Abarth 124 Spider vs. Mazda MX-5 2.0

While there might be a perception that the editorial operation doesn't rise from its slumber for twin tests with less than 1,000hp, this little convertible contretemps has been very eagerly anticipated. See, we've driven plenty of MX-5s, both standard and modified, plus the regular and Abarth 124, and there's even been a track battle between them. But never have we pitched 2.0 MX-5 against Abarth Spider on the road. So here we are, all 330hp, 3,366cc and 2,060kg of them - punchy.

Familiar with the 124 as our long-term steed, it seems wise to begin in the Mazda. Immediately and in every regard it feels a more modest, less showy sort of car. The outside is simpler in design - though it could be argued more appealing as a result - while the interior has none of the embellishments the Abarth forces you to take note of. Bizarrely it turns out to be the rev counters that give away most about the car's characters: the 124's is grey on red, featuring bold graphics and large numbers; the MX-5 is more modest and unassuming in design, a clear and crisp white on black tacho, but it's also the one with a higher redline...

The engines are the clearest difference between the two, the single aspect that defines their separate characters best. While we've pontificated a great deal about the virtues of Mazda's Skyactiv units, it's worth droning on a little bit more. While not an absolute screamer, to have an engine that responds and revs as eagerly as this does, in a world where even Porsche can't offer a series production engine without a turbo, is really rather nice. It's not scorchingly fast, but then that's not the point - the Mazda is satisfying because of how it zips around to the redline, power building to a peak high in the revs as we like in a sports car. Combine it with a light, slick, six-speed manual and a nice induction bark and you'll be parping along merrily in no time, wondering for all the world why anybody needs any more car than an MX-5.

There is fun to be had in the corners, though a standard MX-5 is far from an unqualified dynamic triumph. The steering gives very little impression of what the front wheels are doing but is also quite sharp off centre, which only seems to exacerbate the car's tendency to fall onto its outside wheel through bends. While great for imparting a sense of thrill and drama to the drive at low speed, it also means the car is very easily unsettled by mid-corner bumps because it's already loaded up with seemingly little effort. While fantastically balanced front to rear, a short wheelbase means you have to be quick if it is disrupted.

With the engine how it is the MX-5 should be all about cornering momentum, sustaining the speed you've accrued with precise direction changes and dynamic poise. Rather it feels a bit scrappy and therefore you tend to overslow the car for a corner, which doesn't feel much fun at all. The brakes and gearbox are fantastic when you do have to calm the pace, but it will take a while to get going again...

On less bumpy roads the MX-5 is better, both car and driver more settled; now you can enjoy its compact dimensions, the accuracy that comes with the limited-slip diff and - cliche alert - the wind in your hair on a sunny autumnal morning. It's all rather nice.

See that's perhaps the biggest revelation of the day, when it comes to formally assessing this pair. Despite everything, neither is really a sports car; treat them as such and you'll be disappointed by their shortfalls and lack of focus. But approach them as roadsters with a bit more pep than standard and they make a lot more sense.

Even with its racy graphics, swathes of Alcantara and ridiculous exhaust, this applies to the Abarth as well. It's certainly a more serious car than the Mazda, and being able to swap between them is an enlightening exercise, but that isn't to say it's perfect.

Not only does the 124 carry a little more weight, there's also some additional heft to the controls. The steering requires more effort and the gearbox is sturdier (though still excellent), which imbues the car with a more serious attitude from the off - it's quite welcome, in fact.

Unsurprisingly, the engine bolsters that attitude too. It's sometimes easy to forget that this little turbo packs just 1,368cc of swept capacity, so angry and belligerent is its demeanour. Well it is, right up until you experience the inevitable lag that comes with delivering 170hp from so few cubic centimetres. It's thrown into even starker contrast here, having come from the inertia free delivery of the Mazda.

The flip side, of course, is a mid-range that the MX-5 can't match, day-to-day performance that's easier to access and, to be honest, greater scope for being a bit of a scallywag. The additional torque - 184lb ft plays 148 - means the Abarth works its limits more readily than the Mazda. Given the cars are inherently so well balanced that's a pleasure: as a firmer car than the MX-5, the turn in doesn't catch the 124's rear out, meaning the line can be adjusted off the throttle by carrying some additional speed in, or slightly on the throttle by chasing the accelerator early in the bend and relying on that limited-slip diff. On dry roads it's a vice-free and entertaining introduction to front-engined, rear-drive dynamics, aided again by compact dimensions.

