FIAT RIDES MAZDA’S COAT TAILS TO PRODUCE A STUNNING NEW 124 SPIDER CONVERTIBLE
Fiat’s take on the Mazda MX-5 has finally arrived in the UK. We went to find out how it compares with its rivals in the market.
FIAT 124 SPIDER
WHAT’S NEW? Amazingly, the 124 manages to be both very new and hardly new at all. It shares little more than a name with the old 124, which went out of production in the 1980s, but it shares much with a far more modern roadster — the fourth-generation Mazda MX-5.
The bodywork takes cues from the old car, what with the round headlights and the wide, vertical grille, but applies them in a distinctly modern way. The majority of the underpinnings, meanwhile, are pretty much straight from Mazda’s much-acclaimed drop-top.
Granted, the suspension has been tweaked, but otherwise the only major change is the new powertrain. Unlike the MX-5, which uses naturally aspirated 1.5 and 2.0-litre engines, the 124 gets a 1.4-litre turbocharged engine. It sits between the two Mazda engines in terms of power output, but the turbocharger gives it more torque and more mid-range grunt, lending the Fiat a very different character to its Japanese sibling.
LOOKS AND IMAGE No matter which angle you approach it from, the 124 Spider is an impossibly pretty car. From the wide front and the wide, rounded headlights to the creases in the long bonnet and the square tail lights, it’s a stunning thing to look at.
Inside, it’s basically identical to the MX-5, with the circular air vents, driver-focused cockpit and seven-inch infotainment system on the main dashboard. There are a few differences, though, such as the optional Tobacco leather fitted to our test car and the gear lever, which is more comfortable and ergonomic.
The changes are just enough to give the 124 a charming Italian character that the MX-5 can’t match. The Mazda may be a pure driving machine, but the Fiat is undoubtedly the more stylish option.
SPACE AND PRACTICALITY As with the MX-5, the 124 Spider is hardly the last word in spaciousness. It’s only a two-seater and there isn’t even a glove box — just a small cubbyhole in the centre console and a lockable box between the seats. There is a little more space in the boot, but it’s hardly cavernous. Official figures tell you there’s 140 litres of space, although you’d be hard pushed to get much in. The opening is narrower than the boot itself and because there’s a huge boot lip, you’ll have to heft heavy items quite a way to drop them in.
It’s more than just the lack of storage that makes the car fairly impractical, it’s the lack of adjustability. The seat has plenty of fore and aft adjustment, but the backrest adjustment is notchy and the seat base doesn’t move up and down. The biggest problem is that the steering wheel doesn’t adjust for reach. It’ll be fine for most, but taller drivers might struggle to get comfortable.
BEHIND THE WHEEL With the MX-5 as a baseline, it’s no surprise that the 124 Spider is a great car to drive, but there is a very different character to the Fiat. The 138bhp engine may be less powerful than the MX-5’S 158bhp 2.0-litre unit, but it offers similar performance. The 7.5-second sprint from 0-62mph is two-tenths slower than the Mazda’s, but the 134mph top speed is marginally faster.
In the real world, though, it actually feels substantially quicker than the Mazda. The turbocharger gives it real punch and means you don’t have to drop so many cogs when overtaking. There is a touch of turbo lag, which is a little annoying, but keeping it on the boost is a small, yet rewarding, challenge.
It isn’t just the engine that differs from the Mazda. The suspension has been tweaked to improve the Fiat’s ride and it works a treat. The 124 is supple and smooth in a way the MX-5 can’t compete with, but it has had an effect on the handling. Whereas the MX-5 is pin-sharp, the Fiat is a little woollier on turn-in and the body rolls more than the Mazda. The steering is a touch less direct, but those small concessions don’t stop it being a really good car to drive briskly. The MX-5 is the ultimate driver’s car and though the 124 is a half-step behind in terms of excitement and involvement, it’s actually a far better all-rounder.
VALUE FOR MONEY The 124 Spider starts from £19,545 for the basic Classica trim. It’s £1,100 more expensive than the basic 1.5-litre MX-5, but you do get the more potent turbocharged engine, 16-inch alloy wheels, keyless start and air conditioning, as well as other niceties such as cruise control.
Upgrading to the £22,295 Lusso gives you 17-inch alloys, climate control and the seven-inch infotainment system, which comes with sat nav and a reversing camera. At the top of the range is the £23,295 Lusso Plus, which adds leather upholstery, automatic lights and wipers and a Bose surround sound system.
WHO WOULD BUY ONE? As a soft-top you could live with every day, the 124 actually beats the MX-5 by a nose, but it is noticeably more expensive than the Mazda and doesn’t offer quite the same performance or handling.
As a result, buying the Fiat is very much an emotional commitment, rather than a rational one. You’ll always respect the MX-5 for being a technical masterpiece, but you’ll love the 124.