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.