Mazda MX-5 VS Abarth 124
- Fun factor
- Legendary status
- Tiny boot
- No CarPlay (it's coming)
- Slightly firm ride
- Distinct look and feel
- Challenging but rewarding
- Glorious Monza exhaust
- Annoying turbo-lag
- Tight cabin
Buying a car for fun, rather than just transport, is an unimaginable luxury for most of us, because most vehicles that are genuinely joyous - the kind that make you smile like a four-year-old in a bath full of gelato - are almost unobtainably expensive.
And that's what makes Mazda's MX-5, a car quite accurately described by the company's spokes folk as the "icon" of the brand, so special. Because it is hugely fun, and it is far more of a toy than a tool, and yet, with a price starting at just $34,190, it's the kind of dream car that's actually within touching distance of reality.
Mazda has just unveiled yet another facelift for the venerable roadster (and retractable hardtop) as part of its goal of "continually seeking new ways to make it even more thrilling and satisfying to drive".
It has aimed to kick this goal by redesigning the cupholders, giving it black wheels instead of silver ones and, for the first time, offering a steering wheel with telescopic adjustment (people have only been wanting that since its first version, back in 1989). There's also a new reversing camera tucked into its taut behind.
Rather more importantly, the 2.0-litre engine has also been given a proper going over and now creates more power, more torque, and revs higher, for an even better aural experience. Which sounds pretty fabulous. Prices are up $750 across the range to pay for all that, which sounds like a reasonable deal. Let's find out.
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
When you take on a classic you’d better get it right.
Which is why, back in 2016, when Fiat released a new 124, many an eyebrow was arched.
The original was an icon from the late 1960s, the golden age of roadsters. Styled by Pininfarina, it also oozed Italian swagger and, to top it off, its double overhead cam engine (modern at the time) helped introduce a swathe of innovations to the Italian automotive scene.
Even 50 years later, those old boots were looking awfully hard to fill, and the complexity and demands of today’s economy had Fiat working with Mazda to use its MX-5 chassis and Hiroshima manufacturing facilities to get it right.
A travesty? To some, maybe. But the MX-5 once aimed to emulate cars from the original 124’s golden era, and was a runaway success since, arguably making few missteps.
Thus, the apprentice has become the master. So, does today’s 124, which we only get in angry Abarth spec in Australia, bring something different to the ultra-refined roadster formula in 2019? Is it more than just a badge-engineered MX-5?
I took an Abarth 124 – the latest Monza limited edition – for a week to find out.
|Engine Type||1.4L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
This latest face lift for the fabulous Mazda MX-5 may not be revolutionary, and indeed some if it is just fiddling at the edges, but the improved safety, rear-view camera and nice black wheels may impress a few buyers, while the extra zest and reviness from the engine will most certainly attract fans of this car's core ingredient - fun motoring.
Do you dream of having an MX-5 in your garage, just for sunny days, tell us in the comments section below.
The Abarth 124 Spider is a flawed but dramatic little car that should put a smile and a big, fat Italian moustache on any weekend warrior’s face.
As long as you don’t expect it to do much more than that in terms of its daily driving ability, it hits the nail on the head as a spicy alternative to the well-rounded MX-5 formula.
Whether it hails from Hiroshima or not is irrelevant. Its ancestors would be proud.
Now, if only all of them had this Monza Edition’s glorious exhaust…
Would you ever pick the Abarth 124 over an MX-5, 86, or BRZ? Tell us why or why not in the comments below.
Changes to the look of the MX-5 would best be described as singular, because there is only one - a swap from silver wheels to metallic black ones, in a bid to "emphasise the car's visual impact".
Even the base model roadster gets the new black look, albeit 15-inch versions, while the RF gets 17-inch alloys. the range-topping GT, strangely, gets 17-inch silver wheels.
Other than that, the looks of the MX-5 remain the same, and that's a very good thing, because this is, far and away, the angriest and sexiest looking version of the classic two-seater ever to roll out of the Hiroshima factory.
Apparently there are people who find the latest look too sharp, too Japanese and too anime, and would prefer a look to the rounded, happy-puppy looks of old. But those people are simply wrong. This is a fantastic looking vehicle, no matter which colour wheels it has.
When it comes to paint colours the same six remain on offer - 'Soul Red Crystal Metallic', 'Machine Grey Metallic', 'Snow' aka 'White Pearl Mica', 'Ceramic Mica', 'Eternal Blue Mica' and 'Jet Black Mica'. So no green, yellow, orange or gold. Soul Red is clearly the choice here.
