Gareth Butterfield spends a week in the sporty new Fiat 124 Spider
SITTING before me, in gleaming white, is an Italian sports car. And I get to play with it for a week. I’m quite excited.
Ignorant people who used to read Max Power and now drive round in battered BMWs they pretend they “go drifting” in will try to convince you that the Fiat 124 Spider is actually not an Italian car, but a Mazda MX5 with some different lights and Fiat badges.
But, although the Fiat shares a platform and it’s built in the same factory in Japan, the engine is different, the gearbox is different and every panel on the body is different.
Fiat’s put a lot of work into this, so it really isn’t just another clone and it really is, in my book at least, an Italian sports car.
The first thing I’m struck by is how big it is. While the Mazda feels taut and compact, the Fiat feels wide, low and a bit more “grown up”. I love, for example the way you can see acres of sculpted bonnet stretching out from the low driver’s seat.
I also love its remarkably slick and precise gearbox with its short throw, the near-vertical steering wheel and the simple but attractive dashboard. First impressions, then, are very good.
TODAY we’re heading off to Norfolk for a weekend away so I’ve got three hours or so of rural A-road to get to know the Fiat on. I was worried at first we weren’t going to fit my wife’s suitcase, make-up bag, umpteen pairs of shoes and all her coats in the boot but, actually, for a car of its type, the boot is pretty roomy. At 140 litres it’s good for its class and slightly better than the Mazda. And that’s good because cabin space is tight. There’s a few little cubbies here and there, and a good lockable cavity between the seats, but no glovebox.
It’s a horribly wet day and were weighted down with luggage so there won’t be any testing of the performance and handling through the Cambridgeshire fens just yet, but I can report that the turbocharged 1.4-litre petrol engine is brilliant and that gearbox remains a joy.
The seats, on the other hand, aren’t as comfortable as I was hoping. By the time we reach Kings Lynn I’m getting a bit achy in the posterior. They’re supportive for short trips and spirited driving, but not best for long journeys. They are adjustable, but tall people might not like them at all.
THE wife has a habit of sleeping her way through an entire morning if undisturbed so I take an opportunity to grab the keys and head out in the Fiat for some early morning tomfoolery. The sort of driving she would not have approved of on the way down.
Once it’s warmed up the Fiat feels exactly how I was hoping. Like a little Italian sports car. The steering is brilliant, the suspension is soft, but firms up well when pushed and it grips well, only kicking out its rear if you try really hard.
It responds keenly and rewardingly to every input and while that can be a little unsettling at first, especially in the wet, you quickly get the measure of it and its fine chassis can deliver a really thrilling drive.
I arrive home buzzing. The wife is still blotto, completely unaware I’ve just been very naughty in the only means of transport home we have. The perfect crime.
BEFORE we head home we’re stopping off for a very grown-up and civilised meal in a very grown-up and civilised hotel somewhere near Hunstanton. The Fiat does grown-up and civilised very well.
It looks elegant and classy. Unlike, I might add, the Mazda MX5. That looks like a Ninja that’s about to exact revenge on you for shooting his dog. That’s not to say it’s unattractive, but I know which car I’d rather be turning up to a posh lunch in.
BECAUSE of a little-known phenomenon called global warming our weekend in the South East was cold and wet so I’ve not yet had chance to take the roof off at all.
Back in Derbyshire the weather is still cold, but slightly less wet and I’m determined to make the most of the week in a sports car so I head out to the shops with the roof off. I don’t really need to buy anything, but it would be an awful shame not to, wouldn’t it?
Neither the Fiat nor the MX5 have electric roofs, but it doesn’t matter because it’s a doddle to retract by hand. You can do it from a seating position; just unhitch the big hitch-thing between the sun visors, lob it back and then push it down into the catch behind you. The reverse is equally simple.
Roof down, there’s very little buffeting and you can hear the lovely, throaty engine better. Personally I’d have liked a little more drama from the exhausts, perhaps a pop or a bang every now and again but it does sound pretty good.
THE Fiat goes back tomorrow and that makes me sad. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know it. There are things which annoy me. The infotainment system has a good screen and is well-positioned but apart from that, it’s rubbish. For some reason Fiat borrowed it off Mazda instead of putting their own version in. I wish they’d just grabbed one out of the nearest 500 and superglued it to the dash. It would have been much better.
Also, and this is just a niggle, the two sun visors are made of the cheapest plastic I’ve found in any car. They’re really horrid and let down an otherwise lovely – if a little cramped – cabin.
So it’s mechanically similar to the Mazda but it has a completely different character. And while it might be slightly more expensive, it’s more economical and slightly more practical.
I don’t think any of that will bother the typical buyer and if someone told me they prefer the Mazda to the Fiat I’d find it difficult to argue with their reasons. But I wouldn’t agree with them.
I like the Fiat more because it suits me better.
It’s prettier, slightly more civilised and, more than anything, I’d look out on my driveway and there’d be an Italian sports car sitting there. And that gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling.