Mazda MX-5 VS Abarth 124
- Relatively cheap
- Sweet manual option
- Improved body control
- No 1.5L engine option
- High noise levels
- Distinct look and feel
- Challenging but rewarding
- Glorious Monza exhaust
- Annoying turbo-lag
- Tight cabin
The Mazda MX-5 convertible is arguably the best new mainstream sports car available today, but the fourth-generation, ‘ND' model was released in Australia all the way back in August 2015, meaning it's now nearly seven years old.
So, how does Mazda go about making the ND MX-5 even better, especially in the face of the new Toyota GR86 and Subaru BRZ coupes? Well, the MY22 version on test here isn't a late-life facelift - its face is exactly the same - but it does introduce something called Kinetic Posture Control, which promises an improved drive.
Oh, and the MY22 MX-5 also spells the end of the enthusiast-friendly 1.5-litre engine option, with the 2.0-litre alternative now standard range-wide, alongside the full safety package. That said, has Mazda managed to improve the breed? 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|
Well, Mazda has gone and done it again – it's managed to make the MX-5 even better.
It's easy to be cynical about the real-world impact of Kinetic Posture Control, but it does actually make a meaningful difference, building upon an already class-leading drive experience.
Needless to say, if you're in the market for a new mainstream sports car, the MX-5 is still the default option. I'll take a manual RF GT, thanks.
Note: CarsGuide attended this event as a guest of the manufacturer, with meals provided.
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.
I'll be honest, when the ND MX-5 was unveiled, I did not love it. In fact, I had question marks over whether it had an angle that looked good. But over time, I've realised that it was me who was off the mark.
Yep, the fourth-generation model's exterior design is ageing gracefully, with those pinched headlights and that gaping grille looking fabulous. And the front end is made stronger by the pronounced fenders, a design flourish also seen at the rear.
Speaking of the back end, it's still not my favourite angle, but the correct paintwork selection can make it pop in all the right ways. Yes, those wedge-circle-combination tail-lights are not for everyone, but they are an undeniable signature.
As mentioned, the MX-5 range is available in two body-styles: the traditional, manually operated soft-top Roadster and the more modern power-operated hardtop RF. Of course, the former is quicker to use, while the latter is more secure.
Either way, the ND is starting to show its age inside, where its basic design (including physical climate controls) is headlined by a ‘floating' 7.0-inch central touchscreen – which can be operated via a rotary controller – and a small, multifunction display next to the traditional tachometer and speedometer.
Again, there's not a lot to it, but leather upholstery adorns the steering wheel, gear selector, manual handbrake and dashboard insert, and there are body-colour accents on the door shoulders. The GT and GT RS also get cow hide on the seats, and that's your lot. I must admit, I actually love the ‘back to basics' interior approach.
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.
Measuring 3915mm long (with a 2310mm wheelbase), 1735mm wide and 1230-1235mm tall, the MX-5 is a petite sports car, so needless to say, practicality is not one of its strengths.
For example, the Roadster version's boot has a tiny cargo capacity of 130L, while its RF sibling has 127L. Either way, once you put two soft bags or a small suitcase in it, there's not much room left. And let's not forget the very tall load lip that you need to contend with.
The MX-5 doesn't exactly offer more inside, as the central storage bin is puny, and the glovebox is basically non-existent, alongside tiny door bins. Aside from the decently sized ‘ski port', it's not great news for in-cabin storage.
That said, two removable but shallow cupholders are located between the seats, but they're propped by flimsy arms, which can cause anxiety, especially with hot coffees and the like.
Connectivity-wise, there's a single USB-A port and one 12V power outlet – that's it. Both are found in the centre stack, near a cubby that's appropriate for smartphones.
It's worth mentioning the MX-5 doesn't have anchorage points for child seats, be they top-tether or ISOFIX, so it's a sports car for adults – obviously.
For that reason, you expect some shortcomings on the practicality front, and these ones are not dealbreakers when driving alone.
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
For MY22, the MX-5 is still available in two body-styles: the soft-top Roadster and the hardtop RF. It also keeps its three grades, including the unnamed entry-level offering, mid-range GT and flagship GT RS, but pricing is up by $400-1700 for every variant.
|2022 Mazda MX-5 pricing before on-road costs|
|Roadster GT||Manual||$44,420 (+$400)|
|Roadster GT||Automatic||$46,420 (+$400)|
|Roadster GT RS||Manual||$47,420 (+$400)|
|RF GT||Manual||$48,500 (+$400)|
|RF GT||Automatic||$50,500 (+$400)|
|RF GT RS||Manual||$51,500 (+$400)|
In terms of specification changes, Platinum Quartz is a new metallic paintwork option, while the RF GT can now be had with Terracotta Nappa leather upholstery. Aside from Kinetic Posture Control and some key safety upgrades for the unnamed entry-level grade – which we'll explore in later sections of this review – that's the extent of the MY22 adjustments to the MX-5 line-up.
Standard equipment in the entry-level grade, therefore, includes dusk-sensing LED lights, rain-sensing wipers, black 17-inch alloy wheels, push-button start, a 7.0-inch touchscreen multimedia system, satellite navigation, wireless Apple CarPlay and wired Android Auto support, digital radio, a six-speaker sound system, single-zone climate control, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and black cloth upholstery.
The GT adds adaptive headlights, silver 17-inch alloy wheels, heated side mirrors, keyless entry, a 203W Bose sound system with nine speakers, heated seats, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, black leather upholstery and stainless-steel scuff plates.
For $1020, a Black Roof package can be added to the two RF GT variants, which bundles in – you guessed it – a black roof and Pure White or Terracotta Nappa leather upholstery.
