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What's living with a Fiat 124 Spider like?

We've spent seven months in Fiat's MX-5-based sports car. Here's the verdict

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Cars like this are exactly why we run stuff long term in the Top Gear garage. The Fiat 124 Spider, on first acquaintance, seems like a softer, stodgier-looking MX-5. After a night or two in one it’s easy to conclude that your money is best spent on the Mazda base car. But after seven months of running RV66 LAA, it’s got under my skin.

A rundown of its technical highlights doesn’t take long. It’s a classic roadster with a pure spec, its engine over the front axle and driving the rear wheels through a fabulously taut six-speed manual gearbox. The dials are analogue, the handbrake manual and your only choice of driving modes is whether you want the ESP on or off.

The main differentiator between the 124 and its MX-5 relation is the fact the Fiat uses a 1.4-litre turbo (with 138bhp and 177lb ft) in lieu of a naturally aspirated 2.0 (158bhp/148lb ft), bringing a quicker turn of pace but less excitement at high revs.

It also makes it easier to overwhelm the rear tyres, especially when it’s wet. A middle mode for the ESP might actually be welcome; the electronics are hyper-alert when they’re on, while off means off. 

Otherwise, I love the 124’s purity. And just how easy it’s been to live with. My commute is a 12-mile London crawl, and I’ve concluded the 124 is just about the perfect car for it: softly suspended for all the speed bumps, narrow enough to zip through tiny gaps, and with unbeatable vision once the roof is dropped. 

The fabric roof opens or closes in seconds with a stretch of your arm, and it’s been down for about half of the 124’s 7,467 miles here. The simple pleasure of driving open-topped on a warm evening never gets old, while the simple, manual operation of the soft-top allows you to very quickly adapt to changes in weather.

You’ll probably want to pop the roof up if you’re going on the motorway, mind, particularly if you wish to properly hear your passenger or whatever you’ve got plugged into the stereo, despite it playing though speakers in the headrest. Refinement is not the 124’s strongest suit, but keep at the British speed limit with the roof closed and it’s bearable.

The Spider’s proved cheap to run, too, even if its fuel economy is typically worse than the MX-5’s. Though I suspect that’s more down to how clever Mazda’s latest nat-asp engines are. The 124 averages 30mpg in town and mid 40s on the motorway.

Reliability issues have been confined to the interior courtesy light needing a new bulb, proving Fiat’s shrewdness in basing its affordable roadster on one already well proven. The 124 is lower on character than its Barchetta ancestor (pictured in orange), but it’s also significantly less compromised in day-to-day life. Not least for being available in right-hand drive…

Beyond fuel, the only costs have been its 9,000-mile service (£189) and a new set of tyres (£460). I picked premium rubber for it – Conti Sport Contact 5s – and they’ve sharpened up the 124’s behaviour compared with its standard Bridgestones, making it easier to read and more on-side when you get close to its limits.

It’s a car you’re rarely inclined to drive like a hooligan, though. Its rear-drive and low centre of gravity give it a notably different driving experience to all the hot hatches you can buy for 20-odd grand, but Fiat has made this a comfier, more rounded thing than the MX-5.

Not to mention its rascal cousin, Abarth’s harder-cored interpretation of the 124 Spider. A comparison between the two showed the Abarth 124 (pictured in white’n’black) up as louder and even less refined, but a much bigger laugh – and a more natural handler – on a great piece of road.

So the Fiat 124 isn’t the sportiest roadster you can buy. Nor, if you care about looks, is it the prettiest (the styling has grown on me, mind). But it’s certainly one of the easiest to live with, and it’s worked its way into my life remarkably well. Ultimately, I’d find the sharper handling of the MX-5 – or that pesky Abarth – hard to resist. But I love how Fiat’s made something that’s deliberately different to both.

Images: Drew Gibson/Adam Shorrock/Rowan Horncastle

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