We've gone from one Fiat extreme to the other this month – having tested the enormous, masculine beefcake that is their all-new Fullback last week, to the diminutive, feminine cup cake that is the all-new 124 Spider this week. Polar opposites.
But one thing they both have in common is Italian good looks. The £23,295 124 Spider Lusso Plus is a thing of beauty, from pretty much all angles, but especially across the (relatively) long bonnet from the low slung driver's seat and again outside, looking back at its sculpted nose after you've parked it up – still ticking and smelling of brake pad after a spirited blast. Bella. Bella.
What the two Fiats don't have in common is ride quality: Arguably the only real criticism of the Fullback was its bouncy, unsophisticated, load-bearing live rear axle, which was actually pretty nasty to drive without a decent load onboard.
Conversely, one of the things we admired most in our week-long test of the 124 Spider was its rare rag-top ability to eat up a bumpy British B-road with digestible ease and offer up a delightful Italian menu of agility for nibbles, handling entertainment for main course and a comfortable ride for dessert: Delizioso.
Make no mistake, B-roads are where you will want to spend time in the buy-for-s**s-and-giggles Fiat... making full use of the superb handling and incredibly direct, slick and snicky six-speed manual gearbox ( total delight to use) and rear-wheel drive formula, something that Mazda made its own in the legendary MX-5, now millions sold.
What Fiat offer up in their new 124 that's "different" is the 1.4-litre turbocharged engine – offering up 138bhp, 177lbft (in old money) and an subsequently impressive 134mph, with a lively 7.5s 0-62mph time, mainly thanks to the turbo-generated low down grunt, as peak power is at a very lowly 5,000rpm, meaning hunting the (soft) redline is a fruitless mission, sadly.
TBH, you'd never know it was actually turbocharged, as it's certainly not laggy and is a very responsive little unit. But don't be expecting a kick you in the back when the turbo, er, "kicks in" either. In fact, if I didn't already know it was a blown engine, I certainly wouldn't have said it was – despite the obviously good torque curve. It's certainly not thirsty either, offering up 44mpg no bother, but that's modern turbo engines in tiny cars for you.
Sadly (again), even the twin tail pipes and turbo can't make the 124 sound great – which is another shame. If ever there was a car crying out for a thin-wall, bigger bore exhaust system, decent air induction system and an ECU re-map... it's the 124 Spider. Take note aftermarket tuning companies/suppliers... and owners... spec your 124 with an Abarth version exhaust at least, and save some dosh back for tuning. Untapped potential is how we'd describe the standard Spider, even if the performance levels are far from poor. Many would be happy enough, just not us eternal modifiers and performance hunters at Road HQ.
Speaking of the 124's spec, make sure you get the great VFM Lusso Plus – which comes with extras that include the essential for any UK cabrio heated seats, the fabulously user-friendly seven-inch touchscreen (Garmin) sat-nav with premium DAB-equipped sound system (with nine speakers, including in the headrest, which is ace for hearing windy Bluetooth calls) and a razor sharp rear-view camera (useful when you haven't gone topless, so to speak), super-bright LED headlights and smart 17-inch alloy wheels. Can't imagine why you wouldn't get this... or indeed the contrasting, retro-touch tan coloured seats. Very cool, cutting against the electric blue of our test model.
Apparently, the 124 Spider is bigger than its long-standing Japanese rival – offering a tad more boot and lockable cupboard space, and head/legroom. But it certainly doesn't feel it to me, at six-foot-something, with middle aged spread and armed with any sort of normal modern level of phone/charger/coat paraphernalia. Even a bottle of water is too much luggage for the 124 Spider really and it certainly ain't staying still in its bottle holder, which is badly designed and a pointless bit of add-on rubbish.
As is the irritatingly competent and constant traction control system – which I (obviously) immediately switched to full off (taking a few valuable driving time seconds every ignition turn), but which refused to let go entirely, literally.
That's a big shame in my view. We all know manufacturers have to fit these nanny systems, for the
idiots. But couldn't the powers that be allow those of us with the skill to enjoy pushing a car up and over its grip limit – especially a rear-drive sports car sold purely for enjoyment – actually let us, by allowing it to go full off? Apparently not, in conjunction with the 124's e-differential gimmick version... which freaks out when you're using it properly.
I'm being a tad harsh on the 124 Spider, which is undeniably a well designed and well made (if not well hung!) car. Maybe I misunderstood it from the off and my expectations were too high? Maybe I'm just too old for a 124 Spider (although I doubt that, looking at most MX-5 owners)? Maybe I wanted it be better than it is? I figured... Fiat make great cars right now. And here's their new £23K topless hottie. It's rear-drive and turbocharged. Was I wrong to expect a wild, big fun, character overload? Sure, it's lively, fun, nice to be in and good looking... but it never grabbed me in the right way.
For us, the lack of being able to slide around uninterrupted and make full use of the superb chassis, suspension and gearbox was game over for the pretty little 124 Spider Lusso. Sorry Fiat.
Maybe the 168bhp Abarth, with its mechanical LSD, Bilstein damping and other goodies would be more our sort of car.