Abarth 124 Spider Convertible Manual 2016 Review | Road Test
Abarth 124 Spider Convertible Manual 2016 Review | Road Test

Abarth 124 Spider Convertible Manual 2016 Review | Road Test


Peter Anderson road tests and reviews the new Abarth 124 Spider convertible with specs, fuel consumption and verdict.

It's no secret we live in a divided world. Brexit. Trump. The dress is white and gold not blue and black. The pronunciation of tomato, GIF and Ricciardo. And now the Fiat group has opened up a new front for us all to argue over - is the 124 Spider better or worse than the Mazda MX-5 on which it is so heavily based? Or is it effectively just a differently coloured dress?

The Abarth 124 Spider had a troubled gestation -  it was meant to be an Alfa before the inevitable happened and that famous brand's management decided, well into the development process, that it was too small.

Parent company Fiat swooped, grafted on a new homage-filled body, spent some time on the chassis and out came the first proper (well, proper if you don't mind platform sharing…) Fiat sports convertible since the Fiat Barchetta. Which was never sold here.

Price and features

The Abarth 124 Spider comes in two specifications, manual and auto, asking $41,990 for the former and $43,990 for the latter. This buys you a two-door manual-roofed roadster with 17-inch alloys, nine-speaker stereo, air-conditioning, keyless entry and start, Abarth floor mats, auto wipers and headlights, heated seats, leather wheel and gear shifter, reversing camera, partial leather seats and LED taillights.

Cars this small are rarely any good at carting anything other than you.

Our car had the $2490 Visibility Pack, which sounds like a high-vis vest thrown in the boot (it actually includes reverse cross traffic alert, active LED headlights, blind spot monitoring, rear parking sensors, headlamp washers and daytime running lights) and $490 for the leather Abarth seats.

You can add the $1990 Recaro leather and Alcantara sports seats if you're feeling a bit racy, while some colours attract a $490 cost, like our Portogallo 1974 (gunmetal grey) coloured car. Yes, gunmetal grey is extra. Go figure.

Practicality

Cars this small are rarely any good at carting anything other than you and a friend about. Flinging the spare tyre was a good move for space, with 130 litres to cram your shopping or a couple of cabin bags.

Inside you'll find a pair of cupholders behind your elbow, which is one step up from putting them under your feet, plus a small lockable box above that and a snow-glove-sized glove box.

Design

You can't please everyone and Fiat's Centro Stile is certainly brave enough to accept that and do its thing anyway. They've thrown caution to the wind with the front end of this car. It's extremely angle-sensitive, so your opinion will change as you walk a circuit, squatting, standing on tip-toe, trying to find the best angle. It's almost entirely unconvincing in most photos, but looks rather better in even light with the DRLs off. The cheap honeycomb grille inserts don't look great, no matter what the lighting, and might have been better in gloss. Thankfully, the huge temptation to lash it with 70s-style chrome has been resisted.

The side profile carries a lot more of the old 124 Spider's original DNA and once you reach the back, surprise, there are those iconic squared off taillights.

It isn't a terrific looking car, nor is at as resolved as the Mazda it shares its skeleton and other vitals with, but Centro Stile didn't have a lot of time to make this car happen and weren't involved with its genesis. So Fiat's designers have done quite well, all things considered. The ridges on the bonnet are pretty cool, too.

Opinion was split 50-50 for unaligned viewers (ie people who had no declared position on the Mazda vs Fiat debate) but Fiat fans - a passionate bunch - loved it. Mazda fans, unsurprisingly, hated it.  As do Mazda employees, as a rule.

It hardly blows the doors off the Mazda, as you might have expected an Italian job to.

There was one point of near-agreement, though - the number and size of the Abarth logos were deemed vulgar and unnecessary.

Everything is present and correct inside, with no structural changes at all. You do get different seats, mats and badging, but if you flung the Abarth logos, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference from the MX-5, except for two key things.

The dash has a big red central tacho with a digital display to show you the gear you're in. The speedo is off to the right, and is among the worst in any car on sale today. It's far too cramped and it's almost impossible to see what speed you're doing at a glance. In our speed camera-infested cities with their constantly changing limits (the latter being the real problem), you can't spend precious seconds working out if you're doing 40 or 60, because your fine will already be in the mail.

The second difference is the cool Abarth animation on the MZD-Connect screen, which works exactly as it does in the Mazda and is vastly better than Fiat's hit-and-miss UConnect. The speakers are Mazda's optional Bose units, with nine of them scattered around the cabin. Even the indicator has stayed on the right-hand side of the steering column.

Engine and transmission

The 124 comes with Fiat's rorty 1.4-litre turbo-charged four cylinder, delivering 125kW and 250Nm of torque, handy increases over both Mazda engines (1.5 and 2.0). With the more complex engine comes a bit of extra heft, the Fiat weighing in at 1100kg. The 0-100km/h is quicker at 6.8 seconds, but hardly blows the doors off the Mazda, as you might have expected an Italian job to.

Fuel consumption

Our fuel figure was miles off the claimed 5.1L/100km for the manual - we got 11.2L/100km in  mostly city driving but with some fun had along the way. The theory was that the torquey turbo would be less thirsty than the Mazda in the real world, but that extra bit of grunt wills you on to flagrant fossil-fuel burning.

Driving

As with the exterior, a lot has changed under the skin, but not so much that baby and bathwater have splashed down on the pavement. The Abarth has four-pot Brembo brake calipers and Bilstein dampers to liven things up before and during the twisty bits, aided and abetted by a limited slip differential.

Between the corners you've also got a useful extra slug of torque over its Mazda twin - 250Nm, all delivered to the rear wheels, down low and through a tweaked gearbox to live with that extra twist.

You don't have to work the 124 as hard as the MX-5; the engine's character is way more torque-biased, which means you don't have to spin to the redline. This is a good thing, too. The Abarth needs to be different to the Mazda in both look and feel, while hanging on to the best bits of its admittedly brilliant donor car.

There is absolutely nothing Italian about the noise, which is both surprising and a shame.

Under about 2500rpm, though, the engine is very flat. Some colleagues have complained of stalling while manoeuvring or in bumper-to-bumper traffic. While I can see how that can happen, it just needs a more forthright right foot. Clearly, though, the engine could have done with a bit more pep down low.

There is one thing missing from the 124 - a good noise. While the 1.4 sounds completely different to the Mazda units, there is absolutely nothing Italian about the noise, which is both surprising and a shame. There might be four pipes, but I, and, it seems, everyone else, wants a bit more aggro. Abarths are stroppy-sounding cars (the Fiat 500 version sounds mildly ridiculous) and the 124 looks crankier yet doesn't sound it.

In the fun stuff, the Abarth, as expected, shines. It's progressive, fun and with that extra whack of twist, a little more lively. There was a danger that the car's overall balance could have been ruined with more power, but the judicious approach has paid off.

Safety

Four airbags, ABS, stability and traction controls, active bonnet for pedestrian collisions and tyre pressure monitoring.

The MX-5, slightly controversially, scored the maximum five ANCAP stars in 2016, there is no official test for the Abarth.

Ownership

The 124 has a three-year/150,000km warranty and you can buy three years of scheduled servicing for $1300. This doesn't compare favourably with Mazda's offering. Nor does Fiat's reputation, frankly, which is why they should have tried harder in this area.


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