Fiat looks to its rebodied MX-5 for a much-needed image boost, but does it do enough to stand out on its own, or would you be better off with the Mazda?

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No matter what you think of how it came about or how it looks, the 124 Spider is a good idea.

Fiat’s line-up has been devoid of desirable froth for too long, and – at least from an enthusiast point of view – it’s a shortfall that can’t be made up with yet another Fiat 500 derivative or the return of the Tipo badge.

Twin bonnet bulge is a hat-tip to the original 124 Spider, which grew them organically to house bigger engines

Italy’s flag carrier has been crying out for the marketing splash of something overtly sporty, and there are few more pleasing thoughts than the prospect of a small, affordable, two-seat, rear-drive roadster arriving on a manufacturer’s forecourt.

That is particularly so in the US, where the 124 is seen as key to Fiat’s resuscitation following the ignominy of a 30-year hiatus.

It’s no coincidence that the model shares its name with Fiat’s biggest US hit, the original 124 Spider having enjoyed an almost two-decade production run following its launch in 1966.

That car, along with the similarly long-lived Alfa Romeo Spider, helped to establish Italy’s reputation for building pretty open-top sports cars.

But they didn’t perfect the idea and nor did they manage to sustain their success much beyond the 1990s. Instead, Mazda resurrected the roadster as a real sales force, shifting a million Mazda MX-5s globally while cars like the Fiat Barchetta and Alfa Romeo Spider eventually wilted on the vine.

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So who better for Fiat to partner up with than the Japanese firm when it came looking for someone to share the cost of producing a bespoke rear-drive platform a decade later?

Fiat (although it was almost Alfa) gets to use its own engines and homage-happy body while gaining space on the Hiroshima production line to account for the volume.

The catch, of course, is that, much like the Toyota GT86/Subaru BRZ conundrum, the 124 has to prove to buyers that it isn’t merely a shadow of the latest MX-5 but a distinct and credible product in its own right. Time to rule on whether Turin’s good idea has made it to the road.

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Fiat 124 Spider rear

Visually, no one will be mistaking a 124 Spider for an Mazda MX-5.

Despite extensive similarities both underneath and inside, the two share not a single body panel. Even the proportions differ slightly, with bigger overhangs making the Italian noticeably longer than its Japanese counterpart.

Bravo Fiat, for moving the bootlid catch onto the actual bootlid. If only this spirit of gentle revision had been applied elsewhere

The design is Fiat’s own, and while its relationship with the Pininfarina-penned ancestor is not explicit in the way the Fiat 500 relates to the Nuova 500, certain features – particularly the swallowtail rear wings – are clearly intended as a tribute to the vintage model.

Whether or not this equates to bona fide sports car comeliness is up for subjective debate, but for what it’s worth, no Autocar tester was convinced either of its objective prettiness or by Fiat’s attempt to graft retro features onto a design apparently not comfortable with itself from the outset.

But one thing is for sure: the larger overhang that gives a slightly more substantial front end to the 124 is also one of the factors implicated in the undoing of the platform’s previously perfect 50/50 weight distribution.

Fiat’s claim to the lightest Mazda MX-5’s 1050kg kerb weight is already somewhat spurious (after all, along with additional bodywork, the 124 gets more kit and has a turbocharger strapped to its engine), and while the 1125kg measured on our scales is hardly contemptible, there’s no doubt that a significant majority of it – 55% – now sits over the roadster’s nose.

The decision to adopt forced induction is clearly the model’s other substantial alteration. In place of the naturally aspirated 129bhp 1.5 and 158bhp 2.0-litre petrol motors deployed in the MX-5, the 124 gets Fiat’s turbocharged 1.4-litre Multiair unit in 138bhp and 168bhp configurations, the latter used exclusively in the Abarth version.

Understanding that there is a sportier variant waiting in the wings is key to appreciating some of the choices made in the Spider’s spec and chassis tuning.

Like the lower-powered 1.5-litre MX-5, the 124 does not receive a limited-slip differential on the back axle and nor does it share the pricier Bilstein dampers made available to Fiat’s tuning company. Its all-independent suspension, while reconfigured to Turin’s settings, is the same double wishbone and multi-link set-up as that fitted to the Mazda; ditto the dual-pinion electric power steering rack.

Most other mechanical things remain the same, too. Aside from different ratios, the six-speed manual gearbox is a standard fixture (again, an automatic is the preserve of the Abarth), as is the incredibly manual and equally splendid fabric roof.

The car’s steel platform remains unchanged, as does the use of aluminium in some of the body panels and engine frame, and all iterations are manufactured in Japan. 


Fiat 124 Spider interior

While the exterior may strongly differ, the 124’s close relationship with the Mazda MX-5 is plain to see inside. Architecturally, nothing of note has changed; Mazda has even donated its infotainment software to the Fiat – save for a quick swapping of badge insignia on start-up.

