NOT EVERYONE is a fan of the growing trend of jointly developed sports cars. It’s a hot topic at the moment due to the arrival of the Toyota Supra, itself a product of collaboration with BMW, but it’s been going on for a while now and will only become more prevalent. The reasons why are obvious – globally, the sports car market is shrinking, making it difficult to justify investing in a bespoke platform; far better to hop into bed with another manufacturer and work towards a common goal.
There are a number of ways to go about this, each of which has been illustrated in recent times. The easiest is to simply make the same car and switch the badges, like with the Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ; then there’s the approach of taking the same box of bits but developing them separately, like Toyota and BMW have done with the Supra and Z4 respectively.
The third way is to change certain parts in the hope of imbuing a unique personality, which is the tack taken by Mazda and Fiat with the MX-5 and our new long-termer, the 124 Spider.
THE 124 ABARTH SCORES A MUCH SHOUTIER SOUNDTRACK COURTESY OF THE MONZA EXHAUST
These two cars share a chassis and are built in Mazda’s Hiroshima plant, a fact that played a major role in the 124’s gestation. Originally, the partnership was between Mazda and Alfa Romeo, with the ND MX-5 set to provide the basis for a new Alfa Spider, but following the late Sergio Marchionne’s dictate that Alfas must be built in Italy, a new partner within the FCA fold was sought. Enter Fiat.
The original Fiat 124 Spider was built between 1966 and 1985 and was surely one of the cars that provided inspiration for the original MX-5 in 1989 – lightweight, rear-wheel drive and with a highly tuned four-cylinder engine under the bonnet. It’s a recipe the new 124 Spider adheres to, though it actually uses a smaller engine than any of its predecessors. The 124’s four-pot displaces just 1368cc, but a turbocharger provides plenty of extra punch.
Overseas markets have access to a Fiat 124 with 103kW/240Nm, but Australia scores only the hotter 125kW/250Nm Abarth variant. In addition to the extra grunt, which drops the claimed 0-100km/h time from 7.5 to 6.8sec and lifts the top speed from 215km/h to 232km/h, the Abarth scores Brembo four-piston front calipers, Bilstein suspension, a limited-slip differential, exterior makeover and a much shoutier soundtrack courtesy of the Monza exhaust.
The standard 124 Spider starts at $41,990 for the six-speed manual (before on-road costs) or an extra $2000 for the auto. However, until October you could put your bum behind the wheel from just $38,750 drive-away, which strikes us as a bit of a bargain. Our new garage occupant, though, is one of 30 Monza Editions. This is essentially a fully loaded 124, including the two-tone leather seats and Visibility Pack – adaptive LED headlights, rear park assist, blind spot detection and rear cross traffic alert – which are cost options on the standard car. It retails for $47,580 (again, an extra $2K for the auto), but if you’re quick you might be able to nab one for $44,340 drive-away. If you’re curious, the warranty is three years or 150,000km, though you’ll be doing well to hit the latter before the former.
Over the next five issues we’ll examine the case for buying the Abarth. The default choice in this segment is the car on which it’s based, the Mazda ND MX-5, which outsells the ‘Italian’ at a rate of about six-to-one.
In the case of the mechanically identical Toybaru twins, buying one or the other is likely to simply be a case of badge preference, but by replacing a high-revving naturally aspirated engine with a torquey turbocharged one, the case in this instance is likely to be less clear cut. On first impressions, it should be fun finding out either way.
1. Fruity exhaust
2. Slick gearshift
3. Torquey engine
1. Ride isn’t great
2. Doughy throttle
3. Blind spot beeper