The Italians have always had a knack for making desirable, two-seater sports cars but in all honesty, the really good ones have not exactly been what many would class as affordable. It was designed for the enthusiast on a budget, but it was only available in left hand drive and had a dreadful reliability record.
The Fiat 124 Spider, a car with 60s heritage, an open-top sports car that has all the stylish lines you’d expect from an Italian car manufacturer, but it’s based on a car that comes from Japan, a nation famous for impeccable reliability. To me, that sounds like the perfect combination.
On the road
So as you can see right from the off, the 124 is available as a right-hand drive, and already that makes it much improved over its 90s predecessor.
But what’s even better than that is, if you strip it right down, you’ll find it’s largely based on the hugely successful Mazda MX5. It may be hard to spot the similarities from the outside, but that’s because each body panel has been changed in the interest of retro design. What you won’t see is that most of the similarities underneath and even some of the interior are exactly as you’d find in its Japanese cousin.
There have been some changes though to the set up though to make it differentiate from the MX5. The steering has a weightier feel, there’s more sound proofing to make it more refined, it gets a six speed manual box, and the suspension has been tweaked too. It hasn’t lost the character that makes the MX-5 such a fun car, but it does make it feel a little more sensible.
The other major notable difference is the engine. To start off with, there’s only one. That takes the form of a 138bhp turbocharged 1.4-litre petrol that has been borrowed from the Alfa Mito. It’s an engine that’s been around for a while and is one of Fiat’s more reliable motors so it should prove more successful than the engines of old. Performance isn’t what you’d call blistering, but this is more about enjoying the journey rather than all out performance. 0-60, 7.5 seconds, top speed 134mph.
If you do want more power, then you’ll have to pay for it, around six grand more, and opt for the Abarth 124. That gets the same engine, but power has been dialled up to just short of 170bhp. That makes for a 0-60 time of 6.8 seconds and it’ll run out of puff at 144mph.
The 124 is matched with this slick six speed manual box too which, when combined with the responsive steering, makes it a driver focussed machine. It’s nimble and agile and hugely entertaining to drive. Push it to its limits the back end will step out slightly before being corrected by the safety systems, which of course can be switched off.
Drive it carefully and it’ll return a claimed official fuel economy of just over 44 miles per gallon, with emissions of 148 grams per kilometre of co2.
In the cabin
Anyone familiar with the Mazda MX-5 will find themselves right at home behind the wheel of the 124. Much like the Mazda, the seating position is pretty low and the driver has all the controls perfectly positioned from the pedals to the rather stumpy gear lever.
It might feel a little cramped for taller drivers, this is a small car after all, but there’s a good range of adjustment on both the seat and steering wheel.
The cabin materials are also of a high standard too, if anything it’s slightly more premium in here than the Mazda. There’s a leather trimmed steering wheel, electric windows, and air conditioning as well as the same seven-inch touch screen infotainment system and rotary dial that you’ll find in the MX-5.
Practicality is never at the foremost when it comes to a sports car, and lets be honest, if you’re in the market for this type of car, you can forgive it for not having a big boot if it drives well. There’s a few handy storage bins in the cabin and the boot, while it isn’t what you’d call vast, is a good shape offering 140 litres of space, which is more than enough for a couple of overnight bags.
Much like the MX-5, the roof is a manual and putting it up and down is a relatively simple and quick process and you don’t need to be too flexible to operate it—handy when there’s a sudden shower.
Reviving the 124 badge was always going to be a gamble, but Fiat know a thing or two about reviving a name from the past, just look at the 500. So with a bit of Italian design and some Japanese knowhow, there’d be few people bet against the 124.
If you’re looking for something fun, well built and affordable, then it should definitely be worth considering, especially if a Mazda MX-5 was already on your radar.
April 10, 2019