First drive: Abarth 124 Spider

Fiat Chrysler Australia (FCA) chose courses for horses in showcasing its new Abarth 124 Spider recently.

By Barry Green

At the vehicle’s launch out of beautiful Byron Bay, the Australasian motoring press got to interrogate the Abarth thoroughly under controlled conditions at the Norwell Motorplex as well as punt it over some of the best rural roads in NSW. In all, an ideal road-and-track environment to put a performance roadster to the test.

But first, the news …

The long-awaited result of a co-operative arrangement between the Fiat Chrysler group and Mazda, the Spider rolls off the latter’s Hiroshima production line as a kindred cousin to the current MX-5. As such, it shares much in the way of underpinnings: platform, multi-link rear suspension, rear-wheel drive and interior fittings among them.

But, under the bonnet is the Chrysler Fiat group’s MultiAir 1.4-litre turbo petrol four-cylinder pumping out 125kW @ 5500rpm and 250Nm @ 2500rpm. And, to state the obvious, it looks way different, too.

Designed at Centro Stile in Turin, Italy, the newcomer takes its styling cues from the iconic road-and-rally original of the 1970s but, this is very much a car for the 21st century. Check out the streamlined silhouette and stretched bonnet along with black side sills; 17-inch Gun Metal aluminium wheels and sport-tuned, chrome quad-tip exhaust. But there’s also substance to the style – both the front bumper, with its large air intake, and the rear bumper’s aerodynamic extractor were shaped in a wind tunnel as were the rear spoiler and wind stop, all aimed at optimising air flow.

And out of sight, but not out of mind, is a track-focused suspension – Bilstein dampers, stiffened anti-roll bars, strut bar and mechanical limited-slip differential among the hardware. A six-speed manual transmission comes standard, though a six-speed auto with paddle gear shift can be optioned (all cars at the launch were manual). The manual returns an ADR combined cycle fuel figure of 6.5 litres/100km and the auto 6.7.

Rosso (red) stitching highlights the interior, including on the leather-wrapped steering wheel, wrapped instrument cluster hood, lower instrument panel and parking brake lever. A matte black instrument panel bezel, performance instrument cluster, aluminium-accented sport pedals and ergonomically designed gear shift knob add further to the sportif theme.

Spider-specific Nero (black) leather/microfibre seats are standard, with the option of leather in Nero (black) or Nero/Rosso. Leather/Alcantara Recaro seats are also available in Nero.

A suite of technology includes 7-inch touchscreen display, multimedia control, Bluetooth connectivity, heated seats and Keyless Enter ‘n Go. A Bose premium sound system with nine speakers, including dual headrest items, is an option. Also available is an array of safety and security features including optional adaptive front headlamps, Blind-spot Monitoring, Rear Cross Path detection and as-standard reversing camera.

A choice of exterior colours are named after the original Spider’s many rally successes: Turini 1975 clear White, Costa Brava 1972 clear Red, San Marino 1972 metallic Black, Portogallo 1974 metallic Grey, Isola d’Elba 1974 metallic Blue and Tri-coat crystal pearl White.

The Abarth 124 Spider comes with a drive away price of $43,500 (MSRP $41,990). Auto transmission adds $2000 to both prices.

So, the price is right and it looks the goods, but how’s it drive?

At 1100kg, the Abarth weighs 43 to 91kg more than the various MX-5s, but with 7kW and 50 Nm more than the Mazda’s normally-aspirated 2.0-litre four, this is not an issue. In fact, FCA is claiming best-in-class power and performance 0-100km/h flies by in 6.8 seconds, eclipsing the Mazda by 0.5s.

Without driving the pair back-to-back, the Spider feels quicker but more apparent is the torque difference. The Italian car pulls strongly out of corners and up hills with less need to downshift.

With the engine mid-mounted, much of the afore-said heft is contained between the axles. Weight distribution is 50/50, so little wonder the Spider carries itself with poise and balance. Ride quality on the 205/45 R17 rubber, even over a patchwork of back block bitumen, is accommodatingly compliant and NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) levels acceptable for segment.

Road drive completed, the Norwell Motorplex driving facility beckoned. First up, a wet skid pan. Powering on in second gear, the Spider ‘threaded the needle’ through a circular layout of traffic cones with ease, turning in and holding its line with just a hint of tail wag. ESC disengaged, the playfulness heightened with power slides able to be induced at will, though at no stage did the Spider have a sting in the tail.

Several laps of a dry track on the full circuit – in ‘Sport’ mode and foot down – further heightened the Abarth’s fun factor. The steering is well-weighted; the gearshift throws a tad heavy but short and precise. The Brembo brakes, with monoblock aluminium four-piston callipers up front, proved as indefatigable as they were effective and progressive.

In our day out with the Spider it was hard to pick a major fault, let alone a minor foible. Even the note of the sports exhaust – not bad, but could be rortier – can be addressed with the addition of a dual-mode Monza exhaust (available later in the year for $1895).

Whether the Abarth is better than that perennial favourite, the mighty MX-5, is not the question here – only a two-car comparison would answer that. More to the point, the 124 Spider is its own entity. As such, it makes a very welcome addition to the (unfortunately) thin sports roadster ranks. Enthusiasts rejoice.