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Fiat 124 Spider review: First drive

4.5

The Good

  • Looks the part
  • Fun to drive
  • Retains the best bits of the MX-5

The Bad

  • Interior has some very cheap plastics
  • Made us crave the faster Abarth version

Fiat let motoring journalist Ben Griffin get behind the wheel of the 124 Spider at the Evo Triangle in North Wales to see if the Mazda MX-5 rival has what it takes to compete.

Fiat 124 Spider: What are we dealing with?

It is an Italian two-seater sports car that was created as a tribute to the 1960s Spider. Rather than starting from scratch, Fiat enlisted the help of Mazda and used its MX5 as a basis. As a result, the two share a low kerb weight and front engine, rear-wheel-drive layout. Despite sharing ingredients, however, the two are rather different propositions. 

Fiat 124 Spider vs Mazda MX-5: How does it compare?

The main difference is the 124 Spider has more of a tourer vibe. While the MX5 needs to be worked quite hard to get the most from its engine, the Fiat's 140hp turbo engine has plenty of low-down torque that facilitates effortless progress. Those who like to wring a car's neck will prefer the Mazda, but there's a lot to be said for not having to drive like a lunatic to exploit your car's potential. 

The MX-5 feels slightly gutless if you're lazy with the gears, while the Fiat 124 Spider is happy pootling along at low revs even in fourth, fifth or sixth. Though neither are difficult to drive, the Italian is more livable and more relaxed more of the time.

The Fiat 124 also has a softer ride than the MX5. That comes at the expense of body roll, but the difference is minimal and the reward is a smoother ride over lumps and bumps. Hit a bump mid-corner and the 124 Spider holds fast instead of being knocked out of its line.

That may sound like the Fiat is a watered down version of the Mazda MX-5, yet the result is a car that still facilitates being pushed hard without being frustrating in daily use. But make no mistake, it is still a sports car through and through.

Fiat 124 Spider: What about the looks?

The 124 Spider is a striking little car, with a more pronounced bonnet and rear end giving it more presence than the MX-5. It is the perfect remedy for those who think the MX-5 is too 'toy' like.

Italian handywork has improved the interior, too, with optional tobacco leather (a free option on the Lusso and Lusso Plus models) sprucing up the cabin nicely. It is clear the inside is designed to be sophisticated, while the outside has a muscle car vibe that US and UK customers will lap up.

Though some plastics look and feel cheap and nasty – the sun visor looks more like the mould used to manufacture the part itself – the overall cabin is a nice mix of flair and solidity. At this price point, it is ahead of the competition.

Fiat 124 Spider: What is the Italian like to drive?

Let's start with that that 1.4-litre MultiAir turbocharged engine developed by Fiat. Unlike the naturally aspirated MX-5, the Fiat 124 has a nice throaty engine note that benefits from added turbo hiss. But even at full tilt it has a civilised edge – it never intimidates.

177lb/ft (240Nm) of torque allows 0-62mph to come and go in 7.5 seconds. Hardly speedy, but it is the ability to make impressive progress in just about any gear that greatly enhances the feeling of speed. The Fiat gets full torque from 2,250rpm, negating the fact peak power comes in at 5,000rpm and a lot of the problem of turbo lag.

We doubt many people would want to drift in the Fiat Spider 124 and it never encourages you to, but it is an extremely competent handler. With a 1,050kg kerb weight (35kg more than the 2.0-litre MX-5) and plenty of grip, it takes serious effort to make it do something unexpected.

The Fiat 124 Spider's gearbox is chunkier and less precise than the Mazda's, but we rather liked the fact each gear slots in with an assuredly mechanical feel. You can shift through the gears very quickly if need be anyway and, because of that extra torque, you can be lazier on the changes. We spent a lot of the time in fourth, giving us more time to savour each turn through the Welsh countryside.

