“I’ve just seen the badge on that car,” said my adult son, visiting our house and setting eyes, for the first time, on the new Fiat 124 Spider. “I am amazed. I thought it was a Mazda.”
Neil Lyndon drives the rather good Fiat 124 Spider Lusso Plus
Boy speaks more wisely than he knows. The new Fiat 124 Spider might not only be mistaken for a Mazda MX-5 in appearance if you were absolutely clueless about cars: it’s also, in fact, very much like that archetype of contemporary two-seaters sports cars under the skin.
There are a host of reasons why this should be so, but most of them boil down to the fact that the 124 Spider results from a collaboration between Fiat and Mazda in which Fiat have, effectively, mounted a different body on the foundations of the MX-5 and given it a different engine. The result is, at root, a branding exercise but whereas branding exercises in the car industry should normally be approached with something like the disdain you would exercise over objects lurking in the bottom of a lavatory pan, this one has produced a gem.
Given the fact that the MX-5 is the best mass-produced, two-seater roadster ever made – the most fun to drive and the best engineered and manufactured – anybody using its compact, lightweight, rear-wheel-drive platform as the basis for another sports car is off to a pretty good start. On top of that peerless foundation, Fiat has not borrowed a single body panel from the MX-5 but, instead, have built a body that strongly resembles the classic 124 Sport Spider 2+2 they produced between 1966-1972.
As a usual rule, I feel the same queasiness about cars that mimic models from the past (such as the Fiat 500 and the Mini) as I would about any attempt to revive the Black & White Minstrels: certain things about the past are best left to their own devices, especially when the present is so much better and more promising. However, there’s a definite case for suspending the rule in the case of the current 124 Spider: its perfectly proportioned classic silhouette, with long bonnet and rearward passenger compartment, is so gorgeous that this car is, in effect, timeless. There’s nothing faux, cute or self-referring about the way it looks.
Like the standard version of the MX-5, the 124 Spider’s fabric roof releases with a twist of an internal handle and can be thrown over in seconds with one hand to stow in its compartment by the drive. No motors are necessary for this most perfect mechanism.
Unlike the MX-5 which is not turbocharged in any version, the 124 Spider carries an Italian-built four-cylinder turbo engine whose capacity is less than 1400cc but which, nevertheless, cracks out an almost lag-free 250Nm of torque or pulling power. As with the MX-5, this is a delicious supply of power with which to make the most of country roads without ever being so much that you’re going to scare the horses, still less yourself.
Again, the chassis is essentially the same on both cars, but the Fiat’s suspension settings are unique to itself, giving it different ride and handling characteristics. These tweaks provide revelations. Compared with an MX-5, if anything, they provide the Fiat with superior compliance over rough surfaces and body control through bends and, overall, it has a lovely effortlessness in changing direction and speed.
Inside, to all intents and purposes, you find yourself in an MX-5, which is a fine and wonderful place to be. Flouncy touches like contrast stitching on the instrument cluster hood, satin chrome finishes on the door pulls and air vents and Fiat’s own sports seats cannot conceal the fact that Fiat have largely gutted the cabin of the MX-5 and deposited it, wholesale, in the 124 Spider. No worries. Everything works a treat and is a delight to the eye. The optional infotainment system, for instance, is common to both cars and no system is more efficient and hassle-free. Plastics and leathers are at a slightly higher level in the 124 Spider than the MX-5.
The Fiat has three trim levels, all of which cost slightly more than the equivalent Mazda MX-5. Our test car came in the top-of-the-range Lusso Plus spec with seven-inch touchscreen, Bose stereo with nine speakers, 17-inch wheels, heated seats, parking sensors, silver body trim and chromed exhaust. That rack of geegaws takes the all-in price to £25800 which is very much at the top end of what you could pay for an MX-5, but it’s not so much different that you wouldn’t have to consider the Fiat if you were in the market for the best two-seater sports car in the world.
Car reviewed: Fiat 124 Spider Lusso Plus 1.4 MultiAir Turbo 140hp - Price as tested £25,800 0-62mph 7.5 secs Top speed 134mph Fuel Economy combined 44.14mpg CO2 emissions 148g/km Engine 13684cc 4-cylinder Max Power 140hp@5000rpm Torque 240Nm@2250rpm Transmission 6-speed manual
A two-seater sportscar gem
Easy and quick to lower roof
inside, a fine and wonderful place to be
Pricier than a top-end MX-5
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