New Fiat 124 Spider 2016 review

16 Feb, 2016 1:15pm James Disdale

Fiat is back in the affordable roadster game with the new Mazda MX-5 based Fiat 124 Spider

Verdict

5
There’s been a fair amount of controversy surrounding the Fiat 124 Spider’s badge-engineered rebirth, but put that to one side and the newcomer is a welcome addition. The all-new looks help the car stand out, while the turbocharged engine gives the Fiat a more grown-up character all of its own. More importantly, fans of thrilling and affordable roadsters should rejoice that there’s now some competition for the MX-5, even if it is closely related under the skin.

Fiat is heading back to the future with the latest addition to its line-up. Exactly half a century after it launched its iconic 124 Spider sportscar, the Italian brand has resurrected the name for an all-new two-seater roadster.

The sixties original remained in production for nearly two decades, so the new 124 Spider has a lot to live up to. It certainly has to do better than Fiat’s last effort at a drop-top sportscar: the Barchetta. Launched in 1995, it boasted gorgeous looks but was hobbled by its front-wheel drive chassis and a left-hand drive only layout. As a result, sales were slow, and it disappeared from British dealers a decade later.

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The Barchetta also struggled to make an impact because it was up against the brilliant Mazda MX-5 in the sales charts. So for the all-new 124 Spider, bosses at Fiat have decided that if you can’t beat ‘em, you should join ‘em.

As a result, the new Fiat is essentially a reskinned MX-5. Everything from the main body structure, through to the suspension, rear-wheel drive transmission and interior is carried over wholesale from the Mazda. The 124 Spider is also built alongside the MX-5 at Mazda’s Hiroshima factory in Japan.

So, has this collaborative approach worked, or will the badge-engineering be too much for buyers to swallow? To find out, we grabbed the keys to a pre-production car for an exclusive test drive.

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Certainly Fiat has attempted to give the 124 Spider an injection of Latin character, because the turbocharged 1.4-litre engine and bodywork are 100 percent Italian. Fiat claims that every panel you can see is unique to the 124 Spider, and overall the newcomer does a good job of hiding its Japanese roots.

It’s 139mm longer and 10m wider than the car its based on, while the narrow trapezoidal grille and small power bulges in the bonnet are neat nods to the Sixties original. Fiat hasn’t finalised trim levels yet, but entry-level cars will get 16-inch alloys, while more expensive versions will get 17-inch rims.

Move around to the rear and you’ll discover a hint of Maserati Gran Turismo in the Spider’s subtly pumped-up rear arches and large taillights. It lacks the taut, dynamic look of the Mazda, but for many buyers the Spider’s more grown-up lines will be a strong draw.

However, while plenty of cash has been splashed on the exterior design, it appears the money ran out when it came to the cabin. In fact, apart from a Fiat badge for the steering wheel, revised door panels and some minor trim changes the interior is identical to the MX-5’s. Yet the increased use of soft touch materials and classy silver trim inserts give a more premium feel.

You sit low down, while ahead of the driver is a heavily cowled instrument binnacle that’s dominated by a large, centrally mounted rev-counter. Flagship models get a neat tablet style touchscreen infotainment system that can also be accessed using the rotary controller between the front seats.

Given the car’s compact external dimensions, there’s a decent amount of space, with plenty of seat adjustment. The boot capacity has even increased to 140-litres – a 10-litre gain over the MX-5. And even with the fabric roof raised, the interior feels cosy rather than cramped

Lowering the hood takes a few seconds and only requires one hand. Simply unlock the latch at the top of the windscreen, and then flip the covering over your shoulder. There’s no powered option, but when the operation is this straightforward, there’s really no need for the extra weight and complexity of an electric mechanism. And with the roof stowed you’re closer to the Fiat’s 1.4-litre MultiAir engine.

The turbocharged 138bhp four-cylinder unit is taken from the Alfa Romeo MiTo. It can’t match the naturally aspirated 158bhp 2.0-litre MX-5 for outright firepower, but with a healthy 240Nm of torque at just 2,250rpm, it has far more mid-range muscle. Combined with an impressively low kerbweight that’s a whisker over 1,000kg, this powerplant helps the 124 Spider easily keep-up with its more powerful cousin, with a claimed 0-62mph time of 7.5 seconds.

In fact, in the real world it feels much faster, because while the 1.4-litre doesn’t have the same dizzying appetite for revs as the unit in the Mazda, you don’t have to work the engine as hard or change down gears as often – although the standard six-speed gearbox’s quick, short throw action means you’ll want to swap ratios just for fun.

There’s a solid wave of torque from a around 2,000rpm that’s accompanied by a subtly rasping Italian soundtrack. The 124 Spider responds eagerly to the throttle from low revs, giving the sort of big-chested performance you’d expect from bigger-engined models.

More importantly, this extra torque adds an extra dimension to the Fiat’s handling. Like the Mazda MX-5 , the Fiat 124 Spider benefits from double wishbone front suspension and a sophisticated multi-link rear axle, but Fiat’s engineers have added stiffer springs and dampers, plus different anti roll bars and revised mapping for the electrically assisted steering.

Turn into a corner and there’s weightier feel than in the MX-5, yet the rack is still quick and accurate, plus there’s plenty of front-end grip. Body control is good, too, and the Spider resists roll well and isn’t unsettled by mid-corner bumps.

However, the 124 Spider’s greater mid-range muscle gives you more options to alter the car’s line through a bend using the throttle. Switch of the stability control and the rear tyres break traction more easily, allowing for some entertaining stabs of oversteer out of tighter corners.

Yet when you don’t want to behave like a hooligan, the Fiat settles down and will cruise fairly comfortably and quietly. Once again, it’s that engine that dictates the car’s character, giving the 124 Spider a more relaxed and long-legged feel than the Mazda. You rarely have to change down on the motorway because even in sixth gear there’s plenty of overtaking muscle.

Fiat has also fitted thicker rear glass, an acoustic windscreen and extra sound deadening behind the dashboard, so it’s fractionally quieter at a cruise than the MX-5. Plus, a neat deflector between the headrests helps keep buffeting from the wind to a minimum with the hood lowered.

And while there’s a firm edge to the ride at low speed, the Fiat is feels composed and comfortable the rest of the time – although we’ll have to drive it on the UK’s rutted and bumpy roads before delivering our definitive verdict.

Key specs

  • Model: Fiat 124 Spider
  • Price: £19,500 (est)
  • Engine: 1.4-litre 4cyl turbo
  • Power/torque: 138bhp/240Nm
  • Transmission: six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
  • 0-62mph/Top speed: 7.5s/135mph
  • CO2/economy: 148g/km/44.1mpg
  • On sale : Summer 2016