In fact, faced with the two side by side, the exchange of logos is likely to be the most telling alteration for most people.

The manual roof mechanism remains a work of brilliance: quicker than any electric system and light enough to operate one-handed

The decision to retain the MX-5’s infotainment system is symptomatic of Fiat’s approach to the 124’s cabin: there’s simply no getting away from the Mazda-ness of it. However, it pays dividends by virtue of the fact that the set-up is very effective and Turin has nothing better to replace it with.

As with the MX-5, you won’t get the 7.0in touchscreen at entry level without ticking a box, but you’ll need it when it’s time to sell on.

For the most part, it’s easy to operate. Mazda spent a lot of time figuring out its menus, and it shows in the home screen’s intuitiveness. Selections can be made via the command dial or by stabbing at the slightly hesitant display — the latter being preferable in the Fiat because the controller hides under your elbow.

Other minor niggles carry over: there’s still too much faff involved in choosing a station from the DAB list, and the sat-nav defaults to extreme pessimism when predicting your arrival.

On the entertainment side, the Lusso Plus comes with an upgraded Bose stereo, which is decent but not unmissable.

Nevertheless, there are tweaks, most notably to the upholstery on the dashboard and seats, where Turin has clearly endeavoured to inch the 124’s perceived quality upmarket with minimal investment.

The critical outcome of such superficial remodelling is twofold.

On the one hand, by not remaking the cabin as it has the body, Fiat has clearly staked the car’s reputation as a separate entity.

Like Infiniti’s recent failure to properly stamp its own identity on the Q30, Fiat’s deficit of input deprives the model – and its buyer – of one element that ought to have been undeniably brand-specific and therefore appealingly different.

On the flipside, and somewhat ironically, by not substantially changing anything beyond the incidentals, the firm has inherited arguably the best-looking and best-made interior of any car in its line-up.

Supremely well organised, coherent and concise, the comparatively tiny compartment swaddles you in natty charm even as it denies you the storage space to really put anything.

In this single respect, the 124 does claim one advantage: its slightly larger rear end delivers a marginally bigger boot.

You’ll have to take Fiat’s word for it, though, because our tape measure could find no real benefit to the dimensions we typically measure. Either way, like the rest of the cabin, the slender 10-litre advantage won’t be sufficient to persuade many people of the 124’s overall superiority.


2.0-litre Fiat Spider petrol engine

The last time we drove a 124 Spider, we found its engine was wheezy towards the top end.

But evidently this is an engine that loosens as it goes, because with almost twice as many miles on the odometer (around 2000 of them), this example revved much more easily.

ESP is switchable, but the 124 doesn’t have the power or poise to lay down rubber even out of slow corners anyway

That said, and it being a turbocharged unit, it still does its best work through the mid-range, which is unsurprising given that it develops its 138bhp peak at only 5000rpm and its 177lb ft from as little as 2250rpm.

You don’t wring it out like you would an Mazda MX-5. Instead, there’s urge from 2000rpm (but not below), where there’s also some appealing induction noise, which is replaced by conventional mechanical racket by 4500rpm.

Curiously, it’s not unlike an old Ford Kent engine in its note. But even in this freer-revving form, there’s no point hanging onto the last 750rpm.

Despite what looks like, on paper, a paucity of power, the figures it produces aren’t too shabby. The 124 will reach 60mph from rest in 7.3sec, despite needing two gearshifts on the way.

For that, you can thank decent traction that allows a 0-30mph time of 2.5sec, more than half a second quicker than most front-drive hot hatches.

With only one tester aboard and with very little fuel in, we suspect the 124 would be able to dip into the high six-second bracket for the standing start, which would give it near parity with a 200bhp hot hatch – although it’s the traction deficit of the front-driver that shines the Fiat in such a theoretically good light.

Response is generally good. Clearly the turbo isn’t being asked to work too hard, because there’s little lag, and there’s no audible giveaway that this is a blown unit.

It drives through a fine six-speed gearbox, too, with a clean, positive shift action and such nicely matched ratios that there are few cars in production in which it’s easier to perform heel-and-toe downshifts. The 124 also brakes well, with good pedal feel and short stopping distances.


Fiat 124 Spider cornering

No tester much envied the job of Turin’s chassis engineers, charged with stamping an alternative, Fiat-style identity on a model already plainly doing a first-rate job of being a light, modestly powered roadster.

Simply clarifying what ‘Fiat’ would signify and feel like ought to have taken time, given that the firm has not applied itself to a sports car since the 1990s.

Quick direction changes show up the amount of slack in the chassis; flicks from one lock to the other need to be handled smoothly

The resulting ride and handling compromise, struck without hardware changes, is logical, credible, distinct and not unlikeable, but it isn’t unblemished, either.

The objective, broadly speaking, appears to have been a subtly softer, mellower two-seater, less overtly reactive to inputs than the balletic Mazda MX-5, smoother-riding, more consistent to steer and, for want of a better word, more grown-up.

