Different strokes

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Mazda-based Fiat 124 Spider assumes yet another identity, but can it live up to a fine pedigree?

I have for some time been a little saddened to see what Fiat has been doing with its Abarth sub-brand. On the one hand the most famous original Abarth was a hot Fiat 500, so Fiat doing the same to the modern 500 does at least seem consistent with the marque’s heritage. On the other, the only latter-day Abarth 500 I’ve driven was an expensive disappointment, fast but not fluent, expensive and ultimately pretty charmless. For all its power, it did not approximate to being fun to drive.

I wondered if this Abarth 124 Spider would prove to be more the real deal, a car that seeks to honour rather than simply exploit the memory of its naturalised Italian founder, Carlo Abarth. It is, of course, derived from the Fiat 124 Spider – in turn a rebodied, retuned, re-engined Mazda MX-5, built not in Turin but in a Mazda factory in Hiroshima.

Regulars with good memories might recall I felt somewhat lukewarm about the Fiat, concluding that from a driver’s point of view there was not one thing it did which the Mazda equivalent didn’t do considerably better. I remember thinking it was a reasonably nice car, but for someone other than me.

At first the Abarth version seemed to bring very little more than an additional 30bhp to the table. For a start the whole Abarth thing appeared rather tenuous: an Abarth that’s actually a Fiat (apart from when it’s being a Mazda) seems to be a triumph of marketing over engineering. It was going to take more than a black wrap over the bonnet, nose and boot to convince me it was worthy of the scorpion badges that have been scattered around the car like sawn-off shotgun pellets. The more it screams that it’s an Abarth, the more I feel disinclined to buy into the narrative.

This is not helped by the fact that – scorpions and trim aside – the interior is carried over wholesale from the Mazda. Sit behind the wheel and barring the red rev-counter, you really could be sitting in Japan’s finest affordable sports car.

Until, that is, you press the start button and are greeting by a curious farting noise from the four tail pipes. I think it’s meant to sound mean and sporting and suggest there’s something rather more impressive than a 1.4-litre, four-cylinder motor under the bonnet, but it doesn’t: it just sounds like its exhausts are peppered with holes. Sad to say I was quite please to discover that, once underway, the engine reverts to the rather bland blare you might expect from a small capacity four-cylinder turbo motor.

So nothing particularly endearing yet. This might sound less than charitable when the subject is an ultra-light (read 1060kg), two-door, rear-drive sports car with double wishbone suspension at the front and a well located multi-link rear axle, but what I was looking for was some justification for the car, a reason that would enable me to tell you that you should put down that Mazda brochure and go and check out the Abarth version instead.

But the truth is I struggled – all the more so when I realised the Abarth was over £5000 more expensive than the top-of-the-range MX-5. This strikes me as a lot to pay for an additional 10bhp, plus a 1.4-litre turbo engine with not much appetite for high revs in place of a normally aspirated 2-litre engine that goes on sounding better and better until it slams into the rev limiter. Both cars have the Bilstein dampers the Fiat and cheaper MX-5s lack as standard, both have a limited-slip differential.

Even so, these cars are not the same and should not be treated as if they are. For instance the Fiat, I mean Abarth, not only has more torque than the Mazda, it develops it at less than half the revs and, as we shall shortly see, this makes a far bigger difference even than its considerable half-second 0-62mph advantage suggests. The Abarth also gets its own specification spring rates, anti-roll bars and tyres. It has bigger brakes than the Mazda and, perhaps surprisingly, 15kg less mass, its turbocharging addenda clearly not quite offsetting the additional heft of the Mazda’s larger engine.

To understand the result of all this, you need to push a little harder. I never really grew to like the Abarth’s engine very much and its synthetic sound always annoyed me, but it didn’t take long for me at least to appreciate its effect.

First, it makes the Abarth an easier car to drive fast, because there is torque pretty much wherever you want it, rather than concentrated at the top end of rev range. This means that unlike in the Mazda, you don’t always have to be in the right gear, though I should say both cars share the sweetest-shifting gearbox this side of a Porsche Cayman, so hunting around for the optimal ratio should never be regarded as any kind of hardship.

But the engine’s most useful role in the Abarth is to make the chassis far livelier than it is in the Mazda. If the MX-5 has a flaw, it’s only that it could quite clearly handle so much more torque than it has, especially with the limited-slip differential fitted. By contrast the engine and chassis of the Abarth feel very well matched. On typical British country roads with a range of cambers, surfaces and radii in conditions from quite wet to bone dry, you can always rely on the engine to provide enough urge to power you properly out of a corner and for the car to find enough traction to put it all on the road.

So far so good, but this is not the Abarth’s real surprise. When I drove the Fiat 124 Spider, I made no secret that I was pretty disappointed with the way it handled and wondered why on earth Fiat had not just swallowed its pride and stuck with Mazda’s suspension settings. No such problems here: I’d say the Abarth was a touch firmer than the MX-5 and there’s a small price to be paid in ride quality, but probably nothing that anyone considering a two-seat roadster is going to bleat about too much. The payback is that not only does the Abarth now maintain its ride height impressively well, it offers both rapid and fluently controlled progress through fast curves.

In slower turns it is, if anything, better still. Quite surprisingly it does not understeer at all. The nose dives refreshingly hard into the apex and even off the power you can feel the back just starting to move a little. Gentle reapplication of the power will keep it rooted to the spot, but there’s little to fear from pressing a little harder and enjoying feeling it flow into barely perceptible oversteer. It seems a natural state for the car and is more easily achieved than in the Mazda.

That said, this is not a gift that keeps on giving: if you persist in pushing the tail ever wider, you’ll discover its tolerance has limits. The Abarth nips more than it bites but it’s not an inveterate oversteerer like a Toyota GT86, and should be treated as such. I think part of the problem is that for all the good work that’s been done to the suspension, the steering feel found in the Mazda but lost in the Fiat has not been recovered to any great degree.

In the end I liked the Abarth far more than I had expected. I’m not going to call it a car of which Carlo Abarth would be proud, because it’s small beer compared with some of his Fiat transformations. But nor will it spin him to the redline in his grave: unlike the Fiat 124 Spider, the Abarth is a proper driver’s car because, like all such machines, the harder you push it the better it gets.

Is it enough to unseat the MX-5? It’s close, but ultimately the Abarth loses more in looks, engine noise, throttle response and steering feel than it gains in grip and the motor’s ability to extract the most from the chassis. But if you were to see it the other way around, I would understand completely. The only killer is the price. Five grand might not make much of a different in the world of supercars, but when the difference is between a car costing less than £25,000 (the range-topping MX-5) and damn near £30,000 like this Abarth, I think it matters a lot. This is a good car, a better car than I’d imagined. But it’s not that good.

FACTFILE

Abarth 124 Spider

Price £29,620 Engine 1.4 litres, 4 cylinders, turbocharged Power[email protected] Torque 184lb [email protected] Weight 1060kg Power to weight 158bhp per tonne Transmission six-speed paddle shift, rear-wheel drive 0-60mph 6.8sec Top speed 144mph Economy 44.1mpg CO2 148 g/km

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