has shown some sense of humour and, like other car makers with automatic type roofs, quoted the time it takes to fully retract. This one takes just three seconds, but I reckon you can beat that time with some practice.

VERDICT

The Abarth 124 Spider is an extremely expensive alternative to a Mazda MX-5. Is it worth the extra 200k? No way. Not in any tangible sense anyway.

But then it’s hard to put a price on the cachet that goes along with an obscure Italian badge such as Abarth’s. It certainly won’t make sense to my dad, but he’s the furthest thing from a car guy.

This a car for serious car guys. Wealthy ones with niche taste.

FACTS

Abarth 124 Spider Turismo

Engine: 1.4-litre, 4-cylinder turbopetrol

Gearbox: 6-speed manual

Power: 125kW @ 5500rpm

Torque: 240Nm @ 2250rpm

0-100km/h (tested, Gauteng): 7.9 seconds

Top speed (claimed): 2320km/h

Price: R649 900

Warranty: 3-year / 100 000km

Maintenance plan: 3-year / 100 000km

Follow me on Twitter @PoorBoyLtd



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