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Mazda MX-5 vs Fiat 124 Spider

As summer approaches, is the Mazda MX-5 or Fiat 124 Spider the better small convertible?

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60-second summary

What do we have here?
The Mazda MX-5 and Fiat 124 Spider are different ways of offering a small convertible on the same underpinnings.

Key features
Small two-seat convertibles, rapid manual hoods, fun to drive.

Our view
The Mazda MX-5 and Fiat 124 Spider are very similar cars yet with their own personalities, one focused on performance and handling, the other a more relaxed, but no less enjoyable, cruiser. Which to buy becomes a very subjective choice.

Similar cars
Caterham Seven, MINI Convertible, each other…

Mazda MX-5 on the road front
It’s been largely unchallenged for nearly 30 years, but now the MX-5 has a rival from within the same factory.

Full review

Introduction

For years the Mazda MX-5 has been the renowned small convertible, a model that transcended its perceived lifestyle-orientated market to appeal as much to those who like to drive a quality car as to those who like to look good in one. Nowhere is this truer than in the UK – half of the MX-5s sold in Europe are to British buyers.

Enthusiastic drivers have been drawn to the MX-5 for its quality chassis and superb handling, particularly in the fourth-generation incarnation launched in 2015, which is generally regarded as better than the much-desired 1990s original.

So as hopes turn to summer and getting one’s top off, the MX-5 is surely the car to go for? Except that the car now has, for the first time in many years, a direct rival. And in that same rival, it also has a sister…

The Fiat 124 Spider – the Italian brand’s first proper two-seat drop-top since the previous model of the same name last made in 1980, is a sister to the Mazda because both are built on the same chassis. They also have basically the same interior. Fiat will insist, however, that the Spider is by no means a clone of the MX-5, but a different sort of car altogether, more grand tourer for cruising in the summer rather than sharp sportster for taking to a track.

So if one is in the market for a two-seat drop-top this summer, should the Mazda or the Fiat get the vote?

Buying and owning the two contenders

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Visually, our two contenders don’t help the choosing process. Both are very appealing to look at, but in a different way. The sharp creases of the MX-5 evoke the quirky, fun machine that it is. The Fiat, on the other hand, offers a more mature look, but no less attractive for that. The Italian contender also appears a larger machine than its Japanese sibling, which it is, but only by a few mm. That’s down to reshaped front and rear ends, as between the axles their dimensions are identical.

As we’ve stated, the two cars share quite a lot – their platform, suspension, much of the cabin… They are even built on the same production line in the same Mazda factory in Japan.

Where they very much part company, however, is in the engines. Mazda employs its SkyActiv Technology, offering the MX-5 with a 1.5-litre petrol engine with 130hp, or a 2.0-litre with 160hp – both of course matched to a six-speed manual transmission.

In contrast, Fiat provides only a 1.4-litre Multiair petrol engine – but then straps a turbocharger to it. Power output is 140hp, which suggests the lower variant of the MX-5 as a rival. But the turbo serves up barrel loads of torque and from a lower base. Its 240Nm beats the 1.5 MX-5’s figure by 90Nm – and the 2.0-litre’s by 40. It also makes the car rather different to drive, as we’ll see shortly.

To add further confusion – Fiat also offers a more hardcore version of the 124 Spider. It’s called the Abarth, uses the same turbo engine setup, but puts out 170hp. Mazda hasn’t gone down that route, but has launched an MX-5 RF which turns the little open-top into a targa with a folding metal roof. Sadly this version apparently sells a lot more than the traditional model, which like the Fiat has a soft top that can be unclipped and flung back in far quicker time than any electric motor could manage.

Curiously, the Fiat does not appear as yet to have undergone the trauma of a Euro NCAP crash test. The MX-5 was tested on its launch in 2015 and came away with a four-star rating. The lack of an autonomous emergency braking system did not help its bid for a full five stars, and extras such as blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert are options for upper models only. The Fiat is similarly specified.

Inside the cabins

Talking about the interiors of the two cars is much easier as they are effectively the same, originally created by Mazda’s designers. The exterior metal, and its colour, extends along the door tops of the Mazda while the Fiat goes for an interior panel.

On slipping into the driver’s seat of either one feels cosy, as if the car is fitted around you, while not actually feeling cramped. The instruments are neatly grouped around the driver and there is a circular theme throughout, especially the dials that suit the image of the cars.

All but entry-level models of both cars come with a seven-inch touchscreen accessing such aspects as navigation, infotainment and connected services, and mounted atop the centre console. It works well but its ‘stuck on’ positioning appears a bit of an afterthought compared to typically more integrated units.

The Fiat does offer 10 litres more boot space than the Mazda. While that does not sound a lot, when one considers its total is a mere 140 litres…

Driving the two roadsters

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It is once one gets out onto the road that these two convertibles reveal their differing characters, firstly in the way their engines react.

The MX-5 appears to exist to provide an experience, to make progress fun for those who want to really drive their car. This is especially true of the 1.5, which to give all of its performance requires much use of revs and gears. Plentiful gear changes are a necessity, and with the precise, short-throw lever of the six-speed manual ‘box, it’s actually quite fun.

The turbocharged powerplant of the Fiat reacts in a very different way. The greater reserves of torque, over a wider rev range, means more flexibility and less reason to keep changing gear, and as such progress is more relaxed.

It is a similar story with the chassis. The Mazda has a lot to live up to – from the days of the Mk1 it has been renowned for its inch-perfect handling, the ability to point the car precisely at a corner and feel the impressive grip as it carves the bend. And the current model more than fulfils the brief, outdoing the Mk1 that until now has been considered the pick of the line.

The Fiat feels a little less connected, less involving – you don’t go searching for apexes in the way you do with the Mazda.

So in summary, the road performance of the two shows they are indeed different beasts. The Mazda will be a car that will reward more focused driving with a grin-inducing performance. The Fiat will cruise for many miles in a relaxing but no less enjoyable fashion.

Summary

The Fiat 124 Spider and Mazda MX-5 are closely related in many respects, but they are not clones. They will likely appeal to slightly different audiences, with sporty drivers favouring the Mazda and those looking for a more relaxed cruiser drawn to the Fiat.

It is, however, a close-run thing. This reviewer, an unashamed long-time fan of the MX-5, would choose the Mazda first. But I admit that I would not be in the slightest bit disappointed to find the Fiat outside my front door…

Key specifications

Make & model Mazda MX-5 Fiat 124 Spider
Specification SE-L Nav Lusso
Price (on-road) £21,595 £23,800
Engine 2.0-litre petrol 1.4-litre petrol
Power 160 hp @ 6,000rpm 140 hp @ 5,000rpm
Torque 200 Nm @ 4,600rpm 240 Nm @ 2,250rpm
0-62mph 7.3 sec 7.5 sec
Top speed 133 mph 134 mph
Fuel economy (combined) 40.9 mpg 44.1 mpg
CO2 emissions 161 g/km 148 g/km
Insurance group 29E 25E
Euro NCAP rating 4 stars – 2015 Not tested
Country of manufacture Japan Japan
The Car Expert rating 7.8 / 10 7.2 / 10

 

Mazda MX-5 on the road rear
Still the champ, but only by a whisker…

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Andrew Charman
Andrew Charman
Andrew is the News and Road Test Editor for The Car Expert. He is a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers, and has been testing and writing about new cars for more than 20 years. Today he is well known to senior personnel at the major car manufacturers and attends many new model launches each year.

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