- Max Speed
The Fiat 124 Spider, the Italians' homage to the an impossibly pretty roadster from the 1960s, this time founded on talented Mazda MX-5 underpinnings.
However, the bodywork is new. New, retro in appearance, and bigger. A bit clumsier, perhaps, though that appears to be a European opinion. Americans seem to prefer the Fiat's butcher features. Anyway, geopolitical minefield sidetepped, there’s a slightly plusher feel inside and Mazda’s zesty naturally aspirated engines have been sent packing.
We’ve driven it before, oversears, Paul Horrell saying “it’s got authentic Fiat looks and an authentic Fiat engine. The Mazda bits we know and love, and it all fits together a treat.”
So now it’s in the UK?
Yes, and spending a day threading it along some fantastic Welsh roads, a few more things jump out and please us. Like the fact it still feels refreshingly titchy and wieldy. Something about the 124’s overhangs swells it in pictures, fooling your eye into thinking it’s a Mercedes SL-sized barge. It’s not.
The swisher leather on the steering wheel and bigger bolstered seats do a passable job of improving the cabin’s perceived quality, though that’s slightly undone by a more truculent gearshift than the Mazda’s honey of a gearbox. Because the Fiat has to deal with more torque…
Ah yes, the turbo question. Good engine or a dud?
The 1.4-litre MultiAir engine isn’t a firecracker, but its turbocharging does alter the 124’s character to far enough from the MX-5’s as to make the Italian version worthwhile. This is an easier car to drive slowly, resting on 177lb ft in a higher gear.
That’s only 29lb ft more than a 2.0-litre MX-5, but it’s made at half the revs, and in cars that weigh a touch over 1,000kg, this stuff matters. It completely changes how you drive the car.
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And the handling?
Here’s something – the 124 Spider is also easier to drive quickly than the MX-5.
It’s more settled at the rear, less floaty too. Where the MX-5 needs a second or two’s thinking time when you pop over a crest or pour it through a corner, the Spider just squats down and deals with bumps without showing its working.
It’s more stable when you want, and hey, if that’s tedious for you then there’s enough torque to unstick it. Be aware that only the Abarth version gets a limited-slip diff, though.
Interesting to note the fuel consumption wasn’t brilliant – around 31mpg as an average and in the high twenties when the turbo was being kept lit.
This isn’t an attack on Fiat’s MultiAir engine – all of the downsized forced induction engines get thirsty when kept on the boil – but TG’s long-term MX-5, which we took along for a twin-test against the 124, was consistently 5-6mpg thriftier, despite its unending appetite for revs, revs, and yet more revs.
So does the 124 Spider translate into English nicely?
Very much so. Compared to the Mazda, its components parts – the engine, the gearbox, the steering etc – aren’t as delicate or finely tuned to use.
But as a whole, it’s probably the more flexible, useable car more of the time. It takes less time to build a rhythm with. Priced smack between the 1.5-litre and 2.0-litre MX-5s (starting at £19,545), the Spider carves a useful little niche for itself.
Photography: Simon Thompson