Fiat has had a roadster-sized hole in its range since 2005 when the last Barchetta rolled off the production line.
Strange when you consider the Italian company’s rich sports cars heritage. After all, the original 124 Sport Spider (produced between 1966 and 1982) has iconic status.
The new 124 Spider pays homage to its ancestor in styling terms, but underneath its skin, red-blooded Fiat DNA is in shorter supply. The car is essentially a Mazda MX-5 with a new body, Fiat engine and a few engineering tweaks. But let’s be clear, we don’t mean that in a dismissive way.
If you’re going to indulge in a little badge-engineering, then you might as well hook up with the best – and the MX-5 has been the world’s most popular sports car since its launch in 1990.
Based on the fourth-generation MX-5, launched in 2016 and the first car to win the double of both the World Car of the Year and World Car Design awards, Fiat has worked its magic and conjured up a car which not only looks different, but has its own personality too.
In fact, some say the 124 Spider is a better car than the MX-5, which is more distinctive, and divisive, in its latest form.
While the slippery MX-5 is all feline curves, the 124 Spider takes its inspiration from the 1996 original.
Slightly longer than its Japanese cousin, the Spider has a more elegant profile – the bonnet seems longer, boasts twin power domes and there’s a hexagonal-shaped grille which echoes the historic model. To the rear, there are swallow tail wings capped by a spoiler and twin exhausts. In short, Fiat’s retro look is pretty.
Inside, the Spider looks very similar to the MX-5, though opting for the tobacco leather upholstery really sets it apart. It should also be noted that the Fiat’s seats are particularly comfortable.
The cabin is just as cosy, while the instruments are very Mazda, which is no bad thing. For instance, the Fiat has inherited Mazda’s slick 7-inch touchscreen (an option on the entry level Spider), which also benefits from the addition of a rotary controller beside the handbrake between the front seats, so there’s no need to continually reach for the screen.
The Fiat 124 Spider range starts at £19,545 for the Classica trim level, rising to £22,295 for the Lusso and £23,295 for the top spec Lusso Plus. For comparison, the MX-5 is priced from £18,495 to £23,695.
Standard equipment on the entry-level Classica version includes four airbags, air conditioning, a leather-trimmed steering wheel with audio controls, a leather-trimmed gear knob, cruise control with speed limiter, 16-inch alloy wheels, keyless engine start and a powerful infotainment system with USB, AUX and Bluetooth connectivity. A 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system with DAB, WiFi, two USB ports and a multimedia control knob is available as a £500 option.
The mid-range Lusso is equipped with that 7-inch infotainment system as standard, but adds satellite navigation with 3D maps and the Parkview rear parking camera as well. It is also equipped with 17-inch alloy wheels, heated leather upholstery, automatic climate control, front fog lamps, keyless entry, chrome exhaust tips and a premium silver finish on the windscreen frame and rollover bars.
The range-topping Lusso Plus model builds on the specification of the Lusso model by adding adaptive LED lights, automatic headlamps and wipers, plus a nine-speaker BOSE sound system (including stereo headrest speakers on both seats).
Apart from the elegant bodywork, the other big difference is under the bonnet where Fiat offers just one engine – its familiar 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol MultiAir unit.
The MX-5 is available with 131bhp 1.5-litre and 160bhp 2.0-litre naturally aspirated engines, but arguably the Fiat unit is the best all-rounder. At 138bhp, it’s a gutsy engine that can hit 62mph from standstill in just 7.5 seconds, top out at 134mph, return 44.1mpg and emit 148g/km of CO2.
The Mazda units are good for 0-62mph times of 8.3s and 7.3s respectively, though the smaller of the two is the one to go for. It has ample power, is capable of up to 47.1mpg and has CO2 emissions of 139g/km.
Of course, a hot version of the Fiat is available in the form of the Abarth 124 Spider, which uses a 170bhp tuned version of Fiat’s 1.4 engine, allowing it to reach 62mph in 6.8 seconds.
Despite the fact that the Fiat 124 Spider weighs more than the MX-5, it feels faster, especially lower in the rev range when the turbocharger kicks in. The Spider sounds like a sports car too. Job done. What’s more, the six-speed gearbox is slick and a joy to use, but then it would be because it’s Mazda derived.
The Spider’s steering has apparently been tweaked to give it a more responsive “Italian feel”, while the suspension has been tuned too. We’d say the steering is nicely weighted, while the handling is a good compromise between comfort and speed.
Aficionados may claim otherwise, but to us, the Spider seems to have a slightly softer ride. However, it still feels planted and will definitely put a smile on your face when you’re tackling fast flowing roads.
Elsewhere, the familiar hood mechanism is the same as the Mazda’s and it can still be operated (without too much of a contortion) from the driver’s seat, while boot space is still tight at 140 litres, despite offering 10 litres more than the trim MX-5.
Finally, the Fiat is available in eight colours which are generally more vibrant than the MX-5’s, which may swing it for some prospective buyers. Obviously it looks great in Passione Red, but Magnetic Blue and Italian Blue are lovely too, while Urban White (in a tri-coat pearlescent finish) is surprisingly effective.
Verdict: Fiat has pulled off the impossible with the 124 Spider, creating a distinctive, stylish and fun sports car with plenty of character.
Review: Gareth Herincx