There is a body kit available as part of the optional Kuroi sports pack ($4220), which also includes a rear diffuser. Roof racks are not an option. Floor mats will also cost you $166.23 extra. Ouch.
I love the way the 124 looks. The more you pore over its small frame, the more you discover how different it is to its MX-5 counterpart.
It’s angrier. It’s more beautiful, and it’s definitely more Italian.
References to the original have been tastefully applied without transforming it into bloated caricature. These include the dual indents on the hood, the rounded-out light clusters, and the squared-off rear.
From there it goes beyond the original 124 and seems to take influence from contemporary Italian designs. I would argue there’s more than a little modern Maserati in this car’s tough wheelarches, scoopy mouth, rear light fittings and alloy wheel design.
The quad-exhaust pipes (actually just two tailpipes with four apertures) is arguably overkill, but adds a bit of extra aggression to this car’s rear. I’m not a fan of the oversized Abarth badgework on this car’s nose and rear. It removes a bit of subtelty from the equation, and the one on the bootlid is entirely unnecessary.
I’d also argue our test Monza Edition car looks best with its white paint and red highlights throughout. It’s also available in red and black.
The inside breaks the illusion a little. I’d argue not enough has been done to differentiate the 124 from its MX-5 roots here. It’s all Mazda switchgear.
There’s nothing wrong with that switchgear, of course. It’s well built and ergonomic, but I’d love to have something different to mix it up here. A Fiat 500 steering wheel… some switches that look cool but barely function properly… Just a little more of the Italian personality that’s so well expressed on the outside…
The seats are unique to the Abarth and are lovely, and the red highlights carry through them onto the dash and wheel stitching. The Monza edition has the official logo of the famed Italian circuit between the seats, with the build-number etched on it.
Once again, the changes inside the MX-5 are not huge, but one of them - the addition of telescopic adjustment for the steering column - will be very welcome to fans who have long wondered why they couldn't be just that bit more comfortable at the wheel.
This Mazda already had a fantastic, low-slung driving position that made you feel like part of the car, but it's even better now that you can have the wheel exactly where you want it.
There's also been a slight tweak to the design of the sun visors, for better coverage, and the gaps between the detachable cupholders - of which there are two - have been optimised to allow easier attachment and removal. They've also been made more rigid, "to suppress wobble", because no one likes a wobbly drink, particularly around fast bends.
In yet another example of paying attention to every detail, the levers you use to adjust the seats have also been made slightly thicker and more rigid, just so they feel better.
In terms of practicality, of course, it's not really a key selling point of any MX-5, nor has it ever been. There's limited oddment storage behind the gear lever and a tiny kind of lunch box behind your left shoulder, and a very small glove box as well, with no room for bottles, or anything else, in the doors.
There's not a lot of room, generally, in the MX-5's tight and glove-like cabin, but that's just the way it's supposed to feel. Small and perfectly snug.
The boot is deep-ish, but narrow, and it's overnight bags only in its 130-litre space (boot capacity in the RF is an even smaller 127 litres).
While shoulder and elbow room are limited, headroom is quite good, even in the hard-topped RF version.
When it comes down to a practicality score, it’s only fair to compare a car like this to its direct competitors. A sports car like this is never going to take on a hatch or SUV in the practicality stakes.
Even so, and just like the MX-5, the Abarth 124 is tight on the inside. I fit inside it perfectly, but there are problems.
Legroom is super tight for me at 182cm tall. I had to adjust to having my clutch foot at an angle, otherwise I’d smack my knee on the bottom of the steering wheel, a problem that also makes this car tough to clamber into. The handbrake takes up a massive amount of room in the limited centre-console space, and as to storage in the cabin? You may as well forget it.
There’s a tiny flip-up binnacle in the centre, shallow enough maybe for a phone and nothing else, a slot under the air-conditioning controls seemingly designed expressly for phones, and two floating cupholders between the seats.
There’s no storage in the doors, nor is there a glovebox. You do get a rather large storage area behind the cupholders, accessible through a hatch opening, but it’s a little awkward to use.
Once you’re in, though, this car fits like a glove in terms of ergonomics. The wheel is nice and low, the seats are surprisingly supportive and your elbow rests nicely on the centre, leading your hand to the excellent short-action shifter. Headroom is tight no matter which way you cut it, but it’s such a small car you hardly expect more.
