Since the first images hit the web, the 2016 Fiat 124 Spider hasn’t fared all that well in the court of public opinion.
Despite resurrecting a much-loved nameplate and bringing back the prospect of a relatively cheap n’ cheerful Italian roadster, Fiat has copped flak from an endless stream of keyboard warriors about the new 124’s Japanese heritage and styling.
And while comments like “It’s not a real Italian car” do have some degree of merit – the 124 will be built on the same line as the Mazda MX-5 in Hiroshima, Japan – there’s no doubt that Fiat has poured a liberal amount of Italian dressing on its half-breed droptop.
Seen in the flesh, it’s a more cohesive design. It doesn’t convert quite so well into JPEG form, but view it with your own eyeballs and its got a unique, well-proportioned look that’s markedly different from that of the MX-5.
To explain what sets the 124 apart from its Japanese step brother, Fiat’s head of exterior design Felix Kilbertus spoke to TMR at the Los Angeles Auto Show.
“The car was completely designed in Italy and engineered with the help of Mazda, who did most of the R&D,” Kilbertus said. “Every panel is unique, the exterior is 100 percent unique,” he continued, adding that the MX-5’s exterior design had no bearing on the 124’s appearance. “We hadn’t seen the [design] of the MX-5 when we started work on this, we treated it like any other Italian car.”
But that’s not to say that Kilbertus and his team had a clean sheet to work from.
Many of the key dimensions were already fixed, and Mazda dictated things like the wheelbase, door aperture openings, the shape of the windscreen frame and the size, shape and operation of the cloth roof.
But there are some key points of difference.
For one, the 124 Spider looks like a bigger car thanks to its more pronounced haunches and squarer front and rear sheetmetal.
The overhangs are longer at the front to accommodate the 124 Spider’s intercooler (something the naturally-aspirated MX-5 doesn’t need), and at the rear to provide the 124 with a more sizable boot – though it’s only 138L against the MX-5’s 130L.
According to Kilbertus, the design brief was to create “make it into a beautiful contemporary car, and at the same time respect the heritage of the 124 Spider”.
And while Fiat-Chrysler’s take on the MX-5 was originally meant to be an Alfa Romeo, Kilbertus says the 124 Spider’s design bears no resemblence to what was planned for the Alfa.
The proportions are closer to that of the original 124 Spider, while the round(ish) headlamp housings and hexagonal grille outline are throwbacks to that classic 60s roadster.
And while the MX-5’s rump looks pinched and narrow, the 124 Spider’s tail is broad, abruptly cut off and dominated by large rectangular tail lamps.
However Fiat wasn’t able to use quite so much artistic licence inside.
The upholstered upper dash is unique to the Fiat and so are the door cards, shift lever and seat cushioning, but the lower dash, ventilation controls and centre console are pure Mazda.
The instrument panel is mostly the same, but the dial graphics have been tweaked to impart a more Italian flavour.
The infotainment too is a reskin of Mazda’s MZD-Connect system. That’s not a bad thing, by the way: it’s one of the most intuitive systems around.’
The floorpan is virtually interchangeable, but there are differences under the bonnet. Big ones.
Mazda’s 1.5 litre and 2.0 litre SkyActiv fours have been tossed in favour of the Abarth 500’s turbocharged 1.4 litre, which has been turned 90 degrees to take power to the rear wheels via a six-speed manual or automatic.
It adds more weight thanks to its turbocharger, intercooler and iron block, but the 1.4 turbo compensates with a peak torque output of 250m – 50Nm more than an MX-5 2.0.
That’s not all either: peak torque in the 124 arrives at just 2500rpm. The MX-5 doesn’t make its 200Nm until 4600rpm, but it redlines higher.
The Mazda MX-5’s mechanical layout
The Mazda MX-5’s mechanical layout
Though it boasts a torque advantage, with 57kg more mass than the Mazda it may not actually be all that much faster in a straight line – the power-to-weight ratios between 124 Spider and MX-5 2.0 are awfully close.
Gearing could have have the final say on that, and with the 124 Spider using slightly taller ratios in its gearbox and differential the 124 will likely be the more relaxed performer of the pair.
While the Fiat will be able to waft along on its ample reserves of low-end torque, the MX-5 will require more revs to keep up.
The suspension uses the same arms and geometry as the MX-5, but Fiat isn’t saying exactly what settings have been tweaked to give its car its own unique feel behind the wheel.
All we know is that it’s “a unique calibration”, but at the very least we can expect the front springs to be slightly firmer to accommodate that heavier powerplant.
Both cars utilise the same electric power steering, with the same 15.5:1 ratio.
The shared DNA is most obvious from the inside, but externally there’s more than enough differentiation between the MX-5 and 124 Spider to keep Fiat fans happy.
Moreover, the mechanical changes made to engine, driveline, kerb weight and suspension should impart a different feel behind the wheel.
The 124 Spider is more than just an MX-5 in a different dress – it should feel like a different car. We’ll find out just how unique it is when it lands in Australia some time in the fourth quarter of 2016.