It’s not that many years ago that Europe led the world in producing small, affordable sports cars that found a ready market around the globe.
Names like Austin Healey, MG, Sunbeam and Triumph will still bring a wistful look to many faces in corners of the world as far apart as California and New Zealand. Fiat, too, was well known for its dashing Italian-styled sports cars.
But, in the corporate madness of the 1980s, when ‘big was beautiful’ (even when it clearly wasn’t), faceless bean counters set about killing off our most desirable European cars and focussed their efforts on producing bland hatchbacks and saloons with precious little excitement, or appeal.
Fast forward to recent times and Fiat’s management recognised an opportunity.
They wanted to create a new Fiat Spider that would not only be popular in its own right, but would also add a bit of pizzaz to the Fiat name. More specifically, it was seen as the “breakthrough” model that would help re-establish the Fiat marque in the USA.
The idea of a new Fiat 124 makes so sense in so many ways. The problem for Fiat was the huge cost and extended timescale involved in developing a completely new rear-wheel-drive traditional sports car platform. The logical approach was to find a manufacturer to share technology. In Mazda, Fiat has chosen the ideal partner. After all, Mazda has made the affordable roadster market their own with the ever-popular Mazda MX-5 (or Miata in some markets).Fiat hopes their new Fiat 124 Spider will evoke memories of its predecessors – classic sports cars like this Pininfarina-designed Spider
The new Fiat 124 is therefore built on Mazda underpinnings and alongside the MX-5 in the Hiroshima factory in Japan. The downside of such a relationship is that Fiat have to work hard to establish the new 124 as a distinct model in its own right, rather than being seen as a Mazda MX-5 with Fiat badges.
A strong pitch at establishing that individual identity comes with the Fiat 124’s looks. The newcomer shares no body panels with the MX-5. Indeed, it is slightly longer than the Mazda, which results in a marginally larger boot.
The other big difference is under the bonnet. The power unit for the Fiat 124 Spider is Fiat’s own 1.4-litre Multiair unit, turbocharged to produce 138 bhp. This compares to 129 bhp for the normally-aspirated MX-5.
But, while the exterior looks and the power unity differ, the interior is almost identical to the MX-5 with only a change of branding. The Fiat 124 is strictly a two-seater, with the driver and passenger sitting very low to the floor in small, but comfortable, figure-hugging bucket seats.
It may fit like a glove, but there is good space for the two occupants and I never found myself clashing elbows with my passenger. Legroom is adequate for me and I like a long-legged driving position.
There’s not a lot of storage space inside. You won’t find a glovebox or door pockets, but there is a usefully sized cubby behind and between the seats and a little more space below in the centre console.
The hood is an easy one-handed operation to open or close. (And unlike many of the classic small sports cars of the past, it is peaceful, draught-free, watertight fit.)
The boot is a reasonable size for a small roadster and a very practical rectangular shape thanks to the lack of a spare wheel (a tyre sealant and pump kit is provided), but the sill is high.
This snug cockpit feels good. The controls and instruments are logically placed and the equipment is what you would expect for a modern car – a far cry from the spartan interiors of the small roadsters of yesteryear.
I liked the large touch screen in the centre of the dashboard. As befits a sports car, the dashboard is dominated by the large rev counter. Today’s connected generation will be pleased to find two easily-accessible USB connections on the dashboard.
So, even before you start the Fiat 124 Spider, you feel very much part of it.
Right from the start you can feel the road surface feedback. But, where a classic sports car of the 1960s or 70s might also transmit jarring, crashing and banging from the suspension, the Fiat 124 damps out the excesses and leaves you with a ride quality that feels alive but comfortable. Apparently the suspension settings are a little different from the Mazda.
A good sports car is all about involvement in the driving experience. You sit low in the centre of gravity, sensing the sharpness and accuracy of the steering, feeling the progressive feedback from the brakes. It is a cliché, but appropriate, to say you also feel the car’s interaction with the road through the seat of your pants.
As well as being communicative the controls are beautifully responsive. Fast, precise steering, progressive brakes and a superb, slightly notchy, stubby gearchange make the car feel like an extension of the driver. This makes the Fiat 124 a joy to drive on a strip of winding tarmac. That is what a sports car is all about.
As a result I found the Fiat 124 Spider wonderfully confidence inspiring and, therefore, relaxing to drive. You can place the car with absolute accuracy. You feel how the car is poised on each and every corner.
With the roof down the feeling of involvement is multiplied. Drive through a pine forest and you can instantly smell it, pass a river and you can hear the roar of the water. Drive up into the hills and you can see the peaks and the birds soaring above.
In the true tradition of such sports cars, the Fiat 124 is not all about performance figures. You can easily find cars that are quicker off the mark than the Fiat 124 Spider with its 7.5 seconds for the 0-62 mph sprint.
But sports cars like this are not about performance statistics. A good sports car is all about the total driving experience
For those who want more power a more sporting Abarth 124 Spider is on the way.
As we neared the end of my time with the 124, I was not looking forward to handing back the keys. It seems such a perfect way to enjoy summer motoring.
So, Fiat is back in the sports car market with the Fiat 124 Spider. The new car is strategically important for the company and its growth in key markets. It will also provide Fiat with a ‘halo model’ that should add some sports car excitement to the brand.
Looked at that way, working with Mazda to bring a fully-sorted sports car to market makes so much sense, in so many ways. Fiat and the sports car market will be all the better for the Fiat 124 Spider. Fiat 124 Spider Lusso Plus Multiair
Carbon dioxide emissions: 148 g/km
Combined fuel economy 44.1 mpg
Top speed: 134 mph
0-62: 7.5 secs
Power 138 bhp
Engine size 1368cc petrol
Boot capacity 140 litres