How about the boot? It’s better than you might hope, but with just 130 litres on offer it’s still no more than a weekender. It’s also less than the Toyota 86/BRZ (223L) which also have back seats, always handy no matter how small they are.
There’s no spare to be found. The 124 has a repair kit only.
Price and features
Prices have risen $750 across the entire range for this new update to the MX-5, but Mazda Australia claims that's more than made up for by the extra new safety kit, plus the reversing camera, the new wheels and, in the case of the 2.0-litre models that 95 per cent of people will buy, more power, torque and revs on offer.
The base model Roadster, at a very temping $34,190, will still appeal to some purists who hate the idea of big, heavy roofs (70 per cent of buyers will go for the RF) and big, powerful engines.
Standard kit at that level includes that new reversing camera, 16-inch alloy wheels (now black metallic for extra visual menace), a cloth soft top, LED headlamps, power mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, climate-control air (but who needs that, with a convertible!), black cloth seats, a 7.0-inch touchscreen with 'MZD Connect', an audio system with six speakers and DAB+ (but no CD player), Bluetooth streaming, internet radio integration, satellite navigation, 'Smart City Brake Support', or AEB, in both forward and reverse, 'Traffic Sign Recognition', 'Driver Attention Alert' and reverse parking sensors and blind-spot monitoring.
Step up through the trim levels to the GT Roadster with the 2.0L and you're quickly over $40K at $41,960 (add another $2000 for the auto, if you must), and you'll score 17-inch alloys, adaptive LEDs headlights and DRLs, black or tan leather on your seats, which are now heated, a 'Premium' Bose stereo with nine speakers, 'Advanced keyless entry' and lane-departure warning.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto gadgets are not available yet, but a dealer-fit fix is expected very soon, at some extra cost.
If you want the folding hard-top RF version, and most people do, then the basic spec will set you back $39,400, the GT $45,960 or the RF GT with the optional black roof $46,960.
It's still a lot of car, or at least a lot of fun in a little car for the money, but you'd have to consider whether you'd could be just as happy in a car that's almost as more fun but has five doors and a decent boot, like VW's Golf GTI.
What price, though, a roof-down drive on a summer evening? On its day, the Mazda makes a compelling argument against buying a Porsche Boxster. Which is high praise indeed.
I should make this clear at the beginning, this Monza edition is an ultra-limited trim, with just 30 cars available in Australia. Ours was number 26, a manual, wearing a drive-away price of $46,950.
That’s expensive, but not outrageously so. An equivalent high-spec manual MX-5, for example (GT 2.0 Roadster), comes in at a before-on-roads cost of $42,820. Looking outside Hiroshima, you can also be hopping into either a Toyota 86 GTS Performance manual ($39,590), or a Subaru BRZ tS manual ($40,434) for less.
So, the Abarth is the most expensive of a limited pool of choices. Thankfully it does offer a little more than just Italian spunk and some oversized scorpion badges.
Standard on every car are 17-inch gunmetal alloy wheels, a 7.0-inch touchscreen with Mazda’s rather good MZD software (but no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto support), a Bose premium sound system, heated front seats, and keyless entry with push-button start.
Performance-wise, every car gets four-piston Brembo front brakes, Bilstein suspension and a mechanical limited-slip differential.
The Monza edition adds the normally optional ($1490) contrast-stitched ‘Abarth’ red and black full leather seats, and the ‘Visibility Pack’ ($2590) consisting of full LED steering-responsive front lighting, rear parking sensors and camera, as well as washers for the headlamps. The pack also adds items to this car’s rather limited safety suite, which we’ll talk about later.
Most notably, this edition finally grants the 124 the exhaust system it deserves, the neatly named “Record Monza” system, which uses a mechanically actuated valve to have the 1.4-litre turbo barking and spitting away in a stupidly smile-inducing way.
Every 124 should have this system, it adds much needed drama to the engine note, but isn’t as obnoxiously loud as something like the outgoing AMG A45.
The Abarth isn’t as crazily specified as some of today’s run-of-the-mill SUVs, sure. But that’s not what this car is about, and for what it’s worth, it has just about everything you’ll really need and certainly more than the 86 or BRZ, helping to justify its extra cash ask.
Engine & trans
So, let's start with the engine that almost no one - other than rusted-on purists apparently - will opt for; the 1.5-litre engine lurking in the base-model roadster, which is still seen as "the ultimate expression of the MX-5", by the marque's hardcore, old-school fans.
