Until recently there was only one “affordable” two-seater sports car, the world best seller, the wonderful rear-wheel-drive Mazda MX-5. Being an affable, commercially savvy company, Japan’s Mazda linked with Italy’s Fiat to create a sibling, the Fiat 124 Spider.
At this stage, readers with a few pints of Latin lust in their soul will be remembering the original 124 Spider, a beautiful collaboration with Pininfarina 50 years ago.
For the 21st century, Mazda supplies the underpinnings and cabin, clothed with a Fiat-designed body, powered by Fiat, suspension slackened a bit – behold a beauty. The metamorphosis takes place at Mazda’s Hiroshima factory from where the Fiat is shipped to markets. A hotter Abarth version is completed in Italy.
The half-Japanese 124 Spider gives the new customer a dilemma. Until now, the MX-5 was without equal in its price band, a default buy. The Fiat gives the buyer some other options. First, there’s the lovely shape – happily harking back to the Swinging Sixties, Italy’s version of joie de vivre, and that Pininfarina body. Today’s proudly fluted bonnet and bold face and hipped rear wings look really nice.
Second, the engine. Mazda offers 129bhp 1.5-litre and 158bhp 2-litre unblown petrol engines. Fiat’s entry engine is a punchy 138bhp 1.4-litre petrol turbo which outperforms the 1.5 Mazda and with lots of torque gives quicker response without dropping a gear or revving its head off.
The suspension has been softened, taking some of the sting out of harsh surfaces but you’ll still notice reaction to ripples and quite a lot of roar. It is, after all, a light sports car.
The main thing is that it’s just as much fun as the Mazda. Fiat sensibly retained the Mazda dashboard and large touchscreen and the roof construction. This has a manual release on the screen header and folds flat with a click-fit behind the seats, capped with its integral hardshell front section. If you do this whilst seated you’ll need decent shoulder joints and some muscles. There are roll-hoops at the back, which may save your scalp if the car turns over. That’s a worst case scenario, of course. It has not been tested by EuroNcap. The Mazda scored 4 stars out of 5 in the crash tests.
Cocktail party chatter may imply that a Mazda has a better reputation for reliability than a Fiat. Thus are companies blighted with past blunders. Both cars come with a three-year warranty, with a 60,000-mile limit on the Mazda, unlimited miles on the Fiat. What’s the prospect of doing more than 60,000 miles in three years?
What Fiat also inherited from Mazda is a nasty, notchy gear change action which jars your arm. The position for reverse is top left – awkward anyway on a right-hand-drive car. Other than that, and navigation which sometimes was hard to program and reflected annoyingly in the windscreen at night, the 124 Spider was a delight.
It got better with the roof down and the speed up, with a mingling roar from the engine and the twin exhaust pipes. The rear-wheel-drive grip on bends was tenacious and easily judged, running on 205/45 Bridgestone Potenza tyres on elegant 17-inch spoked alloys.
I enjoyed driving the car. Fortunately I am the right size for it. Big people will struggle to get behind the wheel, within the limits of the seat movement and the dashboard. The same applies to the Mazda.
The design lacks a glove box in the dash. Instead there is a locking compartment on the rear bulkhead, with adjacent removable cup holders. There is another lidded compartment on the transmission tunnel and forward of that, minor storage under the binnacle and a small pocket on the side of the tunnel. That’s where you’ll find the handbrake – a piece of tradition which has not been replaced by electrical assistance. The boot is big enough.
So, drop the roof, belt up, push the starter and drive off. The test car was trimmed in tan leather – unique to the 124 and a popular interior for Italian sports cars which begin with F. The quality was good. There’s a tidy leather-rimmed wheel and splashes of gloss-black trim. The white-on-black dials are perfect, too.
It felt better the faster we went, not always a good thing, but what the heck, you’re only old once… and this car will knock the years off.
Verdict: A winner, but prices are higher than the Mazda.