In common with the latest breed of turbocharged small-capacity in-line fours, the 124 Spider’s 1.4-litre MultiAir engine belies its lack of displacement with surging low-rev torque, which peaks at just 2250rpm. Mated to the shared, sweet-shifting six-speed manual transmission, it makes for easy progress as you stroke through the gears. Unfortunately, the flipside is a rather one-dimensional engine that feels a bit soft-edged in the mid-range and lacks the Mazda’s appetite for revs. It never feels or sounds like it works towards a crescendo, so you don’t form much in the way of an emotional bond with the car. It’s workmanlike and just a little bit dull, when it should be full of zing.
Chassis-wise there are equally significant differences, the Fiat feeling the softer and less biddable machine. It flows well enough and steers cleanly through faster curves, but in tighter corners where, let’s face it, you’ll want to feel like you’re in a rear-wheel-drive car, the Spider runs out of ideas. It’s the lack of front-end bite that limits your options. That and the absence of the MX-5’s limited-slip diff. Where you can place the Mazda with precision and tease its trajectory into entertaining angles, the Fiat feels reluctant to stray from a resolutely neutral-to-understeer stance, even with a more generous reserve of torque to test the rear tyres’ purchase on the tarmac.
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The harder you push, the more stubbornly it settles. Indeed, the only way to induce any kind of rear-end slip is to lob the Fiat into the corner (preferably in second gear) and make oafish applications of throttle. It’s a hit-and-miss process that only serves to highlight the 124’s lack of enthusiasm for the kind of hijinks the MX-5 happily delivers.
Neither car is a ten-tenths hooligan, but the Mazda will raise its game and still deliver some sparkle at eight or nine tenths. The Fiat feels like a six- or seven-tenths car, more of a cruiser, which is a shame and something of a missed opportunity, for surely the intention of this car is to remind enthusiasts of what past generations of motoring journalists used to describe as ‘Italian brio’.
It’s true both these cars stray from evo’s hardcore heartland, but that’s the point of them. That’s also why, when presented with a mild-mannered rear-drive two-seater, those of us weaned on Gran Turismo immediately stray towards thoughts of stiffer suspension and a bit more power. Yet if you can fight those urges and take a step back, you’ll appreciate the brilliance of a basic recipe that’s brimming with promise. One which allows you to shed all the baggage, frustration and weight of expectation that comes with driving faster and more aggressive high-performance cars and replaces it with a blend of modest power, sweet balance and supple suspension that delivers a different kind of connection. Fun without the jeopardy.
Sadly, despite sharing many of the same ingredients, only one of these cars delivers on that promise. That car is the MX-5. It’s more energetic, boasts the more memorable, responsive and potent engine, and has that limited-slip diff which really brings the chassis to life when you push that little bit harder. And, while styling is subjective, the Fiat’s bulky profile and wide-set headlights are clumsy compared with the lithe MX-5’s compact, clean and contemporary shape. The Mazda looks and feels like the definitive affordable roadster where the Fiat merely seems derivative and a bit half-hearted. Proof that when it comes to the world’s favourite sporst car, ubiquity doesn’t have to mean mediocrity.