No matter how much Fiat enthusiasts may want to avoid it, there’s no getting away from the fact that the 124 Spider is to all intents and purposes a Mazda MX-5 roadster wearing a different frock. Half a century ago the idea would have been unthinkable, and certainly unspeakable, but in these days of manufacturers sharing technology with each other it shouldn’t come as a great shock.
Nor should anyone have a problem with it. The MX-5 is itself a fine sports car and an entirely acceptable basis for another one. If you want something like this but you’d rather have a bit more Italian style, here it is.
The two cars share the same basic shape, but you’d have to have a serious eye problem not to notice how different they look from the front. The more traditional appearance of the 124 Spider caused a lot of spluttering among design experts when it was revealed, though I’m not sure why. It seems fine to me.
Several components have been carried straight over from the MX-5. The central display screen, for example, will be recognised instantly by anyone who has driven a current Mazda.
The engine is different, though. Mazda offers a choice of two naturally-aspirated petrol engines, a 1.5 producing a maximum of 129bhp and a 158bhp two-litre. Fiat offers neither, and instead fits the 124 Spider with its own 1.4-litre MultiAir turbo, in this case producing a relatively modest 138bhp.
Being turbocharged, it is much stronger at medium revs than either of the Mazda units, and it peaks at 5000rpm, at which point an MX-5 is still building up power. A respected colleague objects to this, saying that he feels a sports car isn’t really a sports car unless it needs to be revved hard.
I take the point, but I don’t agree with it. For road use, I’m quite happy changing up early and keeping well clear of the rev limiter.
The characteristics of the engine appear to have had an influence on the chassis set-up. The rear suspension is noticeably softer than that of the MX-5, presumably because Fiat realised there was more chance of overpowering the tyres.
It works well. You can set off the traction control fairly easily with a bootful of throttle in mid-corner, certainly on a damp road, but this would have been far more of a problem if Fiat had kept the suspension stiff.
There’s only one problem with this. Pushed hard, the 124 Spider feels great, but if driven more respectably it has quite a lot of body movement and doesn’t seem fully in control of itself. It’s wonderful a lot of the time, but a good MX-5 (a 1.5 or a 2.0 Sport, though definitely not a 2.0 SE-L, which is by far the worst in the range) feels wonderful all the time.
Combine this with the very different engine characteristics and I think we can conclude that there’s not much to choose between the cars if you drive them quickly, but that the Mazda is the one to go for if you just wasn’t an enjoyable journey from A to B and aren’t too concerned about when you reach B.
Engine size 1368cc
Top speed 134mph
0-62mph 7.5 seconds
Fuel economy 44.1mpg combined
CO2 emissions 148g/km
Towing capacity not applicable
Euro NCAP not tested in this form
Information correct at publication date