From £20,1056
Fiat’s attempt at adding Italian sophistication to an MX-5 has mixed results. Respectable to use, unconvincing as a sports car

Our Verdict

Fiat 124 Spider

Fiat looks to its rebodied MX-5 for a much-needed image boost

What is it?

The Fiat 124 Spider marks the Italian car maker’s return to a part of the new car scene that it hasn’t occupied for more than a decade, since the demise of the Barchetta. And compared with its immediate predecessor, the new 124 Spider comes to the UK with two big advantages: it’s rear-wheel drive and it’s available in right-hand-drive form.

But unlike Fiat’s last, this Italian roadster isn’t coachbuilt in Italy and quite plainly hasn’t been styled to cut quite the same visually arresting dash as the Barchetta. The 124 Spider is the long-anticipated sister car of the fourth-generation Mazda MX-5. Originally intended to be an Alfa Romeo rather than a Fiat (before Fiat bosses decided that all new Alfas must be made in Italy), it is built on the same production line as the Mazda in Hiroshima, Japan.

But the 124 courts a more mature and laid-back audience than the Mazda, offering a slightly bigger boot than its equivalent as well as softer suspension and a turbocharged engine that gives up greater torque and needn’t be worked as hard.

Our test experience of the car has so far been limited to Italian roads. Now to find out exactly how well those becalmed chassis settings take to the UK’s better B-roads.

What's it like?

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.

The gentleness of the 124 Spider’s suspension, its notable propensity for body roll and the softness of its steering and throttle response make it a car that seems much heavier than it might have. In town and over long-wave lumps and bumps, there’s a compliance and a fluency to the car’s ride that seems agreeable on the occasions when it’s working in your favour.

But overall, and particularly when you drive the car with a bit of spirit, the handling keenness, vivacity and precision you expect of a rear-driven roadster just aren't present. The Fiat’s steering is heavier and more dull than the Mazda’s, and its cornering balance is plainly less sweet. Fiat’s decision to combine 177lb ft, an open differential and dialled-down damper rates can also lead to lurching, untidy and unsuccessful attempts at throttle-steer when you do start to experiment.

Keep your excitement levels in check and the stability control switched on, though, and you’ll find the 124 Spider a fairly obliging car to drive briskly – but even here, it’s not all it might have been. That 1.4-litre turbo engine has only the doziest sort of response below 2000rpm, making inclines quite hard work and shift-free overtaking manoeuvers rare.

Get the motor on boost and it does indeed make the 124 Spider feel strong through the gears and away from low speeds, in a way an MX-5 does not. But you can’t work the Fiat engine at high revs as you might like to. Above 4500rpm the 1.4-litre unit’s best work is behind it; above 5000rpm it gets quite strained and wheezy.

At a moderate cruise, the best real-world fuel economy you can hope for is in the high-30s – which is no better than an MX-5 would have provided.

Should I buy one?

Maybe – but you’ll have to be a very rare and strange roadster buyer to find a good, rational reason.

There are plenty of irrational ones, mind you, but consumers of Italian sports cars have for a long time been well acquainted with those. And if there does happen to be in your past a Fiat, Alfa Romeo or Lancia convertible whose memory you’d like to rekindle, the 124 Spider’s impression of it should just about pass muster.

This is by no means a bad take on the classic Italian open-top two-seater but it lacks the distinctiveness and clarity of purpose to make it a good one.

2016 Fiat Spider Lusso Plus

Location Feltham, Middlesex; On sale now; Price £23,295; Engine 4 cyls, 1368cc, turbo, petrol; Power 138bhp; Torque 177lb ft; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Kerbweight 1050kg; 0-62mph 7.5sec; Top speed 134mph; Economy 44.1mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 148g/km, 26%

 

Rivals:

Mazda MX-5 2.0 Sport Nav

Mini Cooper S Convertible

Join the debate

Comments
14

2 August 2016
In a nutshell, buy the MX-5 then.

2 August 2016
No, in a nutshell buy the Abarth version . . . if you can afford it - that car got way better reviews after being driven in Italy . . . or buy the Fiat, get the Abarth engine mods done (its just the higher output version of the same 1.4 mulitair thats been available in Fiats and Alfas for years) and fit some lower springs.

