What is it?
Fiat has returned to the roadster market after more than a decade absent. The fondly recalled Barchetta was actually the last open-top two-seater made by the Italian firm, but as that was essentially a Punto underneath (and the new model is rear-drive), the naming convention harks back to the Pininfarina-penned 124 Sport Spider of 1960s vintage.
There are specific nods in the new 124's design to that car, not least in the 'floating' tail-lights and the kink running along the flank, but where old 124 Sport Spider also borrowed the running gear of a humble saloon (the 124), its modern equivalent gets a rather more bespoke platform - specifically the flyweight marvel used by Mazda to underpin its celebrated MX-5.
Even in an era of such alliances, the Japanese/Italian partnership feels like one of the car industry's more peculiar tie-ups. Nevertheless, it makes perfect sense when you're standing by the car, which shares the Mazda’s interior (a good thing) while substantially altering the bodyshell. Consequently, while it obviously shares the MX-5’s wheelbase, the Spider is a little longer (over four metres) and fractionally wider - two dimension increases that allow it a slightly larger boot. The cloth roof, a symphony of manual simplicity, remains unaltered.
Mechanically, the most notable evidence of Fiat’s own evolutionary development process of this car is the engine. Where the MX-5 is powered exclusively by naturally aspirated engines, the 124 gets its manufacturer’s familiar – and very much turbocharged – 1.4-litre Multiair unit. The relatively small four-pot’s 138bhp puts it between the MX-5’s two outputs, although its peak of torque is greater. Fuel efficiency isn’t quite as good as Mazda’s 1.5-litre engine, but 44.1mpg and 148g/km of CO2 keep it in the same ballpark.
What's it like?
Predictably enough, the 124 Spider is in the same ballpark as the Mazda to drive, which is a not unforeseen result of it using the same double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension. Nonetheless, the differences in approach and temperament rendered by Fiat’s chassis tuning and heart transplant are notable.
With the leeway offered by the simultaneous development of a much sportier version (the more powerful Abarth), Turin’s engineers have understandably sought a slightly more mature chassis dynamic from the standard 124. The weight difference between it and the MX-5 is negligible, but the Fiat feels a mite heavier through a thicker-rimmed and heavier steering rack and it has had some of the Mazda’s devil-may-care body lean exorcised from its cornering manners. It feels unmistakably rear-driven but well-mannered and pleasingly direct, although some of the ride effervescence that made its half-sister so special has been engineered out, too, leaving in its place a curious if discreet bit of bodyshell shimmy at times.
Regardless, Fiat can claim to have built a faster, more amenable roadster than Mazda here - but that contention cuts both ways. In its mid-range pomp, the smoother, quieter Multiair lump is indeed punchier than even the more powerful 2.0-litre Mazda engine. Beyond 3000rpm it whisks the Spider along in fine style, despite its rather anodyne style of delivery and disappointingly premature 5000rpm climax.
Below 3000rpm though, the unit stammers with turbo lag. Frequent downshifting is needed to keep it on the boil, which does somewhat erode the rationale behind fitting the Spider with a turbo in the first place - especially since the four-pot’s slower-revving style only serves as a reminder of what a difference a zingy, fast-revving engine makes for a car like this.
The Spider’s other disadvantage is the absence of a limited-slip diff. This, too, is reserved for the Abarth – which is fine, but by denying it to the standard model Fiat has left its roadster with an open differential not quite up to the job of putting down all its power properly in a corner. Obliging and very well balanced it remains, but it's not necessarily as entertaining to pilot as it might have been.
Should I buy one?
Such shortcomings may be unlikely to concern the more laid-back, sun-loving buyer that Fiat appears to be targeting with the Spider. The car’s virtues are generally more apparent in its driving experience than its flaws. The 124 Spider is good-looking (better in the flesh than in pictures), probably more pleasant and solidly constructed inside than any other contemporary Fiat (sharing Mazda’s superior infotainment system is a big bonus) and drives with the sort of even-tempered, assertive aplomb that makes most open-top alternatives seem stodgy by comparison.
Fiat's real hurdle with the 124 – surprise, surprise – is the existence of a ready-made alternative, which, for £1200 less than the mid-range Lusso model we drove, will provide a similar level of equipment, a livelier 2.0-litre engine and the limited-slip differential so crucial to a front-engined, rear-driven sports car's handling. The existence of the MX-5 doesn’t doom the Spider by any means, but, for the enthusiast at least, the Mazda certainly seems to cast a long and dark shadow from which it may prove impossible for Fiat's sister car to ever really escape.
Fiat 124 Spider Lusso
Price £22,295; Engine 4 cyls, 1368cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 138bhp at 5000rpm; Torque 177lb ft at 2250rpm; Gearbox six-speed manual; Kerb weight 1050kg; 0-62mph 7.5sec; Top speed 134mph; Economy 44.1mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 148g/km, 26%