In the raw, the 124 Spider ought to strike you as the perfect amalgam of Japanese engineering and Italian design. It ought to be more visually enticing than an MX-5. Well, it isn’t; not, at any rate, in the dark metallic shade that our test car was supplied in.
Though by no means unappealing to look at, the car fails to put its elongated overhangs and sculptured surfaces to effective use, and parked next to its Mazda cousin it actually strikes you as the slightly clumsier-looking car.
You wonder, too, if this can really have been Fiat’s best effort at honouring the original 1966 124 Spider. In this tester’s eyes, none of the obvious attempts at homage – the curious round-but-not-quite-round headlights, the tapered ‘swallowtail’ rear wings and upward-kinked waistline – really work. Fiat has toyed with retro design here without committing and simultaneously failed to make a pretty forward-looking machine either.
Still, on the outside at least you wouldn’t confuse the 124 and MX-5 – and few who don’t know about their relationship would guess it. Stoop inside the 124’s cabin, though, and its distinctiveness quickly wanes.
If Fiat had really wanted to claim some unoccupied market territory for this car and make it a more mature take on the affordable rear-driven roadster, it might have made the cockpit more spacious or more sheltered – or at least departed from the MX-5’s clearly recognisable cabin architecture somewhere. But for the Fiat badge on the steering boss, however, you could be sitting in the Mazda. And that means you sit comfortably enough but somewhat restricted by your immediate surroundings, without much in the way of useful storage and fairly exposed to the elements even with the side windows and wind deflector in place. The car’s boot is larger than that of the MX-5 but only marginally, and so there’s very little that a 124 Spider would carry that an MX-5 would not.
Fiat’s 1.4-litre ‘Multiair II’ turbo engine does seem to check off a key priority by offering something different from that which you get in the 124 Spider’s Mazda sister car. Splitting the difference between the 1.5 and 2.0-litre naturally aspirated versions of the MX-5 on power output, 0-62mph sprinting pace and claimed fuel economy, and putting accessible mid-range torque onto the menu for those who’d like it, the 124 Spider looks like it might have all the bases covered. But in practice, while this is certainly a comfier and easier-going drive than the MX-5, it’s plainly not a car with half as much sporting appeal.