The Italians have always had a nack of making desirable, two-seater sports cars, but in all honesty, the really good ones have not exactly been what many would class as affordable, and those that have— cars like the Fiat Barchetta— were never any good. Yes it was designed for your enthusiast on a budget, but it was only available in left hand drive and had a dreadful reliability record.
Up stepping then is this—the Fiat 124 Spider, a car with 60s heritage and 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 that if you strip it right down, you’ll find it’s largely based on the hugely successful Mazda MX5. Now it may be hard to spot the similarities from the outside, that’s because every 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, the set up has been altered to differentiate it from the MX5. The steering has a more weighty feel, there’s more soundproofing 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 payfor it around six grand more for it by opting for the Abarth 124. That gets the same engine but power has been dialled up to just short of 170bhp, making 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 really a driver-focused 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 grammes 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, air conditioning as well as the same seven-inch touchscreen 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 let’s 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 are 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– handy when there’s a sudden shower, and you don’t need to be too flexible to operate it.
Reviving the 124 badge was always going to be a gamble, but let’s be honest, 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 know-how, 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.