A quick note before I jump into the review. In case you haven’t read my 2017 Civic or any other of my owner car reviews, I’m a 14-year-old from Sydney and I have a deep passion for cars.
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 and 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, which means ‘rider and horse in one body’ in Japanese, and 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, rumours were swirling about a roadster platform shared 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 bet on it being badged as a Fiat/Abarth, and they hit that nail on the head. The reborn Fiat 124 Spider based on the fourth-generation ND MX-5 was unveiled at the 2015 LA Auto Show.
In September of this year, while on holiday in Italy, my dad and I hired a Fiat 124 Spider to drive up the Stelvio Pass, and 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 ’60s. 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 four-cylinder that produces 103kW of power and 240Nm of torque. Being 14 I can’t drive it, but 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 and the piece of junk in the ’16 Renault Megane) it is by far the best.
Speaking of tunes, the speaker system was adequate for a two-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 cubbyholes, they’re all pretty small and unusable for big things – however, the little glovebox between the passengers is surprisingly deep.
There are 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 trade-off 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 figures, and fuel stops were less common than I expected.
Improvements for future models? Many purists would disagree, but I’d love more power across the range. Outputs like 125kW in the Fiat and 150kW in the Abarth would make the range absolutely mental. Further, this wouldn’t be a CarAdvice review without it – the 124 needs Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
That’s a wrap on this review. Overall, the Fiat 124 is incredible. Heck, 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 a budget, and can pack lightly when going on a weekend away, the Fiat 124 Spider is the car for you.