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.

Belfast Telegraph - NI Carfinder - - Front Page - BY JAMES FOSSDYKE

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.

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