FIRST things first. The car you see in the picture this morning is not a Fiat 124 Spider. It has a Fiat engine and it says Fiat on the back, and it takes a couple of styling cues from the achingly pretty 124 Sport Spider from 1966. But, underneath, it’s a Mazda MX-5.
When I heard a few years ago that Fiat had approached Mazda about making a He-Man version of the world’s bestselling — and best — sports car, I was so excited I had to have a bit of a lie-down.
Here’s why. Making a sports car should be simple. But then making a poached egg on toast should be too. And yet almost every hotel in the world gets it wrong. They cook the egg for too long, or they put it on the toast before they’ve drained the water away properly, or they smother it in weeds such as parsley, which is unnecessary.
This is what happens when car companies try to design a sports car these days. They optimise it for track use rather than the road, or they put the engine in the middle and you’re left thinking: “Look, you imbeciles. I want the engine at the front, rear-wheel drive and a canvas hood that can be thrown away when the sun’s out. Don’t complicate it. Just do that well.”
And that’s what Mazda has got so right with the MX-5: it is simple and perfectly executed. The best poached egg on toast the world’s seen. It’s the perfect size. It’s the perfect price. It has the right-sized engine and is fitted with only the toys you actually need. I love it.
However, there’s no getting round the fact it’s a bit . . . how can I put this? Light in its loafers? You don’t see many sarf London gangsters in Mazdas. Guy Ritchie hasn’t got one. It’s not a car that would be used by the Terminator.
Which is why I was so excited about this Fiat business. The idea was simple. It would take the Mazda’s architecture, which would save a fortune in development costs, and add its own styling and engine, which I figured would turn a finger of Baileys into a gallon of bloody mary with all the trimmings.
Hmmm. The problem is that the old 124’s most distinctive and attractive feature was the way its rear wings flicked up like a frigatebird’s wings from the horizontal boot lid. Fiat has tried to copy that on the new version, but the Mazda’s boot lid isn’t horizontal, so the result looks awkward, like amateur taxidermy.
There’s more, I’m afraid, because while it’s all very well making your vehicle’s body bigger and more butch, it’s no good if you plonk it on the underpinnings of a car that’s more dainty. You end up with what looks like an elephant sitting on a unicycle. A big car with little-car wheels lost in the arches.
The front’s not bad, but even here I have issues because of the twin power bulges in the bonnet. The original 124 had them because the extra clearance was needed for its twin-cam engine. Now, though, they are there for effect, like the stupid fake gills on the Range Rover, and that annoys me.
I’ve spent more time than usual discussing the way this car looks because that’s the whole point of it. The main reason you’d buy one is that you find the MX-5 a bit weedy and you want something a bit more hirsute.
The other reason is that you want some Italian flair, and that brings me on to the engine, which in the version I tested was Fiat’s 1.4-litre turbo. It’s not a bad little unit, but I was hoping in the 124 Fiat might have made it sound more zingy. And it hasn’t.
“You’d expect the Fiat, being Italian and all, to be sportier and more manic than the MX-5, but actually it’s quieter and less fun.”
That’s not good enough. When you are in a sports car and the sun’s out and the roof is stowed away, you want to hear some induction roar and a crackle from the exhaust. Whereas what you get from the 124 is a missionary-position noise from the front and a vanilla exhaust note. It’s a pity.
I have argued in the past that when the roof is down, all cars, from a super-modern Rolls-Royce Dawn to an ancient Sunbeam Alpine, feel exactly the same. There’s so much noise and wind and buffeting that trying to concentrate on the finer points of the handling and exhaust note is like trying to concentrate on your surroundings when you are being eaten by a bear. But it’s nice to know that if you did concentrate on such things, they’d be right.
So . . . to drive, the Fiat is softer than an MX-5, which is sort of fine, but somehow the squidginess means you get a bit of what feels like old-fashioned scuttle shake. A sense that the whole car is sort of wobbling. And that’s not so fine.
And to further distance the 124 from peppier Mazdas, most versions lack a limited-slip differential, so you won’t be doing any smoky drifts. It’s odd. You’d expect the Fiat, being Italian and all, to be sportier and more manic than the MX-5, but actually it’s quieter and less fun.
I’m told by my colleague Richard Hammond that the Abarth version — which does have a limited-slip diff — is a different kettle of fish, but I haven’t tried it yet. And, anyway, it’s a lot pricier. And, speaking of money, I’m afraid the news is not good. Because the Fiat I drove is more than £1,000 more expensive than the entry-level MX-5.
It sounds as if I have a downer on the 124, and I have, really, mainly because I was expecting it to be something that it isn’t. But, that said, it’s still a nice place to be. The roof really can be lowered and raised with one hand, without you getting out of the driver’s seat. And I love that it’s not electric.
I also love the brown leather seats and the equipment levels. I can connect up my iPhone and play Genesis, I have a sat nav and electric windows and, er, that’s it. But there is a decent-sized boot. Probably because the lid’s not flat, as it should have been.
Most important of all, though, it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy to know that outside my house right now is a two-seat Italian sports car. What makes me feel a bit cold and prickly, however, is that it’s simply not as good as its Japanese brother.
Head to head: Fiat 124 Spider v Mazda MX-5 1.5
|Fiat 124 Spider Classica
|Mazda MX-5 1.5i SE
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