Let’s step back in time for a second. Back in 1976, Motor Trend contributor Bob Hall was asked by Mazda’s R&D team what he wanted to see in a future Mazda product. In response, he began talking about the sad death of the iconic British roadster from the 1960s. Mazda’s engineers and bosses laughed at the idea, who called it inconceivable. However, by 1989, Mazda had reconsidered the idea and revealed the MX-5 at the Chicago Auto Show – the public loved it, and the car went on sale later that year.
The MX-5 has always been designed with a special concept in mind – Jinba Ittai. Jinba Ittai, which means ‘rider and horse in one body’ in Japanese, is derived from medieval Japanese horse archery – it defines a few characteristics: a car with Jinba Ittai must be as light as possible, as small as possible, as comfortable as possible, and have 50:50 weight distribution.
You might be thinking: what does a Fiat have to do with a Mazda MX-5 from the 90s? I’ll get into that in a moment.
As early as 2012, rumors were swirling about a roadster platform share between Mazda and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA). Initially it was believed this roadster would be badged as an Alfa Romeo – however FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne insisted all Alfa models be built in Italy, meaning that the MX-5 twin could no longer be an Alfa. What could it be? Most betted on it being badged as a Fiat/Abarth, and they hit that nail on the head; the reborn Fiat 124 Spider, based on the 4th generation ND MX-5 was unveiled at the 2015 LA Auto Show.
In September of last year, whilst on holiday in Italy, my dad and I hired a Fiat 124 Spider to drive up the Stelvio Pass with – that’s the car I’m going to review today. Just note – this is the regular Fiat model, not the Abarth performance model sold in Australia.
Let’s start with the looks of the 124 – personally, I think it looks fantastic. It is both aggressive while still harking back to the smooth, slick Fiat 124 of the sixties. It’s not as Mazda as you may think – the only exterior visual similarities are the doors and the A-pillars. However, the interior is a different story – the 124’s interior is a full carbon copy of the MX-5’s, with the only changes being the badging, door cards and seats.
Now, let’s shift to how it performs on the road. Under the bonnet is a 1.4 litre MultiAir petrol 4-cylinder, which produces 103kW of power and 240Nm of torque. Being 14 I can’t drive it – however my dad says it is fantastic. Despite being as powerful as a Corolla, its RWD drivetrain, manual ‘box and 1050kg kerb weight make it super peppy on the Autostrada and following Porsche Macans through Bormio tunnels at 180km/h. Hold on, am I allowed to say that last bit? Eh, oops.
The chassis feels incredible too, making it a hoot through the switchbacks of the Stelvio Pass. There aren’t many better driver’s cars for the money.
On to the tech and features. The interior is very well finished and the materials don’t scream cheap in any way. The infotainment system is just Mazda’s MZD Connect rebadged as Fiat uConnect. It’s easy to use and just superb, after half a day of setting routes, playing tunes and connecting phones I became a wizard – out of all the systems I’ve used for longer than a few minutes (Volvo V40 Sensus Connect, VF Commodore MyLink, 2016 Renault Megane R-Link) it is by far the best. Speaking of tunes, the speaker system was adequate for a 2-seater roadster – I’m no audiophile, so I can’t really provide that professional of an opinion. Storage wise, there isn’t very much – the boot is tiny and can’t fit much more than a carry-on suitcase and a backpack. Interior space is a similar deal, and although there are a ton of little cubby holes, they’re all pretty small and unusable for big things – however, the little glovebox between the passengers is surprisingly deep.
There some other things I want to touch on too. Primarily the roof – it is really easy to put up and take down, with one centre latch clamping the lightweight fabric top to the A-pillar frame. However, the tradeoff that comes with this is the noise – it is very difficult to have a phone conversation while cruising on the Autostrada at 120km/h, no matter whether the roof is up or down. Also, fuel economy – the 124 pulls decent numbers, and fuel stops were less common than I expected.
That’s a wrap on this review. Overall, the Fiat 124 is an incredible. Hell, if I had the cash, I’d take this thing (in Aus-spec Abarth form) as my first car. If you’re in the market for a sports car on abudget, and can pack lightly when going on a weekend away, the Fiat 124 Spider is the car for you.