A sports car with 1,400cc and 138bhp might not sound a lot in these days of 300bhp family hatchbacks but Fiat’s new 124 Spider proves that size isn’t everything.
The diminutive two-seat sports car combines that dinky turbocharged engine with a responsive, playful chassis to prove that you don’t need tonnes of power and four-wheel-drive to have fun.
The 124 Spider is based on Mazda’s latest MX-5. As Fiat’s product manager Pietro Carminati says, if you’re going to build a roadster you might as well base it on the best in the business rather than butchering some B segment hatchback.
Using such a tried and tested platform means the 124 had the best start in life but the Mazda’s setup has been tweaked by Fiat to give it a unique feel.
Fiat 124 Spider Lusso Plus
Engine: 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol producing 138bhp, 117lb/ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual driving the rear wheels
Performance: Top speed 134mph, 0-62mph in 7.5 seconds
Ride and handling
Whatever the Italian firm has done to the double wishbone/multi-link suspension, braking etc, the 124 feels ideally set up for British roads and their unique – read horrendous – characteristics. The suspension is damped beautifully so that it feels completely composed over crests and dips and is soft enough to absorb undulations and rough surfaces yet never feels spongy or wallowy.
On testing Welsh mountain roads it felt completely in its element, leaning just a touch as it flowed through corners and powered along straights, taking changes in elevation and surface in its stride.
The steering isn’t the last word in feedback and the brakes can feel a touch vague but both are communicative enough for you to have confidence in the messages going to and from the grippy wheels.
And what’s great is that you don’t have to be behaving like a hooligan to get real enjoyment from it. Sensible speeds on the right road provide plenty of thrills as the wee Fiat darts and weaves about the place.
Engine and performance
There’s no doubt that the chassis could easily handle more power – and if you want that Abarth will take an extra £10k from you and wring another 30bhp out of it – but the little 1.4-litre Multijet works brilliantly.
Its 138bhp and 177lb/ft propels the one-tonne roaster to 62mph in 7.5 seconds and it’ll hit 134mph flat out. That’s enough to put it closer to
the 2.0-litre version of the naturally-aspirated MX-5, despite being closer in power to the basic 1.5.
There’s a bit of lag pulling from low revs but once it’s over that the engine feels well matched to the lightweight, chuckable feel of the car. There’s a huge amount of fun to be had keeping it on the boil and trying to maintain momentum on challenging roads.
That’s not to say the turbocharged unit isn’t flexible, a decent amount of torque means you can be lazy and leave it to lope along in a high gear if you want but it’s not half as much fun.
As with the oily bits, the 124 shares most of its interior with the MX-5 but again has been given a few Italian touches. It’s a tight fit and there’s storage for little bigger than a phone but the plastics are soft-touch, the switchgear feels good and in Lusso and Lusso plus trims the seats, dash and steering wheel are wrapped in attractive leather.
Those leather-clad seats look fantastic in the “tobacco” finish and are nicely sculpted but are definitely best for smaller drivers. The driving position is good, but again larger drivers will find it a squeeze and anyone much over six feet tall will find themselves bashing the steering wheel with their knees and getting a wind-powered scalp massage as their head pops up above the windscreen.
The exterior, too, is clearly more Torino tha Tokyo. Deliberately aping the style of the original 124 Spider the new model is a very pretty roadster. The rear-set cabin, power-bulged bonnet and high haunches sit just right on the short wheelbase and neatly detailed lights, a well-sculpted tail and deep, wide grille give it an effortlessly cool look, especially with the roof down.
Trim and equipment
Fiat are keeping things simple with the 124. There are three trim levels Classica, Lusso and Lusso Plus. At £19,545 Classica comes with 16-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, cruise control, keyless start and a media system with USB, AUX and Bluetooth connectivity. Your only option is an upgrade to the seven-inch media system with DAB and wifi.
Lusso chucks on 17-inch wheels, sat nav heated leather seats, keyless entry and auto climate control for £22,295, and Plus adds full LED headlights auto lights and wipers and a nine-speaker Bose sounds system for your £23,295.
Personally, that’s the one I’d go for but whichever spec it’s in, the 124 completely nails the spirit of a small roadster.
It’s not about ultimate pace, it’s about the overall experience, about making it fun and engaging rather than a time trial challenge. The blend of supple, well-tuned chassis and a willing, lively engine plus classic Italian looks and a smartly turned-out interior are everything you could ask for in a small two-seater.
N/A engines offer different driving characteristics. Looks more futuristic
Audi TT Roadster
Bigger, heavier, less elegant but with more power, more space and more equipment
Abarth 124 Spider
The 124 turned up to 11. More power, sharpened responses but costs a wedge more cash