Fiat 124 Spider Lusso

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Excellent – if you’re the right sort of person for it 

This is the curious story of a Fiat that was meant to be an Alfa Romeo, but which is in fact and for the most part a Mazda.

The Italians are no strangers to complicated intermarque marriages, as anyone who can recall the Fiat Croma, Alfa 164, Lancia Thema and Saab 9000 Type Four family will remember. Nor are they in the least shy about building one car and badging it as another: the highly regarded Alfa Romeo 8C of 2007 was in all engineering terms a Maserati. So don’t be too surprised to learn this Fiat 124 Spider was meant to be the new Alfa Spider until a change of heart among top brass, allegedly because it was considered a step too far for an Alfa to be built in Japan, turned it into a Fiat. Or a Mazda.

For the truth is that underneath those bespoke clothes lies the platform of a Mazda MX-5. In all but detail specification, it has the same suspension, the same gearbox, the same brakes and the same interior. No wonder then that both cars go down the same production line. In Hiroshima.

What Fiat has been able to do is give its version of the car its own look, and what an opportunity it missed. Instead of taking the chance to trial a new and funky design language that could help transform Fiat’s image into that of a fresh, forward-thinking and innovative company, it has chosen to re-interpret the style of the 1960s 124 Spider, and it has done so poorly. If you have to do retro, and I so wish manufacturers possessed sufficient imagination not to, you’d best make damn sure you do it well, as did Fiat itself with the 500. I’m not sold on the looks of the MX-5 either, but it’s a sight less contrived and more attractive than the Fiat.

Fiat also decided the 124 must have a Fiat engine, so rather than using Mazda’s peppy normally aspirated 1.5 and 2-litre twin-cam motors, it exports its 1.4-litre turbo motor – hitherto seen in the likes of the Alfa Giulietta and Fiat 500 Abarth – to Japan where it gets fitted into the 124 and, if the car is to be sold in Europe, turned around and sent straight back again.

On paper the Fiat engine sits exactly between the two Mazda units, with more power and better acceleration than the 1.5 MX-5 but better fuel economy and lower emissions than the 2-litre Mazda. Elsewhere Fiat has tuned the suspension hardware to its own tastes and twiddled the steering software to make the car feel firmer to the touch.

Inside the cockpit, it’s all MX-5 right down to the key fob, unless you count the rather good leather that’s standard on mid-spec cars and above and, of course, the Fiat badges.

Given their similarities, I thought it fitting to give the 124 Spider exactly the same treatment as I had the MX-5 a few months back. I’d get up early, drive out along some of Wales’s best roads to a mountain I’d then climb and, suitably exercised, cruise home on motorways and dual carriageways. The Mazda had bowled me clean off my feet. Would the Fiat do the same?

In a word, no. Drive the 124 Spider on quick, deserted, challenging roads and you’ll find yourself wondering why on earth Fiat didn’t just save itself an enormous amount of bother and stick with Mazda’s engines and chassis settings. Despite Fiat’s insistence that the car is the result of a partnership of equals, it’s built by Mazda in Japan and the MX-5 already has an established presence so – rightly or wrongly – the 124 is always going to be thought of as a reconstituted MX-5. Thereafter it’s just a question of degree.

It’s not that there’s anything specifically wrong with the 124. Indeed, the last time I enjoyed driving a Fiat this much I was in an Abarth 131 Rally, but the whole car has lost the Mazda’s delicious focus. The engine is awash with torque and makes your life very easy, but is that what you want with such a car? Would you not rather have the sizzling exhaust note, whipcrack throttle response and that sense of torque building as the revs rise? And while the steering might be heavier, it didn’t provide me with that same sense of connection to the road, nor did I feel as confident in the chassis’ balance, or so compelled to hoof it around on the throttle when no one was watching. And why is a limited-slip differential not even an option? Make no mistake, the Spider handles well, is fun to drive and if you’d not driven the Mazda you might never twig just how good this kind of car can be. But if you want an affordable sports car, the MX-5 is just better at all those things such cars should do well.

But what if you want something else? What if you want a car that looks distinctive, has the glamour of an Italian two-seater, but the engineering excellence and build quality of a Mazda? What if you don’t give a stuff how such a car handles on the limit, what if you’re never going to go near a red line? What if you just want a car that looks different, gets you noticed and drives perfectly pleasantly? Then, let me tell you, the Fiat 124 Spider is bloody brilliant.

It is easy to be patronising, especially on pages like this, about people’s motives for buying such cars and for concluding that if they’re never going to be driven fast they have wasted their money. On the contrary: if the car does exactly what you hoped it would do, even if that’s not what someone else might want it to do, then you have bought well.

So look at it another way. The turbo engine removes all the hassle from driving. Yes, the gearbox is brilliant, but the torque of the turbo means if you just want to select a high gear and waft then you can. The ride quality is excellent too, better I would say than the Mazda’s, so if you’re doing long distances that’s important, as is the engine’s quieter voice. Even the boot’s a little bit bigger than you’ll find in the Mazda. Fiat’s not even asking any more money for it, pricing it firmly in the middle of MX-5 money and, if you do really want to drive around with your hair on fire, there will shortly be an Abarth version with more power than any MX-5 and, heaven be praised, a standard limited-slip diff as well.

Which is why I think Fiat will do well with this car, so long as the public buys into its looks. I think the blend of the Italian image backed by the reassurance of Japanese engineering is a sufficiently enticing proposition to tempt many people, including those who might otherwise have bought an MX-5, into taking a much closer look at the 124 Spider. And while I’m never going to be one of them this should not be allowed to obscure the fact that, in the main, they should like what they find.

FACTFILE

Price – £23,295

Engine – 1.4 litres, 4 cylinders, turbocharged

Power –[email protected]

Torque – 177lb [email protected] rpm

Transmission – six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive

Weight – 1050kg 

Power to weight – 167bhp per tonne 

0-62MPH – 7.5sec

Top speed – 134mph 

Economy – 44.1mpg

CO2 148g/km