The latest iteration of the Mazda MX-5 (reviewed here) is likely the best example of the iconic roadster yet. It employs the same fun styling, rear-drive, manual transmission, and a host of track-ready goodies. However, the title of this review has “Fiat” in it, and many might be wondering why I’m blithering on about a Mazda. The 2018 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth tested here is a platform mate to the MX-5, born from a partnership between Fiat-Chrysler and Mazda.
Conceptually, Fiat has an absolute hit on their hands. They have used the same chassis as the MX-5 with minor tweaks, and modified the styling slightly. If you squint and look at the side profile, it’s very easy to see the resemblance between the “Fiata” twins. The 124 Spider is, subjectively, a rather handsome car. The large rounded headlights pay homage to the 124 Spider from decades ago, a car that met with much popularity. Rightfully so, too, because it was an absolute sweetheart.
Powering the little Fiata is a 1.4L MultiAir turbocharged four-cylinder engine, the same four-pot we have seen in the 500 Abarth (reviewed here). This is the same engine seen in the regular 124 Spider, but the Abarth model here is tuned to 164 horsepower as opposed to 160 (and 155 in the MX-5). It also gets 184 lb-ft. of torque, a hearty step up from the 148 lb-ft. of the Mazda. The only real complaint with the current MX-5 is that it could use a small power bump, and the 2019 model is already getting that. Even still, a factory turbocharged vehicle on this chassis is the answer we’ve all been waiting for.
The 124 Spider is a wholeheartedly fun car to drive. The short-throw shifter for the six-speed manual transmission is a joy to use, and the transmission is actually one that Fiat borrowed from the previous-generation MX-5. Clutch uptake is easy, right near the top, and it very quickly becomes second nature to drive this car quickly. There is an automatic available on 124 Spiders, but like any proper small-displacement two-seat roadster, it’s unnecessary and takes away from the driving experience.
There is a performance suspension on the 124 Abarth, and it also adds a limited-slip differential. Bilstein shocks make for a firm but very usable ride; this car can be driven every single day, and also makes for a legitimate contender at any local autocross or lapping day – an environment where cars like the Mazda MX-5 and Subaru BRZ are reigning champions. A performance exhaust makes a great noise both on acceleration as well as pops and crackles on backfire. There is an even beefier exhaust available as a dealer accessory for the 2019 model year vehicles – we’ve heard it and it sounds awesome.
With regard to handling, this is an area where these little roadsters truly excel, and the 124 Spider is no exception. From the driver’s perspective, it feels like it has a lot less body roll than the MX-5, and corners a smidge better as a result. It just feels cleaner when pushing it onto a highway on-ramp or into a curve rather quickly. The stability control can be fully defeated, but the sticky factory tires and low power will mean oversteer won’t be a problem unless you’re really trying.
Except there are some limitations; ones that further differentiate the personalities of these twins. Despite having a turbocharger, the amount of lag means the 124 Abarth feels like there is far less usable power below the 3,000RPM mark. It wakes up considerably beyond this point and makes for great fun higher up in the RPM range, but at city speeds, the driver really needs to wring out the Abarth to get anywhere. The MX-5 feels considerably more urgent and ready to rock and roll, whereas the 124 Abarth is a totally different car.
There’s also the price point. The way I’d configure a Mazda MX-5 would be a soft-top GS with the Sport Package, which adds things like Brembo brakes, BBS wheels, and Recaro seats. This comes to just over $40,000. The 124 Spider Abarth starts at $37,995, only a little bit more than the MX-5 GS, but the options quickly begin to add up. Our test vehicle had a lot of options that I would opt out of, including a $2,995 heritage racing stripe, as well as a navigation and sound package for $1,695. The total sticker was about $49,000, which is quite expensive.
It isn’t all bad though, because we determined that the ideal 124 Abarth would cost about $43,000, with minimal options but all of the performance goodies. Brembo brakes are $1,995, a package that includes LED lights is $1,500, and the leather seats are $1,295. Our specific test vehicle may be heavily optioned, but it’s very possible to have one in an attainable and appealing price range.
The cabin of the Fiat 124 is identical to the Mazda MX-5 save for the Fiat badges in place of the Mazda ones, and this is a very good thing. The familiar Mazda infotainment system is easy to use, but FCA’s systems now support Apple CarPlay while Mazda lags behind in this regard. The instrument cluster is very easy to read and all major controls are obviously labeled and convenient to reach. As with any other comparable roadster, this car is very tight with the top up, but the mechanism can be quickly operated by one hand and can be opened/closed in less than five seconds.
Fuel efficiency is quite good, and our test vehicle is fully capable of delivering up to 6.5L/100km on a longer highway run. This actually bests the highway claim of 6.7L/100km by Natural Resources Canada. The 124 Abarth is rated at 9.0L/100km city, for a combined rating of 7.9L/100km. Our week-long test consisted of some spirited driving mixed in with highway commuting, and returned a frugal 7.2L/100km over about 500km. Being turbocharged and all, the 124 Abarth does require premium fuel.
If you start comparing the 2018 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth to its platform siblings, it isn’t the clear-cut winner. This is a car that is more of a boulevard cruiser with some pep, rather than a blatant track day weapon. It’s a little two-seater that will bring out the youth of those who grew up around quirky Italian roadsters, and evoke memories through its retro styling.