The Fiat 124 Spider is a car that’s intrigued me since the moment it was revealed. Yes, it’s based on an MX-5 and even shares the same production line with the little Mazda roadster in Japan, but Fiat managed to create a product that looks entirely different, and thanks to the presence of a turbocharged 1.4-litre engine, had the potential to feel very different too.
So how does this kinda sorta Italian drop-top work out in the real world? With the keys to this Urban White example for a week, I was able to find out.
Oh, and for the record, I really tried not to mention the MX-5 too much. And I failed miserably.
In the UK, the only Fiat 124 Spider available is the 138bhp, 177lb ft version. If you want one that’s more powerful, you need to spend a lot more and get the Abarth 124 (which we’ll be testing next month - stay tuned!).
Fast the standard 124 is not: 0-62mph takes 7.5 seconds, and although the 124 uses a turbocharged 1.4-litre engine, there isn’t really much in the way of mid-range thrust. Oh, and if you try and put your foot down under 2000rpm before the turbo wakes up, good luck making anything in the way of progress.
However, with performance cars across the board getting more and more powerful, it’s refreshing to drive something you can actually pin the throttle in and row through a few gears without pondering whether or not you’d be able to cope with prison food. What’s more, it makes a brilliantly rorty little noise, and is reasonably responsive for a turbo mill, provided you’re above 2000rpm. The six-speed manual gearbox has a gloriously short and sweet throw, too.
The 124 has a noticeably softer setup compared to the MX-5, and that means it rolls a bit more. It’s unlikely to bother the majority of people who buy these things (in fact, they’ll probably appreciate the smoother ride), but it makes the 124 less of a serious sports car. The steering’s quick and accurate though, and the rear end is rarely bothered by the modest power which is sent its way. Get into the flow a little more, and you’ll find the 124 an easy car to make swift progress in, despite the lean.
When the 124 was first revealed, I really wasn’t a fan. Unlike the very compact-looking MX-5, the 124 Spider has comparatively massive front and rear overhangs. Its retro-inspired look is at odds with the very contemporary, sharply-styled Mazda, and that chrome windscreen surround is not something I’m fond of.
However, within a few days, I grew to enjoy looking back at the little Fiat wherever I parked it. It’s a little bland from the rear three-quarter view, but the front looks nicely distinctive with that big oval grille. Plus, big overhangs or not, it is still - in the grand scheme of things - a very compact car.
Just because the suspension’s soft (the boot’s bigger as well, by the way), don’t go thinking the 124 is a wafty cruise-mobile of a roadster. Because it isn’t. Wind noise with the roof up is high, and the seats aren’t particularly comfortable nor well positioned. The driver’s seat is too upright and doesn’t go back enough if you’re tall, and if you do slide it back as far as it’ll go, the back of the seat rubs on the roll hoop and makes the most irritating noise known to man. Although that’s not something you’ll notice on the road, because of that wind noise I mentioned a few sentences ago. Every cloud….
After my week with the 124 was up, I came to the conclusion that I’d rather have the slightly sharper, more modern-looking Mazda. But while the 124 didn’t satisfy me as a driver (I’m expecting the Abarth to be more geared towards my tastes), what it did do was make me happy.
Despite it being January at the time and flipping cold, I dropped the roof down at every given occasion, happily soaking in the outside world with a gormless smile smacked across my face. It’s rare for a car priced from around £20k and up to offer such a joy-filled experience.
There’s also the vulgar subject of vanity to think about. The majority of onlookers won’t know or care about the Mazda origins - to them, this is a cool little Italian sports car. And to an extent, they’re right.