Chasing the Lucy Jordan in all of us.... behind the wheel of the Fiat 124 Spider, sister car of the lauded fourth generation Mazda MX-5
With the Cayenne or 7-series parked up most weekends, might it be time to let your hair (and folding canvas roof) down a bit? For the price of those ridiculously expensive options you nearly added to the BMW, we’ve a recommendation to beat those January blues. Yes it’s a Fiat and not a Ferrari but ignoring the new Fiat 124 Spider is missing out on the best fun you’ll have in 2017 under £21,000 - maybe even double that.
The brand-new Fiat 124 Spider, sister car of the already excellent fourth generation Mazda MX-5 has come out of nowhere, stared the Mazda down and started grappling for the crown of the world’s best affordable sports roadster. Priced at £20,995 OTR (just £2,500 more than the comparable entry level MX-5, 1.5-litre SE) in base Classica spec, prices rise to the Lusso model at £24,995. All cars get air conditioning, a leather steering wheel, gear knob, cruise control, alloy wheels, Bluetooth and keyless start as standard. Powered by a smaller 1.4-litre (Mazda has a 1.5-litre) MultiAir Turbocharged four cylinder petrol engine with 140hp it offers a far bigger torque curve of 240Nm (more power at higher gears) and beats the Mazda MX-5’s 0-60 acceleration of 8.3 seconds with 7.5 seconds and top speed of 134 mph through a six-speed manual transmission.
Ironically both cars are built in exactly the same plant in Hiroshima with the 124 Spider sharing the platform, main mechanicals, much of the interior and windscreen with the MX-5 while giving Fiat a blank sheet for the exterior styling and crucially the engine. In doing this it resolves two niggling drawbacks buried in the near perfect MX-5 which no one tells you about until you live with one for a bit. Let’s begin with the engines. Granted, much of the fun in driving the Mazda’s 1.5-litre engine is wringing the very last ounce of power from it, however you often come away a little disappointed with the lack of torque along with its uninspiring induction noise and slightly tuneless engine sound. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the engine sound but it’s less soulful, more hot hatch than a true sports car.
Get things going in the Fiat and you’re treated to old school induction growls – the type of thing that classic Alfa Romeos served up in spades with their old twin-cam engines. Add the Fiat’s 240Nm of torque from the turbocharged engine and the delivery is less short-winded. Slot the Fiat into third gear at 2,500rpm and live off the low speed power right up to the red line in town; you’ll notice too that the longer gear travel of the MX-5 is replaced with a far shorter, snickety throw from the Fiat derived gearbox. In urban areas, you’ll be changing up and down gears more in the Mazda which is fine but the Fiat is a less frenetic companion, especially in congested London.
Depending on your personal taste the 124 Spider’s squarer body from Fiat’s Style Centre looks either more stylishly substantial or frumpy against the MX-5’s sharp, creased lines. We recommend here that you buy a red one. There are certainly traces of the old 124 Spider looks from the front and even a Maserati GranTurismo from the rear with its oblong LED taillight clusters. Either way there’s no escaping it’s a slightly bigger car than the MX-5 – a full 139mm longer – but shares an identical 1050 kg weight. Get into to Mazda as we did last autumn and its surprisingly diminutive size leaves taller drivers feeling ever so slightly exposed in SUV rush hour. This is quite a small car with proportions that matched the size of cars that did the rounds when Dire Straits were big. Somehow the Fiat’s added dimensions trick you into feeling you’re driving a fuller-sized roadster instead of one that’s been reduced by 10 per cent in a photocopier. It is odd but you do notice it.
Another thing, with a different suspension set-up the MX-5’s keenness to roll too much in corners is eliminated in the Fiat. To drive there’s little to prise the 124 Spider and MX-5 apart but the deciding factor is Fiat’s own 1.4 -litre motor – it’s a little turbocharged gem. Fiat now needs to ensure the excellent roadster experience is matched by a dealer network that majors on true customer satisfaction: one mountain Mazda doesn’t need to climb. Nevertheless, factor in a subjectively more glamourous appearance, greater spread of torque and subliminally more space for just £2,500 more than a comparable MX-5 and the Italian gets the LL nod. So, this spring if you never quite reach Paris and ride with the warm wind in your hair, we’re confident you’ll still be grinning from ear to ear.