► Reborn Fiat 124 Spider tested
► MX-5 twin with 1.4 turbo power
► Retro styling channels original 124
Ah, the Italian MX-5 – though that’s Italian as in built in Japan, by Mazda, on the MX-5 platform. Fiat’s new 124 Spider does, however, feature unique, Italian-designed exterior sheet metal and a familiar Italian-built turbocharged MultiAir 1.4 engine up front, mounted longitudinally and driving the rear wheels through a six-speed manual. A six-speed auto is also available.
In essence, then, the Fiat’s an alternative: an arguably more grown-up way in which to enjoy the light, compact and fundamentally sweet MX-5 chassis. The 124’s styling is classical, with more retro cues than the edgy, modern Mazda, while the interior trim is from the drawer above the MX-5’s – and the turbocharged engine has torque and midrange where the naturally aspirated Japanese engine is all soaring revs and flirting with the limiter.
Talk me through the range
It starts with the no-toys Classica. Move up to Lusso and you get an infotainment system as standard, 17-inch wheels, heated seats, parking sensors and some chrome and silver trinkets.
The plusher Lusso Plus adds LED lamps, a Bose sound system and adaptive headlights.
For 2018, a new S-Design trim was added above Lusso Plus, with a few Mopar (Fiat-Chrysler’s aftermarket accessories arm) bits as standard: gunmetal grey A-pillars and mirror covers, 17in dark finish alloys, roll bar covers and, most noticeably, a red stripe down each flank in ’80s-honoured go-faster style. No mechanical upgrades, though. The S-Design is available only in Ice White, and costs £26,905 at launch.
Unlike the Mazda there’s only one engine option, and you can’t have a limited-slip differential – unless you go for the Abarth 124 version.
Drifting through hairpins or wafting along the coast road?
Fiat isn’t putting figures to its take on the perfect roadster chassis set-up, insisting it paid the MX-5 no mind and cracked straight on with building a car that drove like a Fiat, whatever that means. And while the 124 and MX-5 were developed in parallel, with input from Italians at Fiat and Abarth, the 124 uses unique spring, damper, roll bar, steering and stability control settings. While the Abarth version features a Sport button the 124 does not, though you can deactivate the stability control.
On the road the Fiat feels similar to the standard MX-5 chassis tune. The ride is good, dealing admirably with some pretty distressed Italian roads, the steering is as light, intuitive and responsive as you’d hope. There’s a little roll and pitch as you up the pace but the Fiat’s body control feels marginally better resolved than the Mazda’s, with less tendency to roll, particularly at the rear, when you really throw the front end into a corner. In general then it’s business as usual for this chassis: communicative, forgiving, up for mischief – if you can find tight enough corners – and great fun.
I bet you miss the Mazda’s turbo-free top-end though, right?
Yes and no. For some, the 1.5-litre Mazda motor will remain the more desirable engine option, for its purity of response and the zinging rush that accompanies the last 2000rpm on the rev counter. But the Fiat engine’s a pleasant thing: smooth, tractable from just over 2000rpm and strong enough to keep the chassis interested.
Ultimately it gives you options where the Mazda can’t: work the turbo four for all its worth, working the delicious balance of the car with a smile on your face, or short-shift, drive lazy and potter along with your elbow in the door and the sun on your skin.
Either way the roof is as per the Mazda, a folding soft-top you can drop or raise in a smidge over three seconds, and the six-speed manual (with Fiat-specific ratios and internals) is accurate, fast and satisfying.
What’s the interior like?
Definitely. The exterior design is more successful in the metal than it looks in pictures, particularly in darker colours – choose red and you’re guaranteed thumbs-up approval from girls on scooters and leathery-faced old men in tractors.
Inside little effort’s been wasted trying to disguise the Mazda beneath. So you get a decent infotainment system with an iDrive-style controller (optional), a snug but sound driving position (reach adjustment for the wheel is still sadly absent) and a small but serviceable 140-litre boot. The trim’s undoubtedly plusher than the Mazda’s though – choose tobacco leather and the cosy little cockpit feels almost opulent.
What’s the auto gearbox like?
Obviously, it’s not the option you want in a car that’s all about old-school driver involvement. But it does make the 124 accessible to those who need or want an auto, and it does its job well enough.
It’s a little slurry, and keen to change up a little too early most of the time – like most autos – but it’s responsive to kick down when required. Top marks to Fiat for organising the lever’s function the right way round in manual mode: pull to change up, push to shift down.
A very likeable, keenly priced roadster that feels sufficiently differentiated from its Japanese sibling to warrant investigation and a test drive. It’s not better, just different: a more grown up and refined alternative to the torque-light but arguably purer Mazda.
Whichever way you go that chassis – lightweight, keen and superbly balanced – remains the star of the show. And – whisper it – the Italians might just have come up with the best version of it.
Read more Fiat reviews here