Small tweaks to this engine - which will make up just 5 per cent of total sales - have seen power rise by a single kilowatt to 97kW, and torque bumped from 150Nm to 152Nm.
The bigger and more exciting changes have been made to the 2.0-litre engine, which is the only choice you have anyway if you're opting for the RF - which 70 per cent of buyers will - but in the case of both engines the control units have been revised to give a feeling of more direct acceleration, a sensation further exacerbated by tweaks to both the automatic and manual transmissions to offer quicker response times, and less "jerk" during acceleration.
Yes, you can have your MX-5 with a six-speed automatic transmission, and a shocking 43 per cent of buyers are tipped to make that choice, even though it is the wrong one. The six-speed manual goes with this car the way tomato sauce goes with a pie, or soy sauce with sushi.
Revisions to the 2.0-litre power plant, including the use of a new, dual-mass flywheel, have increased power significantly from 118kW to 135kW, while the redline has also soared to 7500rpm from 6800rpm. Overall torque is up from 200Nm to 205Nm.
The engineers claim to have a delivered a sensation of "urgent, limitless acceleration", with linear responses all the way up to that new rev ceiling. Against the stop watch, that means a 0-100km/h time for the 2.0 of 6.5 seconds in the Roadster or 6.8 in the RF, against 8.3 seconds for the 1.5-litre Roadster.
Mazda says there's also more torque available across the whole rev range, while tweaks to the exhaust system, including a new inner silencer structure, also provide a more resonant, exciting sound to go with the extra power and revs.
The engine uses a timing chain rather than a timing belt. Oil capacity is 4.1 litres.
Unlike the MX-5 and 86/BRZ combo, which offer a choice of naturally aspirated engines, the 124 carves its own path by dropping Fiat’s 1.4-litre ‘MultiAir’ turbo four-cylinder under the hood.
The word ‘turbo’ should rightly prick your ears in a car this size, but this this is hardly a high-performance unit when compared to its non-turbo counterparts.
Outputs are set at 125kW/250Nm. That power figure might seem a little low when compared to the new 2.0-litre MX-5 (135kW/205Nm) and 86 (152kW/212Nm), but the extra torque is welcome. It comes at a cost, which we’ll explore in the driving section of this review.
Fuel economy for the little 1.5-litre engine is 6.2 litres per 100km for the manual or 6.4L/100km for the auto, while the 2.0-litre version - which is naturally aspirated rather than turbocharged or supercharged and thus wonderfully old-school, returns 6.8 and 7.0L/100km respectively in the roadster, rising to 6.9 and 7.2 in the RF.
All of these figures reflect an ideal world, rather than the real one, where you will regularly push it all the way through the rev range in several gears and get nowhere near those numbers.
The 124 has a bold-souning official combined fuel consumption figure of 6.4L/100km, which I overshot by quite a margin. At the end of my week, (involving truly mixed freeway/city driving) I landed on 8.5L/100km, which was exactly on this car’s ‘urban’ estimate, so take that as a realistic figure.
It’s also less than I’d expect to consume in an 86 and perhaps also the MX-5, so all-in-all it's not too bad.
The turbo Fiat engine requires a minimum of mid-grade 95 RON unleaded to fill a 45-litre tank.
Almost every time you drive an MX-5, of any generation, you find yourself doing a little glee face. There's something innocent, old-school and almost childish about how much fun they are.
The magic is in the simplest of set-ups - light weight, rear-wheel drive, short wheelbase, sharp steering, slick gearbox - and it's one that has only gotten better over the years with the addition of better technology. And, vitally, more power.
Every time you drive one, however, it's hard not to wonder how much more enjoyable it could be with just a few more herbs under the bonnet. The current iteration of the car, with its sharp, sleek lines and mean, take-me-seriously face, has been offered with a 2.0-litre engine for a while now, and it did make the MX-5 feel more potent than ever before… and yet you had to wonder if there was still a bit more lurking under the bonnet, waiting to be unleashed.
And now, finally and wonderfully, it has been. The upgraded version of the power plant produces more of its 205Nm of torque (up 5Nm) throughout the rev range, which now stretches all the way to 7500pm (up from 6800rpm), and power has taken a serious step up from 118kW to 135kW.
It's still not a huge number, but in a car that weighs just 1035kg (1087kg for the RF), it's enough to produce more than just the sprightly performance we've come to expect from this zippy Mazda.
The power now on tap means you can really up your pace if you want to, and go-to-jail speeds are now most assuredly an option for the keen/crazy driver.
