Wallpaper* recently had the chance to do a little back-to-back comparison between two of the brightest new stars in the sports car firmament, Fiat’s 124 Spider and its enhanced and more ostentatious sibling, the Abarth 124, both released last year. There’s an unseen third player in this relationship, and their influence is felt with every turn of the wheel.

For these ostensibly Italian machines are, of course, Japanese to the core, based on and developed alongside the fourth generation Mazda MX5, a pocket-sized machine that inspires much affection. Our only caveat about the Mazda was its slightly wayward styling, a tendency towards generic swoops and scoops that merely highlighted how fundamentally right the earlier generations of the car had been.

The Abarth 124 Spider

The Fiat 124 Spider looks much better than the Mazda, even though it has an even more overbearing history to live up to. It’s named after one of the most iconic Fiats of the post-war era, a Pininfarina classic that lasted a remarkable 19 years in production, thanks mostly to its popularity in the US. With bodywork penned at the height of the Italian design house's powers, the original 124 didn't have a single line out of place and remains a highly sought after classic.

As a result, the new 124 Spider has a lot to live up to and not everyone’s expectations were exceeded. It’s fair to say, however, that there’s very little on the market that can match it, in scale, ability and intent (disregarding the Mazda, of course). Unless you’re willing to go all-out old school in a car like the substantially pricier Morgan or the substantially more visceral and uncomfortable Caterham, the 124 is in a class of its own.

Dexterity, simplicity, dynamic brilliance and even efficiency all come as standard. We’d forego the slightly brash two-tone paint job offered by Abarth in favour of something rather more classic, but the added power and bite make the Scorpion-badged car the more interesting choice. Purists will probably want to stick with the Fiat, for although it needs to be revved hard for maximum performance, the precise handling is fun at any speed. Besides, open-topped touring is about enjoying the drive, not driving at full tilt. And there are few better ways to do that than in this fine pair of iconic roadsters.

RELATED TOPICS: TRANSPORT, CARS