The problem? Firming the car's suspension up has highlighted the rigidity issues, the Abarth jiggling its way down a typical British B-road rather unpleasantly. It's a jolly good laugh in the right circumstances, engine gargling away and chassis adjustable to your want, but the flex isn't nice.

So how to conclude? As you may have guessed, neither car here quite hits the spot. While undoubtedly enjoyable on the day we had them, as respective flagships it would be nice to have both cars deliver a little more dynamically. More frustrating still is that tuners like BBR have shown - with little change - how to really make the most of what is innately a very good platform. As it is the MX-5 feels a little too wallowy and vague, the Abarth perhaps too aggressive for its own good.

With this budget to spend on one of these cars, our choice and recommendation would be an MX-5 2.0 with money then spent at BBR to energise that engine further and address the suspension. But that's not the test, obviously. Of the two roadsters you see here, the Abarth is the more satisfying and enjoyable car to drive thanks to its torque and more focused suspension. Just. However the MX-5 wins this test - bear with - because, as tested, it's £7K cheaper. And the 124's advantage is too slight to justify that sort of premium, despite what anybody says. Perhaps the cheerier verdict is to say that both offer a unique take on the two-seat roadster despite their shared components, and there's evidently potential to easily make each better still. Let's see what else the aftermarket can conjure up...

: 1,368cc, turbocharged inline-four
Transmission: six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 172@6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 184@2,500rpm
0-62mph: 6.8sec
Top speed: 144mph
Weight: 1,060kg (unladen)
MPG: 44.1 (NEDC combined)
CO2: 148g/km
Price: £29,620 (As tested £32,210 comprising £600 for Portogallo 1974 Grey paint, £1,250 for Visibility Pack (LED headlights with automatic levelling and washers, Adaptive Front Light System, Dusk-sensing and rain sensitive wipers, rear parking sensors) and £795 for Bose Sound System)

 1,998cc, 4-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 160@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 148@4,600rpm
0-62mph: 7.3sec 
Top speed: 133mph 
Weight: 1,075kg (with 75kg driver) 
MPG: 40.9mpg (NEDC combined)
CO2: 161g/km
Price:  £24,195 (As tested £25,145 comprising £550 for Mica metallic pearlescent paint and £400 for Safety Pack)









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Comments (94) Join the discussion on the forum

  • redroadster 12 Oct 2017

    Fiat looks fugly compared to Mazda ,pity they did not stick to plan and use it as a base Alfa this would have been far nicer looking from renderings pics I saw .

  • culpz 12 Oct 2017

    I quite like the Abarth 124 Spider but the price tag is silly, even when you un-tick those specific options as tested.

    I also can't help but feel that Abarth are attempting to create a new niche of hot-sports cars, which i find ironic really, as it's always been the MX5's lack of excessive performance (and weight) that makes it so popular.

    I wasn't keen on the ND's shape when it was first released but i'm really warming to it now. It looks great every time i see one.

  • Cotic 12 Oct 2017

    redroadster said:
    Fiat looks fugly compared to Mazda ,pity they did not stick to plan and use it as a base Alfa this would have been far nicer looking from renderings pics I saw .
    And yet I much prefer the looks of the Abarth. Funny how this taste thing works, isn't it? I do agree that the Alfa connection may have been better; the 124 styling has echos of the old Alfa Spider to my eyes. Stick a ducktail on it and you're done.

  • GTEYE 12 Oct 2017

    redroadster said:
    Fiat looks fugly compared to Mazda ,pity they did not stick to plan and use it as a base Alfa this would have been far nicer looking from renderings pics I saw .
    Renderings are one thing, the reality is it would probably have been still an MX-5 but with Alfa badges

    The Fiat is just daft at that price, Mazda all day long and looks better too

  • bigvanfan 12 Oct 2017

    Over a certain age you would look silly driving the fiat,terrible looking thing , Mazda for me

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