The Fiat 124 Spider offers fun, economy (50mpg in real-life driving) and affordability, and of course the car’s light weight is key to its success.
We’ve already tested the Mazda MX-5 2-litre and we’ve driven the 1.5-litre MX-5, and we love both cars. The Fiat 124 Spider has now been launched, based on the same platform. So how does the Fiat compare?
Although the Fiat 124 Spider shares its platform with the Mazda MX-5, one key difference is that the MX-5 comes with 1.5-litre or 2.0-litre non-turbo engines, whereas the Fiat comes with a 1.4-litre turbo unit. The Fiat’s suspension is also softer. And of course externally both cars have different styling approaches, along with individual treatment in the interiors. We’ve always thought that the MX-5 looks excellent; when we saw the initial press photos of the 124 Spider, we didn’t think it looked as good. However the car actually looks better in the metal. Although it has to be said that we personally wouldn’t choose the brown colour of our press car…
Here at Green Car Guide we’re looking for cars that combine efficiency with a great driving experience on public roads at speeds where you won’t lose your licence. The Fiat 124 Spider delivers on both of these objectives.
The Fiat is small and lightweight (with a kerb weight of 1050kg – the same as the 1.5-litre MX-5, and slightly lighter than the 1075kg 2-litre MX-5) and it has a very low centre of gravity. It has sharp, direct and responsive steering. It’s rear-wheel drive, so the rear wheels put the power down, and the front wheels can focus on steering rather than transmitting power. The 1.4-litre turbo petrol engine is responsive when it’s operating at more than 2000rpm, and the six-speed manual gearbox is slick. There’s also an excellent driving position, even though the steering wheel has no reach adjustment. This is the same on the MX-5, in order to avoid added complexity, weight and cost.
So how does all this translate to the driving experience in real-life? Point the Spider down a twisting Welsh B-road and it feels light, agile and very well balanced. Grip levels are almost perfectly judged – there’s just the right amount of grip to make every outing in the 124 Spider a rewarding experience. You can carve through corners in the dry with delicacy yet also with confidence, but in wet or greasy conditions, you can have as much fun with the rear end as you want. It’s worth noting that there’s no limited slip-differential on this model (which does feature on the 2-litre MX-5).
Very small inputs to the steering result in instant response from the front tyres and from the rest of the car, with satisfying changes of direction. The turbo engine provides more performance than you might expect from a 1.4-litre, even with two occupants. And the gear lever moves quickly and smoothly around the box, making frequent changes a pleasurable experience.
Very few modern cars provide this sort of rewarding, direct interaction between driver, car and road, due to their weight and their insulation from the outside world.
The Fiat also manages to combine classic rear-wheel drive sports car handling with supple suspension. The MX-5, with its firmer suspension, results in less roll when pushing on through corners. However in the real world, rather than on a smooth race track, during daily use on the UK’s battered roads, the Fiat does a good job of providing a comfortable ride.
So what about the turbo (Fiat) v non-turbo (Mazda) argument? Try and accelerate under 2000rpm in the turbo Fiat and there’s very little response. But on the flip side, our test route in North Wales for the 124 Spider took in many of the same roads as our MX-5 test, and whereas the 2-litre Mazda struggled to accelerate up some hills with two occupants on board, the Fiat had no such problems. Although the Fiat is slightly down on power compared to the 2-litre MX-5, it has more torque – 240 Nm compared to the 2-litre MX-5’s 200 Nm, and the 1.5-litre MX-5’s 150 Nm. So if you want linear throttle response, go for the MX-5; if you can live with poor response at low revs in order to get more torque at higher revs, then go for the Fiat.
In terms of the interior, the dashboard is modern, stylish and functional, and the infomedia system is essentially the same as that in the MX-5, which means that it’s very good, and thanks to having a BMW iDrive-like rotary controller near the gear lever, it’s so much better than the majority of systems that are purely touch screens, which we believe are not a sensible idea in most cars, but certainly don’t work well in sports cars on bumpy roads.
There’s a useful reversing camera, and as with the MX-5, you even get two cup holders, which sit between the two seat backs. The boot is an acceptable size for a small two-seater sports car.
The soft top is very quick and easy to take down or put up, but one issue to be aware of, along with virtually all soft tops around this price point, is that there’s lots of wind and road noise at motorway speeds.
The official combined fuel economy of the Fiat 124 Spider is 44.1mpg, with emissions of 148g/km CO2 (the official combined fuel economy of the 2-litre MX-5 is 40.9mpg, with emissions of 161g/km CO2; 47.1mpg/139g/km CO2 for the 1.5-litre MX-5). So what did we get in real life? Well, at a constant 50mph on the roadworks stretch of the M6 motorway that goes on for miles and miles, the 124 Spider recorded an indicated 66.9mpg. For a car that’s as fun to drive as the 124 Spider, the ability to achieve almost 70mpg at a constant 50mph is a highly impressive feat. This is due to the car’s light weight, its small frontal area, and of course its efficient engine. At 70mph on the motorway it averaged 49.6mpg (48.0mpg for the MX-5) – again, a very good result. Overall, after a week of mixed driving, the Fiat averaged 41.5mpg. We averaged 40.3mpg in the 2-litre MX-5, suggesting that the Fiat is slightly more economical in real-life, so reflecting its official figures.
The Fiat 124 Spider Lusso Plus 1.4 MultiAir Turbo 140hp costs £23,295. The ‘Magnetic Bronze’ metallic paint of our test car cost £500. There are three trim levels; Classica, Lusso, Lusso Plus. Prices of the 124 Spider are broadly similar to those of the MX-5.
The Fiat 124 Spider is exactly the sort of car that Green Car Guide has stood for over the last 10 years. It’s excellent to drive, yet it can also be economical. The key to achieving both of these elements is the light weight of the car. Although there has been much talk in the industry about lightweighting, most cars over recent years have in fact been getting heavier. The Fiat 124 Spider weighs just 1050kg, which means it has great handling, and its relatively small engine gives it good performance. Combined with the car’s small frontal area, it is genuinely efficient, as our achievement of almost 70mpg at 50mph shows.
But what about the key question we have to address? Which is better, the Mazda MX-5 or the Fiat 124 Spider? Well, not surprisingly, both are very similar. The main differences are that the Fiat has slightly more retro looks, a turbo engine, and softer suspension. In terms of the looks, this is completely subjective. If you’re intending to drive on the limit most of the time, then the firmer suspension of the MX-5 will provide more reassuring race car-like handling. However as an all-round car for daily use on the UK’s bumpy and pot-holed roads, then the Fiat will be easier to live with. The turbo engine also provides good responses, as long as you keep it above 2000rpm. So both the Fiat and the Mazda deliver what we want – ie. they’re great to drive and efficient – but just in slightly different ways. Both achieve something really important – they’re rewarding drivers’ cars at speeds that won’t end up with you losing your licence.
The Mazda MX-5 was awarded a Green Car Guide rating of 10 out of 10, and so it’s not really possible to award the Fiat 124 Spider anything different – so it also enjoys a 10 out of 10 rating.