From a European perspective you'd be forgiven for not quite picking up on the significance of the 124 Spider. Until you bear in mind it was first shown in 1966 and continued in production – in latter years as a Pininfarina – all the way through until 1985, by which time nearly 200,000 had been built. Its relative low profile here is explained by the fact 170,000 of them were sold in the US, where Fiat reckons 8,000 are still going strong. Big boots to fill then and little wonder Fiat has been keen to revive the formula that served it so well for 19 years.
JUN 14th 2016
Review: Fiat 124 – The classic Italian roadster, reinvented for the 21st century
The formula being that of the classic European roadster, placing Riviera posing and Italian style above pretensions of being an out and out sports car. And that's very much where the new car picks up.
Fiat may not want to shout too loudly about it but the fact remains this car is based on the latest fourth-generation Mazda MX-5. Those familiar with industry machinations will recall the tie-up was originally going to give us a new Alfa Spider, not a Fiat one. But, for one reason or another, the 124 that got the nod.
Platform sharing is nothing new in the industry and there aren't many rear-wheel drive ones on which to base a new, ground-up roadster; may as well cut to the chase and use Mazda's benchmark as a basis then. From there Fiat has very much gone its own way though, this new 124 Spider overt in its visual references to the original, including the cowled lights, twin bonnet bulges and curved rear arches. What looks a little heavy-handed in pictures actually works a lot better in the metal and some extra length and visual weight successfully puts some distance between the Fiat and Mazda on which it is based.
The difference in character extends to the engine, which in keeping with the original 124 is a 1.4-litre four-cylinder. In this case it is turbocharged though, gaining Fiat's neat Multiair intake valving and delivering 140ps/138bhp and 177lb ft of torque, making it less powerful but more flexible than a 2.0-litre MX-5. For a turbo engine it sounds good too, with just enough of a growl to sound purposeful without over-promising on the performance on offer. Which is to say enough to be going on with and entirely in keeping with the classic roadster vibe, without ever threatening to set your pants on fire.
That's OK though. In fancier Lusso trim as driven the tan leather seats contrast nicely with the understated bronze paintwork, the interior feels well screwed together and all-in-all it seems well worth the £22,295 Fiat is asking for it. Good bits carried over from the Mazda include the simple manual roof, handily spring-loaded to make both stowing and raising a one-hand operation that can be done in seconds. No excuse not to drop it at every opportunity in other words - anyone driving a Spider with the roof up in anything other than a torrential downpour needs a stern talking to.
As you'd expect, the 124 is fun to drive too. Softer than its MX-5 counterpart, for sure, but comfortable, composed and with just enough classic rear-driven balance to feel agile and fun on twisty Italian back roads. And that's exactly where this car will score - it's both significantly cheaper and a lot more charismatic than the basic Mercedes SLC, BMW Z4 or Audi TT Roadster you might consider alternatives. In the classic roadster fashion this is a car for weekends away or longer continental tours. It's a mature car, harking back to a more innocent age and no worse for it.
But let's not forget, the 124 Spider was also transformed into a highly successful rally car by Abarth. And if you want one with a little more pep and are willing to pay a bit of a premium there's a modern-day evocation of that too. That's for another time though.
For maintaining the original's classic simplicity, and successfully offering something of sufficiently different character to the MX-5, Fiat deserves praise. Rear-wheel drive roadsters are few and far between in the modern motoring landscape; to welcome another one to the market is a genuine pleasure.
Priced from £19,545-£23,295
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