The most powerful MX-5 takes on the mightiest 124
The Abarth 124 Spider and Mazda MX-5 2.0 are similar cars with the same roots, but despite their shared components and inherent good balance, each offers a unique take on the two-seat roadster format. We test the models in their most powerful, flagship forms to see which is most rewarding on the road.
Of course, these models are as much about style as they are driving fun, and initial impressions are that the Mazda feels more modest, less showy, thanks to its simpler exterior design and lack of cabin embellishments compared with the Abarth, which wears its racy graphics, swathes of Alcantara and crazy exhaust with pride.
The engines are the main area where the cars’ characters differ. Mazda’s 1,998cc Skyactiv is not scorchingly fast, but it is superbly responsive and revs freely, zipping up to the redline and building its power to a peak high in the range. Teamed with the light, slick, six-speed manual gearbox, its 160hp makes for an immensely fulfilling experience.
Abarth 124 Spider
Engine: 1.4-litre, four-cylinder, turbo petrol
Transmission: six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Top speed: 144mph
CO2 emissions: 148g/km
However, the MX-5’s dynamics are a mixed bag. The steering could do with more feel and feedback, and the car doesn’t tackle mid-corner bumps as well as we’d like. Quick reactions are required to tackle this, even though the chassis is fantastically well balanced front to rear. Fast cornering feels a bit scrappy and doesn’t live up to the engine’s promise, and you tend to overslow in bends using the admittedly fantastic brakes. Things improve on smoother roads, where you can finally really enjoy the Mazda’s compact dimensions and accuracy aided by the limited-slip diff.
The Abarth has a more serious attitude – accompanied by a more serious price – although it still isn’t perfect. Its additional weight can be felt, not least via heftier but nice-feeling steering and gearshift controls. The engine feels angry and belligerent, too – it’s hard to reconcile this character with the 170bhp turbo’s 1,368cc capacity. The MX-5 can’t match the Spider’s torque spread, mid-range flexibility, accessible day-to-day performance and hooligan potential.
Mazda MX-5 Skyactiv-G 2.0 Sport Nav
Engine: 2.0-liter, four-cylinder, petrol
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 158bhp
Top speed: 133mph
CO2 emissions: 161g/km
Its platform is firmer, so the turn-in doesn’t catch out the rear, which means you can adjust the line more easily. Aided by those compact dimensions, in the dry it’s a vice-free and entertaining introduction to front-engined, rear-drive dynamics. However, the stiffer suspension set-up highlights rigidity issues, especially on uneven B-roads.
The biggest revelation of this test is that these models’ respective dynamic shortfalls and lack of focus mean neither is really a sports car; they make a lot more sense when viewed as enjoyable roadsters with a little more pep than standard. The MX-5 feels a little too wallowy and vague – although this is nothing a good tune-up from a specialist such as BBR can’t cure – while the Abarth is maybe too aggressive for its own good.
Superior torque and more focused suspension mean the Spider is the slightly more satisfying and enjoyable car to drive, but not to the tune of the £7k price premium it holds over the Mazda. Ultimately, we’d say each model is a great place to start, but the aftermarket holds the real key to their potential.