What is it? The new 124 Spider is a two-seat roadster, reviving an iconic Fiat nameplate.
Key features: Mazda MX-5 underpinnings, turbo engine.
Our View: Fiat has a big history in drop-top roadsters. But there has not been one in the Italian brand’s line-up since the demise of the Barchetta, back in 1995. And that was only made in left-hand-drive…
Type of review: First UK drive
According to Pietro Carminati, in charge of selling Fiat’s new drop-top in the UK, one of the most regular questions that is coming from potential buyers is, “You are making it for us, in right-hand-drive, aren’t you?”
The 124 Spider is indeed being made as a UK car, as Fiat calls upon every element available to ensure that the revival of one of its most iconic roadsters hits the mark. The original 124 Spider, made between 1966 and 1980, is also the most fondly remembered drop-top. It was the most successful, with more than 600,000 made, of which in Europe alone more than 5,000 are still on the roads today. But equally importantly it changed people’s perception of Fiat – proved the brand could make cars that were all about fun.
So big shoes, and Fiat has gone about filling them in a highly practical way. The most successful roadster of the last 25 years, by miles, is the Mazda MX-5, and the most recent version launched in 2015 is the best since the first. So having signed an agreement with the Japanese brand to use the platform and chassis of the MX-5 for its new model should give Fiat some confidence…
There is a lot of insistence, however, that the 124 Spider is not merely a rebadged MX-5. “Yes our platform is shared with Mazda but we are very happy about it,” Carminati insists. “When you develop a proper lightweight roadster there’s nothing better than starting with the best in the market over the last 25 years, rather than as some brands do cutting the roof from a B segment platform and then trying to restore the rigidity, adding weight to make it stiff.”
The styling, he adds, is totally Italian, evolved directly from the lines of the original 1966 Spider. The car is larger than its Japanese relation and rival, 139mm longer and 5mm wider, and looks it. And the Fiat is more about curves than the distinct lines evident in the latest MX-5, but it turns heads in the right way – the looks we got on the launch route were admiring.
Slip behind the wheel and you immediately feel in quality surroundings – Carmanati insists that the aim was “an Italian touch and feel to the car, a more premium and grown-up feeling.” And it’s achieved by plenty of soft-touch plastic, some nice piano black and satin chrome detailing and leather on the steering wheel and gearknob, even on entry-level cars. Choose the top trim, as was our test car, and the seat becomes leather too, if not that substantial – it doesn’t feel quite as snug as perhaps it should in a car like this.
The big difference between Mazda and Fiat is in the powertrain. While MX-5 buyers have a choice of 1.5 or 2.0 litre normally-aspirated petrol engines, Fiat installs its 1.4-litre Multiair unit, complete with turbocharger.
At 140hp, it’s closer to the 1.5 Mazda’s 131hp than the 2.0-litre’s 160. But thanks to the turbo there’s a lot more torque on offer, 240Nm which is 90 more than the 1.5 MX-5 and 40 over the 2-litre. And the grunt comes in lower, from around 2,000rpm.
All of which means one drives the 124 Spider in a different way. Through a challenging set of twisty bends, the MX-5 is all about revving high and changing gear, whereas the Spider can be left in gear to flow through each twist, using the torque to best advantage.
So in a way it’s a more relaxing car, a different kind of fun. And one needs to remember that the majority of one’s time in the car will likely be spent in ‘normal’ driving, sitting in queues, on urban roads where traffic lights impede progress every few hundred yards, and in such situations it is very well behaved. “If you want to sit back and enjoy the view (you can) while knowing that the power is there when you need it,” says Carmanati.
Yet the Mazda does feel more connected to the road than the Fiat. There’s less feel through the steering wheel in the Spider, you don’t carve the turns in quite the same way as the MX-5, and so it’s a little less involving. This is interesting because while Fiat says it has specifically tuned the suspension and steering, everything about the car – apart from that engine – is still basically Mazda.
We almost forgot the roof – to be honest during the launch we hardly had it up, because this like the Mazda is a car designed to be driven wind in the hair. It’s a manual hood and works in just the same way as the Mazda, put up, and more importantly down, virtually one-handed far faster than any electric motors could manage.
This report has turned naturally into a comparison as these cars will inevitably be direct rivals, and the choice between the two will be made no easier by the fact that 124 Spider prices start at £19,545, which is directly between the two MX-5 variants.
Fiat has kept the Spider range very simple – apart from the choice of exterior and interior colours, the options list has just a single item on it, and that’s only on the entry-level Classica model, upgrading its infotainment system.
Aside from Classica, you can have your 124 Spider as a Lusso or a Lusso Plus – we’ll ignore the Anniversary launch edition (celebrating 50 years since the first 124 Spider appeared) as it sold out long before the first cars arrived in the UK.
Classica models get such niceties as four airbags, air conditioning, the leather, audio controls on the steering wheel, cruise control, keyless engine start and USB, AUX and Bluetooth connectivity on the infotainment. That one option upgrades to a seven-inch touchscreen version with DAB, wi-fi, two USB ports and a multimedia control knob, and costs £500 extra.
The seven-inch system is standard on Lusso versions, and adds satellite navigation and a rear parking camera. For the £22,295 price tag Lussos also gain 17-inch alloy wheels instead of 16-inch, heated leather upholstery, automatic climate control, front fog lamps, keyless entry, chrome exhaust tips and a silver finish on the windscreen frame and rollover bars.
Pay another £1,000 for the Lusso Plus and the specification also includes adaptive LED headlamps, LED daytime running lights, automatic lights and wipers and a nine-speaker Bose sound system, with stereo headrest speakers on both seats.
Fiat tells us that early 124 Spider sales are hugely encouraging, and that only 15 per cent of buyers are choosing the Classica version. We are not surprised – the car includes many factors that have made the MX-5 such a success, but adds a different appeal of its own, while also being very good value. Want a roadster? You can now have twice as much fun choosing one…
Fiat 124 Spider – key specifications
Model tested: Fiat 124 Spider Lusso Plus
On sale: September 2016
Range price: £19,545-£23,295
Insurance groups: TBA.
Engines: Petrol 1.4-litre turbo.
Power (hp): 140.
Torque (Nm): 240.
0-62mph (sec): 7.5.
Top speed (mph): 134.
Fuel economy (combined, mpg): 44.1.
CO2 emissions (g/km): 148.
Key rivals: Mazda MX-5
Test Date: September 2015