#ThrowbackThursday: Abarth 124 Spider vs Mazda MX-5

08 October 2020 - 19:21
The Abarth 124 Spider (left) meets the Mazda MX-5.
The Abarth 124 Spider (left) meets the Mazda MX-5.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

Welcome to another #ThrowbackThursday. This week the calendar flips back to February 26, 2017, when we staged a duel between the Mazda MX-5 and Abarth 124 Spider. The two are nearly identical – but are separated by notable differences in performance and price.

You would never think that the Fiat 124 Spider arose from something as prosaic as an automotive joint venture.

It has its own identity and oozes passion, verve and seduction —to use those well-loved clichés for Italian cars. And yet, the model owes its being to the engineering fruits of Mazda. Strip off the haute couture and you will find that it has the skeleton of a Mazda MX-5, albeit with a few different organs.

Does it share the soul? We convened with both cousins at Zwartkops Raceway to stage something of a family gathering. The challenging, but forgotten and now disused old section of the circuit would provide an accurate behavioural assessment of both. Our market is only receiving the more potent Abarth version of the Spider. The biggest point of differentiation is what propels these products.

The Abarth 124 Spider benefits from turbocharging.
The Abarth 124 Spider benefits from turbocharging.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

The Mazda employs a 2.0-litre, normally-aspirated, four-cylinder unit with 118kW and 200Nm. The Abarth boasts the same number of cylinders with a smaller 1.4-litre displacement, although it is endowed with a turbocharger. This serves 125kW and 250Nm. We must note that the Abarth weighs more, but the disparity is negligible, with an added 3kg over the 1,057kg mass of the Mazda.

Some might describe the aural character of the Abarth as a little more aggressive. It chortles and buzzes in the face of the crisp and raspy note sung by the MX-5. It proved marginally faster too on our makeshift track loop, no doubt aided by forced-induction at these altitudes. The separation in sensations can be quantified. Power delivery in the Japanese car has a linear virtue; the tachometer needle winds zealously to the redline. And it holds a lively, responsive charm one rarely experiences with the ubiquity of boosted, small-capacity engines these days.

The Abarth scorpion logo looms large on the Spider's steering wheel.
The Abarth scorpion logo looms large on the Spider's steering wheel.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

That is not to discredit the Abarth, however: those with an inkling of mischief might take delight in its different dynamic persona. See, the Italian car conveyed a greater eagerness for theatrics at the limit. It was easier to provoke into shimmying and sideways mirth.

Well, it might not have been mirthful all the time —particularly when things got a tad unsettled under the duress of chasing a blistering lap time. In comparison, the Mazda demonstrated textbook examples of poise.

The author enjoying the forgiving nature of the Mazda MX-5.
The author enjoying the forgiving nature of the Mazda MX-5.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

Sharper turn-in, a more stable aura over tricky undulations and stray gravel in the middle of corners inspired greater confidence. This denouement might have been an obvious one: the Japanese manufacturer has had more than two decades to hone things.

On the inside, things are much of a muchness. The fascia, switchgear and instrumentation are largely the same. Build quality is top notch and both models have the same manual folding top. One can unlatch and slide it back as nonchalantly as a longhaired model would swoosh back his mane. But we are not models and our hairstyles are curious at best. We are regular fellows and are mindful of regular budgetary constraints —which is where the Abarth sours.

As in the Abarth, the Mazda MX-5 has an ergonomic and uncluttered cabin focused around the driver.
As in the Abarth, the Mazda MX-5 has an ergonomic and uncluttered cabin focused around the driver.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

There is a chunky price disparity, and while the Italian offers a unique personality, that might not be enough to overlook the original pioneer of the category. But at the end of the day, one can be happy merely in the knowledge that these cars exist. The simple, small roadster genre must stay alive despite the shift towards vehicles with complicated mandates and overwhelmingly broad user targets.

The Abarth 124 Spider goes for R649,900 while the Mazda MX-5 costs R441,700.


X