I recently had the chance to drive a Fiat 124 Spider Abarth, which is a sort of long way of saying "Italian Miata." And by "Italian Miata," what I really mean is a Mazda Miata, built in Japan, by Japanese people, in a Japanese factory, except it’s sold at Fiat dealers, so it has some semblance of Italian in it.
Actually, it has just a little more than some semblance. The 124 Spider Abarth is largely just a Miata with a different body, except in one crucial area: It has a totally different engine. While the Miata uses a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder with 155 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque, the 124 has a turbocharged 1.4-liter 4-cylinder with 164 horses and 184 lb-ft. Theoretically, this should make the Abarth faster, though there’s some debate about this among car reviewers and Miata fans alike.
I wanted to settle this debate once and for all, so I borrowed this 124 Abarth from a viewer in northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C., and I spent the afternoon driving it around and poking through its quirks and features, and here’s the conclusion I’ve come to: The 124 Abarth is not better than the Miata. It’s also not worse than the Miata. It’s just different.
The biggest difference is, obviously, the badge: Buying the Fiat over the Miata is a conscious decision to get a different engine, with different parts, and to service your vehicle in a different place with different people, and to explain to everyone what it is, rather than trying to explain that no, really, the Miata is a fun sports car, for serious automotive enthusiasts. People who buy the Fiata almost surely know about the Miata, and they’re choosing the Fiat anyway.
One reason they might make this choice is the styling. There’s a lot of debate over what looks nicer, the Miata or the 124 Abarth, and I’ll leave that debate for you. But there’s no doubt they look substantially different; in my opinion, the Miata is more modern and daring, while the 124 Abarth has more of a traditional "roadster" look. I think a lot of the decisions between these two vehicles will be made on styling alone.
Those that aren’t will likely be motivated by the powertrains. Although the 124 Abarth has more power and torque than the Miata, it’s still not a muscle car — and some say the added weight and peaky turbocharged engine actually makes it a hair slower than its Mazda counterpart. I’ll be honest: I couldn’t tell. And unless you’re doing instrumented testing, I think you’d have trouble figuring out exactly which one is two-tenths of a second faster to 60 mph, or whatever. People claim they can tell which one is faster, but I notice those people tend to have a dog in the fight. As an impartial observer, I think they’re about the same.
There is, however, one big difference, and that’s the way power is delivered: By virtue of its small engine and turbocharger, the 124 Abarth feels a bit peakier, like you have to really rev it up for the best acceleration — and like you’re getting a real kick in the face once you get deep into the rev range. For better or worse, the Miata is a bit more linear. There’s absolutely no question the 124 has one advantage over the Miata, though: It sounds better. Not a little better, either; the 124 has a nice sports car sound, while the Miata just doesn’t. The 124 Abarth doesn’t quite sound like the I-can’t-believe-this-is-a-little-hatchback 500 Abarth, which crackles and pops its way into everyone’s hearts, but it’s still pretty good for a 4-cylinder.
Handling is, of course, truly excellent — and also little changed from the Miata. I found the cabin to be pretty tight, with little room for my knees, but this isn’t a car you’d want to use as a cruiser; instead, you hop into this thing on the weekends and go down your favorite back roads, and it’s wonderful for that — interior room be damned. I love how predictable it is, how easily you can feel the car’s weight transfer and how much fun it is to just toss it into corners on excellent back roads, using every bit of the engine, wringing every RPM out of the powerplant. You can’t do that in the vast majority of new cars on the market.
I’m honestly not sure whether I’d prefer a Miata or a 124 Abarth, but I’ll say this much: I’m happy they exist. I’m happy they’re still rear-wheel drive; I’m happy they’re relatively cheap; and I’m happy they haven’t lost the excitement — even 25 years after the Miata first went on sale. Buy a Miata, buy a 124, I don’t care — either way, I suspect you won’t regret your decision. Find a FIAT 124 Spider for sale
Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.