Sitting behind the wheel of the new Fiat 124 Spider while blasting along one of the twisting canyon roads surrounding San Diego, California, one thing becomes crystal clear: All the comparisons to the Mazda MX-5 are somewhat beside the point, because whatever else it is or isn’t, the Fiat 124 Spider is every bit as direct and fun to drive as its Mazda-flavoured cousin, and my grin is so wide it’s hurting my lips. (Or perhaps that’s just incipient sunburn because I’m in a convertible in California and I forgot to put on any lip balm?)
I myself have a soft spot both for the original Fiat 124 Spider and for the Mazda MX-5, the latest generation of which I tested in December 2015. I’ll admit that while I liked the new Fiat from the get-go, I was initially a little disappointed that it had lost some of the delicacy of its predecessor’s looks. But here’s the thing about good design: It grows on you. And the more I see of the 124 Spider – especially in the flesh – the more I like it.
The new 124 was designed by Centro Stile in Turin, Italy and doesn’t share any sheetmetal at all with the MX-5. It’s a little longer (140 mm) and a fraction wider (5 mm) than the MX-5, with just over half the extra length at the front to accommodate Fiat’s slightly larger engine, and the remainder at the back, giving the Fiat a longer deck reminiscent of the original 124, and a slightly larger trunk (140L versus 130L in the MX-5).
Even to a casual observer, the new 124 manages to recall the original without slavishly copying it. Up front, there’s an expressive fascia with a trapezoidal grille, just like in the original, and it has the same distinctive character line running from the front fenders and kicking up over the door handle to emphasize the rear haunches. Modern stylistic touches include a twin power domes on the hood and LED character lighting front and rear (the rear lights also feature body-coloured central inserts that give them a ring-like effect). Overall, the 124 Spider’s bodywork may not have the MX-5’s shrink-wrapped minimalism, but it does have a certain rightness to its proportions. From the front it also has a slight resemblance to the BMW Z8, a car that surely must count as one of the world’s most beautiful yet unattainable roadsters.
Inside, it must be admitted, the 124 is virtually indistinguishable from the Mazda MX-5. At the pre-drive presentation the designers spoke about its reconfigured seat structure and additional soft-touch materials, and the Lusso model I drove for the first part of the day did have a lovely stitched leather dash insert, but aboard the 124 Spider Classico I could see little beyond the steering wheel badge to differentiate between it and an MX-5 GX: There’s the same big, clear and easy-to-read gauges (except in the Abarth, which gets a red-faced tachometer), the same awkwardly placed but moveable cupholders, the same lockable cubby between the seats in lieu of a glovebox, the same easy-to-operate soft top, the same Mazda-sourced infotainment system, and the same fits-like-a-glove seating.