Review: the new Fiat 124 Spider – Top Gear

Posted: Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Ah the Fiat 124 Spider. They didn’t just stick their badges on the MX-5 then?

Nope, the Fiat’s exterior metalwork is all-new, and so are the lights and wheels. The Mazda’s countenance is very largely hidden.

The design riffs off – but doesn’t rip off – the classic 1966-85 Fiat 124 Spider. Which was a lovely car. I owned and rebuilt one once, so excuse this road test if it gets sentimental.

The old car’s cues are reincarnated in the almond-shaped headlight apertures and the grille. Further aft, see the kink that rises in the metalwork around the door handles, running back to a dovetail rear deck. Even the tapered tail lights and twin bonnet humps are cover versions of the classic’s (strictly, those two elements first saw the light on the post-1969 second-series cars).

Sounds like a thorough job. But aren’t Italian cars are also about the engine?

They are. So Fiat has also gone to the trouble of installing its own, the 1.4-litre variable-valve MultiAir turbo, shipped from Europe to Hiroshima. And remember how Mazda said it would never put a turbo in an MX-5 because it would alter the character? Yes it does alter it and no mistake. So the ‘Italian’ (Japanese-built) roadster is very different from the 100 percent Japanese one.

And Fiat’s interior, while basically Mazda, has some nicer finishes and different doors.

Fiat also recalibrated the suspension and steering. A bit.

Does it gel?

The engine certainly changes the little car’s character. Makes it feel like a bigger one actually. You use lower revs, working on the generous mid-range torque. It only goes to 6500, and this 140bhp version’s best work is done by then. Its mechanical noise is smooth enough, but a bit more gurgle in the exhaust would be welcome.

So it’s less frenzied than the Mazda. Though you do have to watch for lag at very low revs.

The upside is a magnetic pull down the road without you having to get so chatty with the gearlever. So it’s a better car for hills and distances and overtaking. You’ll still be changing gear more than strictly necessary because the shift is such a paragon.

Not sure you’re selling it as something to really bond with though.

Don’t rush to conclusions. The turbo does have something to say about corners. You don’t have to be so meticulous about being in the right gear – or clairvoyant if you can’t see all the way around. The Fiat gives you options, using the engine’s gumption to give the rear tyres all the work they can handle. Or more. As with the base-model Mazda, there’s a soft, springy roll to the motions, especially at the back, but you learn to trust it, and then to push it.

It’s as agile as you like. Thank light weight, eager steering and a vaccinated resistance to understeer.

And that’s with a slightly more comfort-biased chassis than the MX-5. It rides big bumps well, though can’t rid itself of a residual flutter when it runs over small high-frequency disturbance.

If you want more firmness and precision at the limit, try the Abarth. But no version of the 124 or indeed the MX-5 really diverge much.

How does it work as a roadster?

As well as the Mazda, which is very well. That’s the advantage of beginning with a roadster. Rather than beginning with a saloon and mutating it into a coupe and finally hacking that into a cabrio.

So the cabin airflow is balmy, not turbulent. The heating’s strong, and you can have heated seats too. The optional Bose stereo puts speakers in the head restraints, so your tunes aren’t overwhelmed by the rush of air.

A snug cabin is all part of the intimate, intense relationship you instantly form with this car.

Times and prices?

You can order it now, and it arrives here in September. Prices start at £19,545 (cloth, 16s, halogen) and end at £23,295 (heated leather, 17s, LED adaptive headlights, nav, Bose). It basically gets better-equipped as you go up the range. The MX-5’s top versions get more power and a different chassis. For extra horses and sportification with the 124, you need the Abarth.

OK so I’m hearing you like it as a car. But as a Fiat, is it authentic?

Well, it’s got authentic Fiat looks and an authentic Fiat engine. The Mazda bits we know and love, and it all fits together a treat.

Thing is, Mazda invented the MX-5 all those years ago with the aim of filling the hole left by the ’60s European roadsters, and especially the original 124 Spider. (OK it was part-inspired by the Lotus Elan, but the Elan was expensive and rare. The 1960s Alfa Spider was also expensive, the MGB too unsophisticated.)

So if Fiat builds a car based on the Mazda, I’m not going to get bent out of shape and call it inauthentic. It’s just the wheel coming full-circle.

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