The Fiat 124 Spider we’ve just driven owes its entire existence to the Mazda MX-5. But is the Fiat just a Japanese imposter in a designer suit? Here’s your definitive guide to what’s Fiat, and what isn’t, according to the men behind the new Spider.
1. The engine
Fiat decided to ditch Mazda’s naturally aspirated 1.5 and 2.0-litre engines for its own 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder. This was not done purely out of vanity. For one thing, it’s a madly expensive decision – the Spider is built on Mazda’s production line in Hiroshima, Japan, while its 1.4-litre MultiAir engine is stamped out in southern Italy. Finished motors are then shipped all the way to Japan, installed in the car, then shipped back off around the world to buyers – back to Europe, in more than a few cases. Before you drive it off the forecourt, your engine’s probably done 10,000 miles.
“We wanted the extra torque and driveability of a turbo” explains the 124’s validation manager (i.e set-up wizard) Domenico Bagnasco.
Fortunately, the dollop of torque gives the Spider a totally different character to the MX-5, so the logistical nightmare of building it has paid off.
2. The gearbox
Well, the gear ratios, anyhow. Fiat knows a good thing when it’s onto it, and the MX-5’s gearbox is A Very, Very Good Thing. The new engine’s extra torque meant slightly longer gear ratios were bolted into the old mechanism, to suit the extra grunt. Oh, and there’s a posher gearknob, because style.
In the prototype, the shift quality isn’t quite as perfect as the MX-5, mind.
3. The styling
Love it or hate it, the bolshier bodywork isn’t just there to cover the Mazda chassis. Besides nods to the original 1960s 124 in the bugeye lights and humped bonnet, the longer, wider 124 is deliberately styled to look even bigger than it actually is.
Why? “We build a car that men will want to drive, not a car that looks like a toy you’ve borrowed off a five-year old”, product manager Piergiorgio Di Miscio grins.
4. Some of the handling tuning
“Have you driven the MX-5?” product manager Piergiorgio asks me.
“Yes, lots”, I reply. “I like it. Lots of low-speed fun.”
“Yes, but it does like to, ahh, fall over in corners”, Domenico interjects, leaning left then right while miming an invisible steering wheel.
“We have retuned the dampers, got new springs, and a slightly stiffer anti roll bar. We wanted a car with a more classic Fiat feel – an Italian flair – but not be so uncomfortable that you can’t pick up a beautiful blonde and take her to the beach.” Umm, OK then.
Meanwhile, the steering’s been tweaked too. “That’s the great thing about electric power steering”, explains Domenico. “With a different fuse and some new algorithms, we have achieved a more progressive weighting of the steering. I did not like the rate the steering weight increases in the Mazda. Too light. It’s not Italian”.
5. The posher interior bits
Mazda was very proud of the great lengths it went to keep the MX-5 lightweight. Fiat is more proud of the tweaks made to make it feel more plush. So you’ve got carpet on the inside of the bootlid where the MX-5 has bare metal and fresh air. Much luxury. Very trim.
There are new door handles inside with a chromed finish, along with soft-touch leather door tops, dashboard, and a thicker steering wheel. Piergiorgio points out the stitched dashboard trim was supposed to be bespoke to the 124, but Mazda got wind of the idea, pinched it, and put it in the MX-5 first. Naughty.