Road Test: Fiat 124 Spider

Reporter:

Steve Rogers

Before getting down to business we need to clear up any confusion.

This is a Fiat 124 Spider and not a Mazda MX-5.

That said the MX-5 influence is strong, very strong. Fiat has bought into the world’s best selling sports car, made some styling changes to the body and dropped in its own engine.

Why? Why not?

The MX is a runaway success with the perfect pedigree but is not as popular in Europe as it is here. Fiat, on the other hand, has a proud history with sports cars, albeit in the dim and distant past, and with this new roadster a tribute act to the original sixties 124 Spider it should go down well.

Fiat has made a success of reviving names from the past – the 500 and Tipo are both doing the rounds – and the new car has taken some styling cues from its 1966 Spider which, incidentally, was not built in right hand drive.

The bonnet, grille and headlights try to capture some the original Spider’s features which had two humps in the bonnet to create extra space for the twin cam engine. They are obviously not needed this time around but give the car its own personality while distancing itself from the flared front wings and squinty headline design of the MX-5.

The Fiat is also a tad longer which gives it a small advantage in boot space – 140 litres versus 127.

I would rather not have to mention the Mazda so often but it is relevant and people are bound to compare acts. You might expect the Fiat to be the cheaper car because it needs a good selling point against such an established rival, but it is a grand more. Well, it is longer...

So how do you choose between the two cars? Body styling starts it off, then there is Fiat’s 1.4 litre MultiAir engine, and the spring and damper settings are different. That is where it ends. Inside is pure Mazda, but who’s complaining?

The instrument binnacle is classic MX-5 with a large rev counter flanked by smaller information and speedometer dials. The flaw in this set up is that the numbering is small and 30mph is not in the driver’s eyeline which is drawn more to 50mph.

The answer is an additional digital readout which could be positioned in the window at the base of the rev counter and currently used to display the gear number. Why do we even need to be told what gear we are in?

At least the infotainment centre, controlled by a rotary dial behind the gear lever, is the most user friendly I have come across so the likes of navigation, Bluetooth and digital radio instructions are easily mastered. Heating controls are good old fashioned dials positioned below the central screen.

Another major plus is the fabric roof mechanism which is nearly as slick as a Lewis Hamilton pit stop. Five seconds is all you need and it is easily lifted back into place while on the move.

On the road the Spider is typical roadster – grippy, tenacious and with that low ride rawness. It is neither comfortable nor uncomfortable, just like any small two seater, and is great fun to drive.

The only difference I detected over the MX-5 was a little more body shake, but generally everything feels well controlled.

Fiat’s silver bullet is the 1.4 litre turbo engine which is far meatier than Mazda’s 1.5. The little turbo makes all the difference here with a power rush coming on under 2,000rpm.

It is eager to get going even in sixth gear, but pop it into fourth and the pull to 3,000rpm and beyond will bring a smile to anyone’s face.

So it’s decision time: 124 Spider or MX-5? There is so little to choose between them but I would go for the 2-litre Mazda for no more than sentimental reasons. I drove it in California in 1989, before it came to the UK, and have had a soft spot for it ever since.

Honestly, they are neck and neck. Try flipping a coin...

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