2 August 2016
Way back when, I think this was originally going to be a Mazda-Alfa collaboration - I can't help but wonder what that product would have looked / driven like? An MX-5 with a Guilia-esk front and rear, combined with a nice Alfa interior, I think that would have been a winner. I also think that they would have got away with charging a premium for the 'extreme' version as an Alfa. Either way, an Alfa spider in a similar price range to the MX-5, I think they would have been inundated with customers.

2 August 2016
Jeez, the Giulia's derivative exterior is bad enough on that car, thank god it hasnt been inflicted on any others.

JJ

2 August 2016
I can understand Matt Saunders' desire for this 124 to have been a genuinely soulful enthusiast's delight, and it'll be interesting to see what the sales figures reveal, a year or two from now, but something tells me FIAT have judged the market quite well with this one.

Retro touches are all most posuers would be looking for in this class of car; a car to be seen in, a bit of nostalgia on wheels subtly evoking the glory days of Italian coach building and sports cars at a relatively low price ...

The interior wasn't touched because by all accounts it's a perfectly fine place to be already.

Like I said, it'll be interesting to watch how it goes...

2 August 2016
This car is so cheaply designed and detailed, that it's giving the Mitsuoka Viewt a real run for its money.

2 August 2016
I think this article missed the point here. The Fiat is the more laid-back version in all the right points, more adequate than the high-strung MX-5 for longer distances and certainly less tiring while still giving you open-top roadster enjoyment...up to 8/10ths, which is where 95% of customers will stay.

On the other hand, and this seems to be the jounalist's inclination, if you're from that 5% that wants to take it further, get the full-fat Abarth version, which in both poke and handling (and looks in my book) clearly outdoes its Mazda cousin.

2 August 2016
Other reviews elsewhere give the Fiat the nod over the Mazda - particularly the engine. Like typos1 I would rather have the Abarth anyway. I do find it pointless when a reviewer goes to great lengths commenting on the styling, it's purely subjective, one man/woman's meat etc etc. Unless of course it's a Nissan Puke or a Ssangyong Odious...

2 August 2016
Zimmerit wrote:

I do find it pointless when a reviewer goes to great lengths commenting on the styling, it's purely subjective, one man/woman's meat etc etc.

While I agree that it's pointless simply to pronounce a car as good or bad looking, Matt did point out what he finds problematic with the styling - the long overhangs & the curious shaped headlamps. You may or may not agree with him, but comments on styling do make you look at design details which you may have missed by a cursory glance at the photos.

2 August 2016
Zimmerit wrote:

I do find it pointless when a reviewer goes to great lengths commenting on the styling, it's purely subjective, one man/woman's meat etc etc.

I don't find it pointless for the reviewer to say what they feel, but I agree it is subjective. I personally disagree with Matt, as I think it looks rather neat in the darker colour.

Pages

Add your comment

Log in or register to post comments

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week

  • Lexus LC500
    Car review
    20 October 2017
    Futuristic Lexus LC coupé mixes the latest technology with an old-school atmospheric V8
  • Maserati Levante S GranSport
    First Drive
    20 October 2017
    Get ready to trade in your diesels: Maserati’s luxury SUV finally gets the engine it’s always needed
  • Jaguar XF Sportbrake TDV6
    First Drive
    19 October 2017
    The handsome Jaguar XF Sportbrake exhibits all the hallmarks that makes the saloon great, and with the silky smooth diesel V6 makes it a compelling choice
  • Volkswagen T-Roc TDI
    First Drive
    19 October 2017
    Volkswagen's new compact crossover has the looks, the engineering and the build quality to be a resounding success, but not with this diesel engine
  • BMW M550i
    First Drive
    19 October 2017
    The all-paw M550i is a fast, effortless mile-muncher, but there's a reason why it won't be sold in the UK