The Fiat 124 is physically bigger, although the boot space is still measured in millilitres (okay, so it is 140 litres) and it feels like a small car on the road. Nipping in between traffic is, for example, still a doddle.

Like the MX-5, the Fiat 124 Spider feels fantastic to drive without worrying too much about power output. But there will be some of you who crave an extra 40bhp for the added excitement, which is where the much pricier Abarth 124 Spider steps in.

Fiat 124 Spider: Any good as a convertible?

Gloriously simple. Okay, so you have to do it yourself, but pulling on the handle and locking it into the slot at the top of the windscreen surround is easy. Once done, the cabin is quiet at motorway speeds, if a tad claustrophobic.

Even with the roof down, the Fiat 124 Spider slices through the air so efficiently there is surprisingly little noise. Music listening and conversations are more than just possible at 70mph, it feels like they are encouraged. Being a mechanical process, the passenger can close it at any speed if the rain turns up.

The only time the Fiat 124 Spider really pipes up is when you put your foot down in 1st and 2nd. If anything, we wish it could be a bit more uncivilised, with a few more cracks and pops here and there. A louder turbo whoosh. That sort of thing.

It never rained on the day so we have no idea if it leaks, but the MX-5 never did so we doubt the winter months will pose much of a problem beyond fugging up a bit at start-up.

Fiat 124 Spider: Do you have to be a midget to fit?

The lower end of the 6ft club will fit without too much hassle, although the complete lack of height and legroom adjustment means fully stretching your legs is never going to happen.

Wider people are more likely to struggle as the seat supports are too narrow to accommodate anyone who eats pizza just that bit too regularly. This writer's slender frame felt very snug with a coat off and almost uncomfortably squeezed with it on.

On the subject of space, two centrally-located cup holders make it capable of a drive-through cruise and, though there is no glove box or door bins to speak of, there are two central storage areas, one of which is lockable. Just don't expect to fit much in it.

Which is best: Classica, Lusso or Lusso Plus?

Tough call. The Classica has a good level of standard equipment, including air conditioning, cruise control, leather steering wheel and gear knob and an infotainment system (albeit with a display the size of a postage stamp). The extra equipment on the Lusso and Lusso Plus is hardly essential.

With that said, upgrading from Classica to Lusso includes heated seats, which will save you the hassle of wrapping up quite as warm on a clear day in January. Navigation is also included and can be useful, although Fiat's system looks dated. The piano black dashboard accent looks neat.

Lusso Plus gets you – among other things – automatic climate control, a Bose nine-speaker sound system (one of which is a subwoofer), rear-view camera for parking and LED headlights.

Prices start from £19,545 for the 124 Spider Classica, making it £1,050 more expensive than a base level MX-5 with 131hp. A top spec Lusso Plus starts from £23,295, compared to £23,695 for the 140hp 2.0 MX-5 Sport Nav, so the Fiat is priced competitively when you factor in the equipment and power output.

Fiat 124 Spider: Would you buy one?

Absolutely. Even though the MX-5 is fantastic, Fiat has created a car that is more forgiving but no less exhilirating on the right roads – the British sort plagued by potholes, not the European smooth as ice alternatives.

We would even go as far as saying the Fiat 124 Spider has the edge in the looks department, too, as it looks like a baby Dodge Viper, which is a wise move when its main competitor is sometimes referred to as 'girly'. Like it or not, the 124 is a fitting tribute to its 60s predecessor.

So, then, MX-5 or Fiat 124 Spider? Well, both cars are two-seater bastions of driving pleasure and both are relatively affordable. It's just that the Italian upstart is easier to live with. Whether you think that is a good thing will help you decide.

Key Specs

  • 1.4-litre MultiAir four-cylinder turbo
  • 138bhp (140hp) at 5,000rpm
  • 177lb/ft (240Nm) at 2,250rpm
  • 0-62mph in 7.5 seconds
  • 148g/km of CO2
  • 44.1mpg (combined)
  • From £19,545

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