The GT RS gets several performance-focused upgrades over the GT, including Gunmetal Grey 17-inch BBS forged alloy wheels, Brembo front brakes package (four-piston calipers and high-performance pads), Bilstein gas-pressurised dampers and a solid alloy strut tower brace.
When it comes to similarly priced rivals, the MX-5 doesn't have many, with the Mini Cooper S Convertible (from $51,530) coming the closest, while the just-launched Subaru BRZ (from $38,990) and yet-to-be-priced Toyota GR86 twins aren't far off.
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
Prior to MY22, the Roadster's entry-level grade was motivated by a delightful 1.5-litre naturally aspirated petrol four-cylinder engine that produced a modest 97kW of power at 7000rpm and 152Nm of torque at 4500rpm – but that option is no more, due to slow sales.
That's right; pour one out for the enthusiasts, as all MX-5 variants now use the familiar 2.0-litre unit that develops a more formidable 135kW at 7000rpm and 205Nm at 4000rpm.
That said, drive is still sent to the rear wheels via a six-speed manual with a rear limited-slip differential, or a six-speed torque-converter automatic with paddle-shifters. However, the GT RS is the only grade that exclusively comes with the former.
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.
The MX-5's fuel consumption on the combined-cycle test (ADR 81/02) varies from variant to variant, with manual Roadsters managing 6.8L/100km, while their automatic counterparts require 7.0L/100km. Three-pedal RFs need 6.9L/100km, while two-pedal versions drink 7.2L/100km.
That's a strong set of claims for a sports car, and while I wasn't able to get a real-world result for the MY22 version due to the nature of its launch program, my previous experience with a MY21 manual Roadster saw an average around its claim, which is impressive stuff.
For reference, the MX-5 has a 45L fuel tank that takes more expensive 95 RON premium petrol at minimum, with claimed driving range, therefore, in the 625-662km region.
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.
Let's get straight to the elephant in the room: Kinetic Posture Control. What is KPC? Well, put simply, it uses its electronic smarts to apply brake pressure to the inside rear wheel – when necessary – while cornering, all in the name of improved body control.
So, does KPC actually make a meaningful difference? We tested MY22 MX-5s back-to-back with MY21 versions on-track and on-road to find out, and the short answer is yes.
The GT RS makes better use of KPC due to its sporty chassis upgrades, delivering a more confident drive when cornering hard, but the softer unnamed entry-level grade and GT still benefit from its influence.
Either way, the upshot is how these upgrades make the MX-5 even flatter through the corners. It almost doesn't matter how hard you turn in; it will remain relatively locked down. And given the already graceful way in which it pivots, there are next to no handling issues.
Otherwise, this is the same MX-5 we've come to know and love, which is great news for drivers that, you know, like to drive.
The electric power steering defies convention with its well-judged weighting and high level of feel. It's not the hydraulic system of previous generation, but it's great in its own right.
And the MX-5's suspension set-up (double-wishbone front and multi-link rear axles) still delivers a ride that's not for everyone, especially the jittery GT RS that, again, has Bilstein gas-pressurised dampers and a solid alloy strut tower brace.
The 2.0-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine is still very enjoyable, with its free-revving nature egging the driver on to push towards the redline with every upshift, and with peak power (135kW) produced at a scintillating 7000rpm, you feel obliged to.
This unit is naturally short on torque, particularly down low, and its maximum (205Nm) is developed at 4000rpm, so the driver has to work the right pedal hard, which they'll be willing to do because of the fun factor.
Of course, the key to this memorable experience is the six-speed manual. It ticks nearly all the boxes with its perfectly weighted clutch, short throw and well-judged ratios.
The six-speed torque-converter automatic also does the trick with its smooth shifts, but it doesn't seem that keen to hit the redline, even when the Sport drive mode is engaged and the accelerator pedal is buried. I would pick the three-pedal set-up without hesitation.
Critically, braking performance is strong alongside pedal feel, but the GT RS makes both better with its aforementioned Brembo brakes package.
Now, it'd be remiss of me to not touch on the MX-5's noise levels, as it's not the most peaceful sports car on the market. Naturally, the Roadster is the most disruptive body-style, with the RF providing better insulation. Keep that in mind if it's important to you.
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.
While Australia's independent automotive safety authority, ANCAP, awarded the MX-5 its maximum five-star safety rating in 2016, the game has changed significantly in the past six years, so keep that in mind if it's on your shopping list.
Either way, advanced driver-assist systems in the MX-5 extend to front autonomous emergency braking (AEB) with pedestrian detection, cruise control, traffic-sign recognition, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, a reversing camera and tyre-pressure monitoring.
In a good move, new to the unnamed entry-level grade for MY22 – but already standard in the GT and GT RS – are lane-departure warning, driver-attention alert, rear AEB, and rear parking sensors.
That said, lane-keep and steering assist should also be part of the range-wide package alongside adaptive cruise control, but they're looking like they won't be a factor until the next-generation MX-5 – if there is one.
Other range-wide standard safety equipment includes four airbags (dual front and side), anti-skid brakes (ABS) and the usual electronic traction and stability-control systems.
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.
Like all Mazda Australia models, the MX-5 comes with a five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty and five years of roadside assistance, both of which are average when compared to Kia's market-leading seven-year terms with ‘no strings attached'.
Service intervals for the MX-5 are 12 months or 10,000km (whichever comes first), with the distance on the shorter side. But capped-price servicing is available for the first five visits, costing $1755 in total, or an average of $351, which is not too bad.
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.