Such a roadster would be better attuned to the Multiair’s torque-heavy power band and would presumably suit a slightly less enthused driver than those who typically buy the Mazda for its rear-wheel drive exuberance.

The reality is halfway there. The 124 is less on its toes than the Mazda and works harder to smother a road with a more lethargic brand of pliancy, exchanging the MX-5’s stone-skipping buoyancy for a blunter long-wave bob.

It feels heavier, too, partly because it is and partly because its more ponderous suspension settings tend to get caught out by secondary intrusions midway through ruminating on their primary response.

Consequently, while trying to be tender, the Fiat ends up feeling brittle at times. This unevenness is worsened by meandering, fluctuating vibrations that cause a mild judder in the steering and scuttle.

Its absence in the MX-5 must mean it’s a result of Fiat’s own alterations, which is a shame because it overshadows the moments when things come good for the 124 and its thicker steering feel and more deliberate front end indulge a sloppier, less considerate driving style than you’d employ in the MX-5.

A less melodramatic degree of initial lean helps, even if the absence of a proper diff becomes apparent if you press on.

Not that the 124 discourages such behaviour or falters in its feedback; it is feelsome enough to shame far pricier alternatives. But as balanced as an MX-5 it isn’t.

When pushed, the 124 Spider exposes the fact that this is a cruiser in the traditional style, not the hardcore version of this roadster.

Body movements are so soft that you have to take care not to upset it. Give it a ‘bung’ like you might to a Ford Fiesta ST and all you’ll do is upset it. In some respects it’s like an indoor hire kart: if you get it sliding, the engine just bogs.

Instead, be super-smooth, trail the brakes gently, take care with the steering (which is over-sharp off straight-ahead) and plan a route through corners that maximises the amount of time spent in a straight line.

The only control you don’t have to fear is the throttle, which you can get flat pretty much right away. If the car is loaded laterally and you’re accelerating hard, that can induce a bit of wheelspin on the inside tyre.

A limited-slip diff would help in adjusting the car’s line while allowing what power there is to be delivered to the road rather than air.


Fiat 124 Spider

Not unusually for Fiat, the 124’s entry price positions it above its closest rival.

While a basic 1.5-litre Mazda MX-5 costs £18,495, the Italians clearly believe that the pokier Multiair engine and other idiosyncrasies make the Spider £1000 better, at £19,545 for Classica trim.

Lusso Plus residuals are very slightly stronger than range-topping MX-5’s, but don’t expect much variation

While that car’s spec isn’t impoverished (the 7.0in multimedia screen and DAB can be added for £500), it does miss out on the 17in alloys, sat-nav, heated seats and climate control that come with mid-range Lusso.

That is the level we’d opt for, in this case making the 124 cheaper than a range-topping MX-5 2.0 Sport Nav at £22,295 – but still £1200 pricier than the equivalent SE-L Nav.

It’s worth noting, too, that you also miss out on the slippy diff that comes as standard with the larger MX-5 engine. With that in mind, we would be inclined to hold on until the Abarth version is available.

At least you get the promise of improved running costs. As well as marginally better combined fuel economy (44.1mpg versus 40.9mpg), the turbocharged engine emits less CO2, too: 148g/km to the Mazda’s 161g/km.

In the real world, the picture is murkier. A shortage of time with our test car left no room for True MPG evaluation, although even at a gentle tour we couldn’t wrestle better than 38.3mpg from the Spider.

That’s acceptable for a sports car with the Fiat’s turn of speed, perhaps, but well shy of the 46.1mpg average the 1.5-litre MX-5 returned last year.

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3.5 star Fiat 124 Spider

Looking back, ‘authentic’ was the key adjective wielded during the test of the Mazda MX-5.

The new model proved itself true to its roots even as it went about exceeding them. The Spider’s lack of source material is conspicuous, not least because the gap in expectation is inevitably filled by measuring it against the Mazda.

A car to appreciate for what it is, not what it isn’t

While that is unavoidable, it is also unfair. Had Fiat launched its version first, we might have been kinder to its interpretation and better able to enjoy the 124 for what it is rather than what it isn’t.

Because what it is, by current standards, is still a country mile better than practically everything else you can remove the roof from for similar money.

Turbocharging and Turin’s chassis tinkering have not corrupted it; there is a benign, brisk and generally very pleasant roadster here, one usefully different from its production line neighbour.

Many of its issues – the unsettled ride, undistinguished interior, the quivering body, the missing diff – could be fixed by a comprehensive facelift.

Right now, it is sufficiently decent to be easily recommendable if the design has you hooked. That is praise enough to justify its existence.

Even so the 124 Spider fails to make our top five small sports cars, with the Audi TT Roadster, Lotus Elise 1.6 Sport, Mini Convertible Cooper S, Toyota GT86 Primo, and its donor the Mazda MX-5, all better shouts in our eyes.

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Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Fiat 124 Spider 2016-2019 First drives