More fun than flying. That's what Fiat claims for the new 124 Spider, a retro-recreation of one of its most iconic cars, the original 1966 124 Spider. Back then, the Spider was the sports car variant of one of the most technologically advanced saloon cars on the road, and one of Europe's biggest sellers. Now though? Fiat is actually piggy-backing on Mazda's sports car expertise, which means that this 124 is actually an MX-5 with a new engine, new badges and some Fiat bodywork.
Should that matter? Is it a bad thing or a good thing that Fiat has zeroed in on the best affordable two-seat sports car around to act as the donor car for the 124? I guess it depends on your perspective. Originally, the tie-up with Mazda was supposed to birth a new Alfa Romeo Spider, but then Fiat's Sergio Marchionne decided that Alfa was going to move further upmarket, and that all Alfas would be built in Italy. The deal with Mazda involved building the cars on the MX-5 production line in Hiroshima, so a quick-turnaround programme was put in motion to convert Alfa into Fiat. You can see some of the rush in the fact that while the bodywork is different, the overall shape is still the same, and the cabin is barely different at all, save for a Fiat badge in the centre of the steering wheel.
Still, the Italian sunshine was working its usual magic on my mood and once you hear the car referred to in the original Italian as ‘Cento-Venti-Quattro’ you’ll probably be as sold as I was. How can you not fall for the magic of an Italian sports car in Italy?
Mazda v Fiat
OK, so the cabin’s the same as the Mazda’s. They haven’t even bothered to change the graphics on the sat-nav and infotainment system. But with the seats upholstered in buttery-soft brown leather (standard on our Lusso-spec test car) you start to not care, and when the engine, a 140hp turbocharged 1.4-litre Multiair unit, bursts into life, your cares simply evaporate. 140hp is only slightly more than you get from a basic 1.5-litre MX-5, but 240Nm of torque is significantly more than the Mazda’s 150Nm so the character of the car is quite different.
The same snick-snick gearbox, a six-speed unit, is there, with the same gorgeous, tactile action that makes it feel as if the shift lever is just stuck straight into the cogs, but ultimately you need to use it less. The engine’s torque will pick the car up nicely as long as you have more than 1,200rpm on the clock. Mind you, it’s worth stretching it out a bit - the little turbo is quiet at low speeds and ant tickover, but sings a pleasingly raucous song once you start to bring it closer to the redline. It feels much more muscular than the MX-5.
Better though? That’s a harder one to call. The chassis is basically the same, net of a few suspension and steering setting tweaks for the Fiat. The steering feels very familiar, a little light at first, but you soon warm to the feel and the sensations coming back through the (thankfully entirely circular) rim. It’s direct and fast when you want to point it into a corner, but never feels nervous or over-geared. The way the 124 flows along a twisting road is just delightful, with that classic rear-drive balance, a ride quality that’s mostly good (although it does allow the odd shimmy up through the structure) and the pleasing bark of the exhaust reflecting back at you from walls and stands of trees.
Not as efficient
It’s not as efficient as the Mazda though - somewhat surprisingly for a turbo engine being put up against a naturally aspirated unit. The Mazda has the legs on both the 124’s fuel consumption of 44mpg (the Mazda will do a claimed 47mpg) and emissions of 148g/km (the Mazda has a Band B2 139g/km rating).
It will probably be a little more expensive than the MX-5 too. The extra couple of per cent on the VRT won’t help, and Fiat Ireland has told The Irish Times that “we’re working to keep the price below €30,000” but are equally hoping that the extra power, torque and some extra equipment will help to bridge the gap. Anyway, it’s hardly going to be a volume seller, now is it?
Again, would you care? I think there’s a pretty good balance to to be struck here between the Mazda and the Fiat. The Mazda, especially in 1.5-litre form, is arguably more of a purists’ car; it’s all about the chassis balance and making the most of the engine’s relatively limited torque. In the Fiat, perhaps appropriately for an Italian car, it’s more about the engine, whether you’re revving it our at high speeds or just languidly loafing along the shore of Lake Garda, surfing the torque wave just as the hydrofoils on the lake surf their own bow waves. Both cars are fun, to a point where they are more enjoyable on the road than pretty much any other car save for specialist machinery such as an Ariel Atom or Caterham 7.
Both cars are relatively practical for a two-seater, with a practical boot and a roof that can be manually whipped up or down in seconds, without even stepping outside the car. I reckon the Fiat is the prettier of the two, but that may be because they parked it alongside the 1966 original and you can then start to see all the styling cues and references.
More fun than flying? Yes, I’d say piloting a pretty two-seater along the shores of an Italian lake is more fun, much more fun, than being stuffed into a cramped aluminium tube at 35,000-feet while Michael O’Leary attempts to sell you vodka.
The lowdown: Fiat 124 Spider 1.4 MultiAir Lusso
Price: TBC but circa €30,000
Top speed: 215kmh.
Claimed economy: 6.4-litres per 100km (44mpg).
CO2 emissions: 148g/km.
Motor tax: €390.
Verdict: Gorgeous to look at and fun to drive. And the Mazda roots pretty much guarantee reliability. For what more could you ask? Just remember to pronounce the name in the original Italian…
Our rating: 4/5