The Fiat 124 Spider is essentially the same car as the Mazda MX-5. That means it’s a classic rear-wheel-drive sports car, but tweaked to be more of a grand tourer.
The Fiat 124 Spider is basically a Mazda MX-5 in a sharp Italian suit. The two cars were developed alongside each other and – along with the Abarth 124 Spider, which is also based on the same platform – are effectively your only options if you want an affordable two-seat sports car. However, if you were happy to spend a bit more, you might also consider the Audi TT Roadster or Mercedes SLC.
Among the biggest differences between the Mazda and the Fiat is the way they look, with Fiat deciding to ape the classic Fiat 124 Sport Spider that was first produced back in the 1960s. So, instead of the Mazda’s more edgy lines, the Fiat has a more rounded, curvy look.
The 124 interior design has been copied almost exactly from the MX-5. So, you sit nice and low – as you should in a sports car – and there are plenty of sporty touches to be enjoyed, such as gazing down the long bonnet and taking in the fact that each dial is in its own individually housing. If you go for a higher-end model, you get a 7-inch display that sprouts from the top of the dashboard, just like in the Mazda.
The Fiat also follows the Mazda, in that there’s plenty of space inside for a couple of adults, too. Getting a comfortable driving position should be simple unless you’re over six feet tall. And, what few changes there are bring welcome improvements. For example, the Fiat has more soft-touch plastics dotted around, while the classy trim pieces give the 124 Spider a more premium feel.
As you can probably imagine, boot space is not the 124’s forte, although it will take 140 litres. That’s 10 litres more than in the Mazda and enough for a couple of soft bags, but not a lot else.
Where you will notice a bit more difference is in how the two cars drive. Not only does the Fiat have a different engine – Mazda’s non-turbocharged 1.5-litre petrol unit has been replaced by a turbocharged 1.4-litre – Fiat has also fettled the steering, suspension and brakes. Together, these give the 124 its own unique character, so that it has the more comfortable feel of a small grand tourer.
As it has some extra pulling power from its turbocharged engine, the Fiat makes a very effective cruiser. It doesn’t need (or want) to be revved hard to get the best performance and there’s enough power to overtake without having to frantically change down a gear. Then again, that’s not a chore, because the gearbox is slick.
Clearly, Fiat has taken to heart that line about ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’. There’s no better way to make a great sports car than to start with the Mazda MX-5.
On more open roads, the engine’s healthy torque levels make it easier to kick the back end out on long sweeping corners. However, the car is not quite as fun to drive flat out as you might expect, because the steering has marginally less feel than the Mazda’s set-up and could be quicker to turn the wheels.
The suspension strikes a good balance between remaining comfortable even on poorly surfaced roads and being able to tackle corners with gusto. Essentially, the 124 Spider is only a little softer than the MX-5 and it’s still a finely balanced rear-wheel drive car that keen drivers will love. Yes, you can feel some vibrations through the body and steering wheel – as you can on many convertibles – but not in a way that detracts heavily from the drive.
While the 124’s engine gives it a laid back character, it’s hard to argue with a 0-62mph time of 7.5 seconds, making the basic Fiat a quicker sprinter than the entry-level Mazda MX-5.
However, if you’re pressing on down your favourite country back road, the news isn’t all golden. A chief complaint is that the engine has little interest in revving. At lower speeds, it struggles until the turbo comes on song, while at the top end, the power tails off long before you reach the rev limiter. Keep it working in the mid-range and all is well, but this is not a plucky little sports car that loves to be thrashed. And, although there’s a nice burble from the twin exhausts at low speeds, the rest of the time it sounds ordinary – even somewhat strained at higher revs.
That idea that the 124 is more of a grand tourer is reflected in the car’s standard equipment. It covers all the basics, including cruise control, air conditioning and 16-inch alloy wheels, but Lusso is arguably the trim to go for, with 17-inch alloys, a leather interior, climate control and rear parking sensors.
For all the similarities with the MX-5, the 124 offers something a little different. From its more conservative styling to its torquey engine and softer suspension, it’s a more relaxing car than the MX-5 was ever meant to be.