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First drive: Fiat 124 Spider. Image by Fiat.

First drive: Fiat 124 Spider
Reckon the new Fiat 124 Spider is nothing more than a reskinned Mazda MX-5? It's more than that.

   



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Fiat 124 Spider

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It turns out that the new Fiat 124 Spider is proper, old-school sports car experience, better looking than the Mazda MX-5 with which it shares a platform and just as good to drive. Hurrah for turbocharging and bring on the Abarth model.

Test Car Specifications

Model tested: Fiat 124 Spider 1.4 140hp MultiAir Lusso
Pricing: as tested: 22,295 (range starts at 19,545)
Engine: 1.4-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol
Transmission: six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Body style: two-door, two-seat roadster
CO2 emissions: 148g/km (Band F, 145 per annum VED)
Combined economy: 44mpg (6.4 litres/100km)
Top speed: 134mph
0-62mph: 7.5 seconds
Power: 140hp at 5,000rpm
Torque: 240Nm at 2,250rpm
Boot space: 140 litres

What's this?

It's the return of a classic Fiat name, the 124 Spider, a car that was originally more of a hit in the US than in Europe, but which has been reinvented courtesy of a tie-up with Mazda. This partnership sees it share a chassis (and production space at Mazda's factory in Hiroshima) with the MX-5. That's a pretty good starting point - using the best current affordable two-seat sports car (pretty much the only one in fact...) as a chassis donor is hardly going to hobble the 124, dynamically speaking, but it has done so, a little, in styling terms. While it's a better looking car than the MX-5 (up for debate of course, but it certainly is more conventionally pretty than the aggressive Mazda), it uses the same basic structure underneath, so the overall shape of the two cars is very close.

The cabin is all but identical. In fact, the only difference we could discern was the Fiat badge on the perfectly round (and hurrah for round-ness) steering wheel and tan leather upholstery befitting a proper Italian sports car (standard on our Lusso-spec test model). Everything else is Mazda, pure and simple and it works very well, even if there's a whiff of disappointment that the Italians didn't bring more of their interior design game to the table.

For a two-seater, it's surprisingly practical, even if cabin space is going to feel tight for taller drivers and passengers. There are useful storage cubbies in the cabin and Fiat has found an extra 10 litres of space in the boot, bringing it to 140 litres, and it's a square, reasonably deep and useful space.

On the engine front at least the Italians have gone their own way, and parachuted in the 1.4 MultiAir Turbo four-cylinder from various Fiat, Alfa and Abarth models. Although only a little punchier in power terms than Mazda's core 1.5-litre MX-5 engine, it has far more torque; 240Nm is 90Nm more than the Mazda can provide.

How does it drive?

If you ignore the engine, it drives exactly like an MX-5. Fiat says that it has a team based in Hiroshima that has tweaked the suspension and steering settings (the 124 uses mechanically the same electrically-boosted power steering as the MX-5, as well as its double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension), but the overall effect is broadly similar. The electric power steering is light, direct, easily flicked into the desired line with just a roll of your wrists and feeds back information on the road's surface to your hands with chattiness, if not quite full on loquaciousness. The chassis feels perfectly balanced (its featherweight 1,060kg kerb weight is perched 50:50 above the front and rear wheels) and when cornering hard the 124 rolls little, tracks cleanly and settles its weight damn near perfectly on the outside rear wheels to better aid traction down the next straight. There's no limited slip differential (that's reserved for the more powerful, more expensive 170hp Abarth 124 that will launch later in the summer), but you don't really need it - you're going to struggle to get the rear wheels much out of line on a dry road anyway and, like the MX-5, the best way to drive the 124 is to do it smoothly, making the best of the steering's accuracy, rather than flinging it in and stamping on the gas.

It is very different to the MX-5 to drive when you take the engine into consideration though. In the slightly under-powered 1.5 Mazda, the trick is to keep momentum up and not let the engine's revs fall too much. In the torquey Fiat, you simply don't have to worry about that. You can instead pick from two distinct, but complementary, driving styles. In the first, you slot a high gear in the oh-so-sweet-shifting six-speed manual gearbox (there's no auto option as yet except for the Abarth), hook an elbow up onto the window sill and cruise along, admiring the way the scenery is framed by the contrasting silver-finish windscreen surround and the bonnet with its voluptuous twin power bulges.

Or, you can don the string back gloves of destiny and start winding the 1.4 turbo out to its 5,000rpm power peak, gearchanges flashing through with a minimal movement of your arm. Then the engine comes more alive, with a rasping exhaust note, and still have the safety net of the torque when an aimless delivery van impedes your progress. You'll be going faster than you would in a comparable MX-5, more easily and yet with the same delightful, delicate chassis balance beneath. That's kind of a hard proposition with which to disagree.

Verdict

The 124 Spider's only possibly hurdle comes up when you look at the price. At 19,545 for the most affordable Classica trim, it's 1,000 more than the cheapest MX-5. Now, Fiat hopes that the 124's extra power, extra torque, its arguably prettier styling and some extra standard equipment (air conditioning, leather-wrapped multi-function steering wheel, USB and Bluetooth and 16-inch alloy wheels for starters) win people over, but it's going to be a tough decision for sports car buyers. Do they go for the more purist Mazda, with its naturally aspirated engine and very Japanese styling, or the slightly pricier Fiat with its gorgeous design and gregarious engine? It's a close call, a very close one, but I can feel my heartstrings being tugged by the Fiat...

5 5 5 5 5 Exterior Design

4 4 4 4 4 Interior Ambience

3 3 3 3 3 Passenger Space

3 3 3 3 3 Luggage Space

5 5 5 5 5 Safety

4 4 4 4 4 Comfort

5 5 5 5 5 Driving Dynamics

5 5 5 5 5 Powertrain


Neil Briscoe - 8 Jun 2016



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2016 Fiat 124 Spider. Image by Fiat.2016 Fiat 124 Spider. Image by Fiat.2016 Fiat 124 Spider. Image by Fiat.2016 Fiat 124 Spider. Image by Fiat.2016 Fiat 124 Spider. Image by Fiat.

2016 Fiat 124 Spider. Image by Fiat.2016 Fiat 124 Spider. Image by Fiat.2016 Fiat 124 Spider. Image by Fiat.2016 Fiat 124 Spider. Image by Fiat.2016 Fiat 124 Spider. Image by Fiat.








 

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