Words: Don Cheng
Photography: Don Cheng
Published: August 27, 2018
Some might take one look at the Fiat 124 Spider and disregard it as another notch in a long list of re-badged engineered vehicles. I’d argue that’s a bit of a misnomer. Perhaps a more adept descriptor of the 124 Spider is a hodge podge mix of motoring heritage, though I admit that doesn’t roll off the tongue as easy.
But that’s the reality of the Italian-American automaker’s diminutive convertible: a soft top two-seater built on the backbone of a familiar bestseller, the Mazda MX-5 Miata. Although, in this iteration, it receives a thorough injection of Italian style. The sheetmetal for example is a radical departure from the Kodo-themed styling language found in the ND MX-5 . Instead, this 124 is a modern take on the original. Put the two side by side and the similarities are striking. Greeting you is a slightly aggressive front fascia and a grill entirely reminiscent of the original. Tying together the horizontal taillamps is a strong character line that draws your attention to the remarkable horizontal silhouette, another nod to the original, as are the two uniquely shaped humps on the hood.
My particular tester was draped in Grigio Chiaro (read: silver) and included the optional hand-painted heritage racing stripe, a $2,995 Abarth exclusive that adds a black hood and decklid, a throwback to the racing livery of Abarth Fiat’s which featured black hoods to reduce glare on the racing driver’s eyes. While I doubt drivers today will be doing much racing in their 124s, the contrast here really sets off the styling of the and the car received many compliments throughout the week.
There’s more Italian panache under the hood too. All 124s receive Fiat’s 1.4L multi-air four cylinder. Fans of the Mazdaspeed Miata rejoice, as once again we see the return of a turbo four under the hood of a Miata, kind of. Power output is a steadfast 160 hp, 2 more than the naturally aspirated ND MX-5, while Abarth renditions eek out 4 hp more for a grand total of 164 hp. Mated to the motor is a six-speed manual transmission from the earlier NC MX-5 (a six speed auto is available as well) that is heavier and a bit more suited to cope with the 36 lb-ft of extra torque from the force fed motor. Much like its brother from a Japanese mother, the Abarth is a promising recipe for good fun, and boy does it deliver.
The extra torque from the 1.4L is immediately present and appreciated. The motor, transmission, and chassis work in harmony, exchanging playful banter back and forth as you rev match downshift and twist the wheel through the bends on country roads. The transmission is marginally notchier than the new MX-5 but hardly difficult to manipulate. Pedal placement is perfect, as always in MX-5s, and no different in this execution, making gear changes a cinch with its light clutch. The effervescent 1.4L helps too, its tach needle swinging about with verve.
The biggest letdown comes when trying to build speed, exhibiting tremendous amounts of turbo lag when the tach is below 3,000 RPM. Getting up to speed feels like a chore for the four banger, as it wheezes its way up the tach until the turbo works its magic.
The steering is light yet direct with only a small prod from centre required for the car to respond, making the short chassis an excellent performer when lining up one corner after the next. The Bilstein dampers feel better tuned for this application also. It’s firmer but maintains compliance in poor road conditions, seemingly soaking up the bumps and letting the car settle in during hard turns.
Step inside the roadster and the Italian flair slips away. The cabin is markedly similar to the MX-5. The dash, navigation system, and centre console are identical to its Japanese brother. While I would have loved an interior that was just as Italian as its exterior, the reality is there is only so much remodelling and repositioning that the designers can do given the confines of the space. Instead, focus was put on altering trim pieces that would drive significant impact to the overall feel and experience behind the vehicle. The seats for example are from Recaro, and offer better lateral thigh bolstering than Mazda’s equivalent. The shift knob has been swapped to an ergonomic shape that is similar to the Corvette. Lastly, the body coloured door mouldings have been removed in lieu of traditional soft touch plastic, and alcantara inserts.
The Abarth starts at $37,995. Meanwhile this tester, with all the boxes ticked rang in at $48,880, costly for what is essentially a vehicle destined to be a weekend toy and not a daily driver. It’s a tough call, especially when the latest MX-5 of which this 124 is based on runs for almost $8,000 less on a fully-loaded spec. That isn’t to say this Italian charmer isn’t worth it, but if it were our money we’d remove a few packages and make do without the heritage racing stripe or the leather faced sport seats, which alone would help even out the score between two. But if the garage necessitates an Italian machine, then there’s little that can go wrong with a 124 Abarth Spider filling in the space.
Model: 2018 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth
Base Price: $37,995
Length/Width/Height (mm): 4,054 / 1,740 / 1,232
Curb weight (kg): 1,124
Engine: 1.4-litre turbocharged MultiAir inline-four
Horsepower: 164 hp @ 5,500 rpm
Torque: 184 lb-ft @ 2,500 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, RWD
Fuel Consumption ( City / Highway / Combined ) L/100km: 9.0 / 6.7 / 7.9
Tires: 205/45R17; Bridgestone Potenza RE-050A