Getting behind the wheel of Fiat’s latest sports car gives Charlie Flindt a strong sense of déjà vu – but not for the original Spider
Charlie Flindt finds himself feeling nostalgic at the wheel of the new Fiat 124 Spider – but it’s not for the original.
For another motor to put a smile on your face, the Alfa Romeo Giulia is beautiful, lively and has bags of character.
FIAT 124 SPIDER
The Fiat 124 Spider is not exactly what it seems. If you believe the advertising, it’s the latest in a long line of Fiat sports cars, stretching back through classics such as the Barchetta and X1/9, all the way to the original 124 Sport Spider of 1966 – it’s Italian soft-top motoring at its purest. Well, not quite. The “new” 124 Spider is actually a reworked fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 and is built on the same production line in Hiroshima.
It’s easy to sneer at such a blatant case of badge engineering and chuckle at the irony of Fiat, which supplied old models for Eastern Europeans to copy through the 1960s and ’70s, reworking someone else’s basic design. But when you see the 124 in the metal, the sneer changes to a smile. And the smile gets broader when you switch your glance over to the MX-5, which has undergone an odd transformation from easy-on-the-eye roadster to angular track-day thruster. The 124’s body is a clever and beautiful bit of retro styling.
The Fiat input is much more than skin deep, however. Out goes Mazda’s choice of engine and in goes a 1.4 turbo petrol unit, and more changes have been made in the suspension. The whole car is slightly larger, with a tad more boot space than its donor.
There was a strange mix of familiarity and déjà vu when at the wheel of the 124. All the MX-5’s legendary attributes are there: the five-second roof, the “backside at road level” feeling and the sheer fun of open-top driving. But there’s a sense that the 124 is somehow simpler, more relaxed than its non-identical twin. The 1.4 turbo is lively and makes the right noises but seems to turbo-lag a bit. However, the ride and handling feels less urgent, more content and entertaining in the real life driving experience – no track day is needed to get the best out of it. It pulls off the magic trick of making 45mph feel like 75mph.
Hence the déjà vu. I’ve driven just such a vehicle before, a long time ago. But it can’t have been the original 124; I was busy assembling Airfix models of a Polikarpov I-16 when that was launched. No, it was like being at the wheel of the Mk1 MX-5 we owned before fecundity took over in the mid 1990s and estate cars became the vehicles of choice.
And that’s the fascinating thing about the 124 Spider. Fiat has done a clever deal with Mazda, which puts a proper roadster in its showrooms at last. It has used an iconic Sixties soft-top for visual inspiration and to provide some fairly disingenuous publicity material. But while the intention may have been to recreate the glory days of Sixties motoring, I feel that it has also, probably unintentionally, recreated that special time when the first MX-5 arrived and a thousand hot hatchbacks all looked very lame indeed.
Or was it unintentional? That’s the thing about the 124 Spider. Nothing is as it seems.
FIAT 124 SPIDER
♦ Engine: 1,368cc petrol
♦ Power: 140hp
♦ Max speed: 134mph
♦ Performance, 0 to 62: 7.5 sec
♦ Combined fuel economy: 44.1mpg
♦ Insurance group (0-20): 25
♦ Price: £19,545