Fiat hasn't exactly bothered to change the 124 Spider all that much from its Mazda MX-5 cousin, at least to a first glance, but it turns out to have quite a different character and feel, even while it retains the Mazda's brilliant handling.
In the Metal:
I'm going to say it right now - the 124 Spider is better looking than the MX-5. Maybe it was the gorgeous, hot Italian sunshine pounding down on our test route near Lake Garda, but I think the 124's self-consciously retro styling looks sweeter than the Kabuki-mask looks of the MX-5. The Mazda's not ugly, far from it, but the Fiat is really pretty.
Beyond that, it's obvious to anyone with even a passing interest in motoring that the two cars are all but identical under the skin. The same hard points mean than the overall silhouette is basically the same and the only change in the cabin seems to be that there's a red Fiat badge fixed to the middle of the steering wheel. Still, it's hardly an unpleasant interior - the lovely, tan leather seats of our test car lifted the ambience considerably and if the switches, dials and infotainment layout all are identical to that of the Mazda, then at least they're all functional and simple to use, as well as feeling conspicuously well put together. If there's a flaw in the cabin, it's that it's on the small side - taller drivers will feel cramped and passengers will find their knees butting up against the dashboard. Fiat has found an extra ten litres of boot space though, so the 124 is fractionally more practical than the Mazda.
Under that fluted bonnet (which rather gorgeously frames the road ahead from your perch in the driver's seat) lies the biggest change from the MX-5 - a 1.4-litre MultiAir turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine with 140hp and 240Nm of torque, both outputs considerably ahead of what Mazda offers with the 1.5-litre MX-5. It is a touch less efficient though, with official fuel economy of 44mpg and CO2 emissions of 148g/km behind the Mazda's 47mpg and 139g/km. Fiat says that the steering (electrically assisted) and the suspension (double wishbones up front and a multi-link at the rear) has been specifically tweaked for the 124, but they seem, in practice, very little different to those of the Mazda's.
The turbocharged nature of the engine does mean that there is a significant change in character between the 1.5-litre MX-5 and the Fiat 124 Spider. All that torque, arriving at 2,250rpm (and it starts to pick up cleanly from 1,200rpm) means that you have more options than you do in the Mazda. In the MX-5, it's all about preserving momentum, constantly shifting the gloriously mechanical-feeling six-speed gearbox to keep the engine in its sweet spot.
With the Fiat's turbo torque, you can now choose your driving style - you can either loaf around in high gears, rolling easily with the torque, or you can snick-snick-snick that same delightful shifter through its cogs and really exploit both the extra power and the lovely, snarling exhaust note. This exploited, the 124 feels seriously rapid, albeit that's a sensation always amplified by the lack of a roof. Now that brilliantly balanced chassis can be deployed to maintain a lot more momentum, and it's easier to regain momentum when stymied by a wandering cyclist or slow-moving grappa delivery van.
The steering and suspension have changed little enough ultimately, so while the steering isn't quite bursting with feel and feedback, it does feel good to the touch, responsive and rapid, but never tips over into nervousness or excess aggression. The 124 is a car that can be quick, but which never feels so fast you can't keep up with it. Good brakes too, although they could ultimately do with a fraction more bite.
The chassis balance is as sublime as it ever was in the Mazda, with very little roll, but a ride quality that's still better than decent (although occasionally bumps will send a wobble up through the car's structure). While the engine is more the dominant companion than it is in the Mazda, the star here really is the way the 124 can be guided along a looping, twisting road. For sheer fun, there is little else comprehensively better, and certainly nothing better for the money.
What you get for your Money:
Lusso spec comes with automatic air conditioning, leather seats, rear parking sensors, a contrasting silver surround for the windscreen, cruise control and fog lamps. Our car also had the Radio Pack, which includes the seven-inch screen, Bluetooth and USB connection, as well as DAB. The Premium Pack includes a reversing camera, keyless entry and satnav, while the Visibility Pack adds adaptive LED headlights and auto wipers. Prices for Ireland are still to be confirmed, but we've been told that it should be just below the €30k mark, close to but above the MX-5's price point, but with a little extra equipment and that more powerful engine.
The new Fiat 124 Spider turns out to be much more than just an MX-5 copy-and-paste job with different badges. That turbocharged engine changes the character quite significantly, allowing a more laid-back driving style when you crave such a thing, but which sacrifices nothing in terms of sheer fun and enjoyment. Choosing between the two is really a matter of styling preference, and in that the Fiat may just have the edge...