What has always made the MX-5 one of the great sports cars, however, is that it's so much fun to drive even at lower, legal speeds, and that remains the case here. The way the car corners, the connection it seems to have to your core, through your hips and via your finger tips, remains as visceral and vital as ever.
It is telling that the engineers made no changes at all to the chassis or handling of this version, because they realised it was damn close to perfect already.
This MX-5, then, is just as much of a huge hoot as the one it replaces, it's just that it's now faster, and perhaps even a tiny bit louder, than before, and that is a very good thing.
I drove the 124 up NSW’s Old Pacific Highway from Hornsby to Gosford at dusk on a Saturday. Talk about the right car in the right place at the right time.
It was absolutely in its element, darting around tight hairpins, then blasting up straights, giving the short shifter a thorough workout. That new exhaust added 150 per cent to the theatre of it as each aggressive down-shift was accompanied by crackling, spitting and barking.
It’s an absolute joy, a proper nod to how cars used to be in the good old days of a ‘Sunday drive’, and thus a proper nod to the 124’s history.
And, of course, it has flaws. Many of them fall into the subjective category on a car like this, however.
Take the engine, for example. I’ve heard endless criticisms of it as laggy and annoying. And it is. Catch the wrong gear and get the revs too low and no matter how hard you stomp that go pedal, you will be stuck fighting a mountain of lag. Seriously. Several seconds of it.
Even trying to ascend my steep driveway had me concerned it was simply going to stall out in first gear.
It’s a bit strange, but then when you’re on the open road it’s worth relishing the challenge that it offers. Grab the wrong gear and this car will let you know how foolish you are. And yet, when you get it right it offers a surge of excitement in the straights that’s arguably far more dramatic than either the MX-5 or 86 can muster.
Another annoyance is the speedometer. It’s tiny and counts 30km/h increments all the way up to 270km/h. How fast was I going, officer? No idea. I have about two inches to tell whether I’m going between 30 and 90, so it’s anyone’s guess.
An obvious benefit of the MX-5 chassis is its go-kart handling, and it seems as though the excellent, fast and direct steering hasn’t been messed with, either. Sure, the suspension is a little crashy, and the convertible chassis a tad rattly, but it’s all part of being that much closer to the road. It would be tough to ask to find a better transmission with its fast, short action and sensible ratios.
Ultimately, the 124 is just plain (literally) old-fashioned weekend fun, offering a challenging but rewarding drive.
The standard safety offering is another area that's had the facelifting magic applied to it for this upgrade, with more 'i-ACTIVSENSE' technologies now coming as standard across the range, and, finally, a 'Rear Monitor', or reversing camera, now standard, tucked away in the centre of the rear bumper.
New safety features include 'Smart City Brake Support', or AEB, forward only on the base but also in reverse on GT and above, 'Traffic Sign Recognition', 'Driver Attention Alert' (GT spec only) and reverse parking sensors. Blind-spot monitoring was already included.
If all that fails you'll be protected by four airbags, two each for driver and passenger. The MX-5 received a five-star ANCAP rating when it was most recently tested, back in 2016.
No Abarth model carries a current ANCAP safety rating, although the MX-5 this car shares most of its underpinnings with carries a maximum five-star rating, as of 2016.
Feature-wise, you get dual front and side airbags, “active head restraints”, seatbelt pre-tensioners and something called “active pedestrian protection”. The regular suite of stability controls are also present, alongside a reversing camera and sensors.
There’s no auto emergency braking (AEB - which has now become an ANCAP requirement), active cruise or any lane-assist technologies, but the ‘Visibility Pack’ standard on the Monza edition adds Rear Cross Traffic Alert (RCTA) and Blind Spot Monitoring (BSM).
Four airbags and rudimentary active safety is a let-down, but probably not one that this car’s target audience will particularly care about.
As well as being good value you can bet this car will have good resale value. Check out our problems pages to see if there any automatic transmission, clutch or engine problems, faults or issues.
The warranty is now five years/unlimited km, which is pretty good for a sports car, but you will have to service it every year/10,000km. The first service is $304, the second $347, then back to $304 for the third and fifth. You get the picture.
It’s a shame that the 124 is only offered from Abarth with a three-year 150,000km warranty. Its counterpart MX-5 is now offered with a five-year unlimited promise, and Fiat could really do with a bit of positive warranty coverage right now.
You’ll need to service the 124 once a year or every 15,000km. Capped price servicing? Ha. No such thing over at Abarth, apparently. You’re on your own.