Fiat 124 Spider: Giving the roadster a turbo boost

Fiat has revived the 124 Spider badge, with some help from Mazda. But is it better than an MX-5?

William Scholes
20 December, 2017 01:00

I approached the subject of this week's review in much the same spirit of trepidation that Theresa May experiences when she's having lunch and is told Arlene Foster is on the phone, writes William Scholes.

Thankfully, things turned out better for me on this occasion than they did for the hapless prime minister when the DUP spiked her Brexit deal the other week.

That's because I hadn't been expecting to much like the car, which is called a Fiat 124 Spider.

'What's not to like?', you might ask. The Fiat is clearly a little soft-top sports car, which makes it almost brilliant before you've even sat in it and started the engine.

But all is not as it seems. The 124 Spider, you see, isn't really a Fiat at all. Scratch the surface and underneath you will find a Mazda MX-5.

Fiat 124 Spider 

This is a problem for Fiat, because I love the MX-5. Almost perfectly set-up for real-world thrills, the Mazda's revvy engine, brilliant gearbox and sheer fun make it one of the very best cars of any sort on sale today.

When the Italian and British roadsters died - think MG B, Triumph Spitfire and the like - it was Mazda who stepped in to keep the flame alive.

Only they did it better, chiefly because the MX-5 didn't break down while still managing to nail the affordable, rear-wheel-drive roadster recipe. That was more than 25 years ago, and the MX-5 is comfortably the world's best-selling sports car.

The latest model, the fourth generation to wear the badge, is the work of engineers at the absolute top of the game.

In short, the MX-5 perfectly fulfils the brief of being a grin-a-mile, easy-to-run, two-seater soft-top. Surely fiddling with it can only make things worse?

There is evidence from a little over 30 years ago that liaisons between Italian and Japanese manufacturers are fraught with jeopardy.

In 1980 Alfa Romeo teamed up with Nissan to build a family hatchback to take on the Volkswagen Golf.

The idea seemed to be to pair Nissan's Japanese reliability, practicality and build quality with the fizzy driving dynamics and style for which Alfa was renowned.

What could possibly go wrong? Quite a lot, as it turned out. When the car - called the Alfa Romeo Arna or Nissan Cherry Europe depending on where you shopped - eventually emerged in 1983 from its factory in Naples, it pulled off the trick of being the worst of both worlds.

Build quality was poor, the mechanicals were unreliable, it didn't look very nice, nor did it handle well.

The Arna died in 1987, helping to nail shut the lid on the coffin of that period of Alfa Romeo's history and hastening it into the arms of Fiat, under whose ownership it remains today.

Fast forward to today, and the original plan was for the Italian MX-5 to be badged as an Alfa Romeo. Late in the day, though, it was decided to bestow the Mazda to Fiat and call the joint production the 124 Spider.

That name might not have too much currency among 21st century buyers, or certainly as much as Fiat seems to think it does.

Buddying up with Mazda, then, is a good idea. If you are going to team up with anyone, you might as well join the best in the business

Fiat sold a 124 Spider model between 1966 and 1980 - think Italian MG B - so has long been absent from this part of the market; the mid-engined X1/9, which lasted until 1989, was a rather different proposition, as was the Punto-based Barchetta which was built off-and-on between 1995 and 2005.

Buddying up with Mazda, then, is a good idea. If you are going to team up with anyone, you might as well join the best in the business.

Wisely, given the Arna experience, the 124 is built in Japan alongside the MX-5.

The Italians have contributed bodywork to their own design. These things are, of course, subjective, but I don't think they have improved upon the Mazda's styling.

Part of the current MX-5's appeal is the way the bodywork seems shrink-wrapped over the engine and cockpit. The Fiat, by comparison, seems less well-proportioned and from some angles looks like the body is half-a-size too big for the wheelbase. Having said all that, it looks better in the metal than photos suggest. Perhaps Fiat would have been wiser - and braver - to have abandoned the retro styling cues for a change.

The interior, meanwhile, is pure MX-5, which is a good thing.

Fiat 124 Spider  

Aesthetics apart, the biggest difference between the Mazda and Fiat is under the bonnet.

Here, Mazda's lovely, inertia-free non-turbo 1.5-litre and 2.0-litre petrol engines have been binned in favour of a turbocharged 1.4-litre Fiat unit.

It's the sort of arrangement that will be a doddle to a Brexit trade negotiator: the Fiat engine is shipped to Japan, where it joins the rest of the car before the whole thing is brought back to Europe.

For the enthusiast - the sort of driver who really gets what the MX-5 is all about - the addition of a turbo is A Big Deal.

Central to the MX-5's addictive nature is the way it encourages you to thrash its engine, to revel in its sharp throttle response and marvel at how easily and freely it allows the revs to build.

The Mazda's engine is set up in such a way that it doesn't produce a lot of torque - what you might call grunt - so to make quick progress you really do need to stretch the engine. The MX-5's gorgeous gearchange is an essential part of making this work as well as it does.

Cars of this sort are all about sensations; they have to make you feel good, and on that score the 124 Spider delivers

Anyway, adding a turbo is, by definition, going to change the MX-5's character. This is the bit I was referring to being trepidatious about at the start.

A turbo, you see, is going to give more torque, which can be a good thing, but it is also going to dull the throttle response and blunt the immediacy, the urgency for which the MX-5 is rightly famed.

In practice, the 124 Spider's torque boost makes it a more relaxing car to drive. Whereas the Mazda is begging you to cane it and to drop a gear or two just for the crack, the Fiat is happier tootling along in a higher gear.

Progress is still quick, and though it isn't as involving as the MX-5 there are times when we don't want driving to be just that hyperactive.

The other place the turbo engine makes its presence felt is in the ease with which it allows you to use the throttle to, erm, kick the 124 Spider's tail out a little - a little squirt out of the driveway, out of a junction... all at low speed and immensely controllable, but still good fun, the sort of thing that makes you smile to yourself.

Cars of this sort are all about sensations; they have to make you feel good, and on that score the 124 Spider delivers.

I can't help feeling it could be better, though. The engine is disappointingly quiet, with none of the cracks and burps from the exhaust that we know Fiat can deliver. It feels like a missed opportunity to give the car a bit more character.

The more powerful Abarth versions doubtless have noisier tailpipes, but they are also more expensive.

Indeed, the Fiat take on the Mazda is more expensive than the MX-5 full-stop, which seems ambitious.

How much you want to spend the extra will depend largely on how much you prefer the turbocharged car's low-down shove and more laidback nature.

The 124 Spider's easier driveability may make it a better day-to-day proposition but if you take your driving really seriously, you will probably still tilt towards the MX-5.

I would recommend you try both and whichever you choose, you get a cracking, entertaining feel-good car.

For once, you can't lose.

Fiat 124 Spider  


Fiat 124 Spider Lusso

Price: £23,800. As tested £24,150, with 'passione red' paint at £350

Engine and transmission: 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol turbo, six-speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel-drive; 138bhp, 177lb.ft

Performance: Top speed 134mph, 0-62mph in 7.5 seconds

Fuel consumption and CO2: 44.1mpg (EU combined), 32.7mpg (real world), 148g/km

Car tax: £200 in first year, then £140 annually

Benefit in kind: 28 per cent

Euro Ncap safety rating: Not yet tested as a Fiat, but the Mazda MX-5 has a four-star rating (84/80/93/64), 2015

Fiat 124 Spider

20 December, 2017 01:00 Motors