We say: There are difficult choices in life and then there’s this, the kind of dilemma we love to have
Serena beating Venus. A Toro Rossa overtaking a Red Bull. Pippa Middleton on the steps of Westminster Abbey. It’s awkward when the upstart young sibling sticks one over the establishment. So, by rights, the Fiat 124 Spider shouldn’t be a better sports car than the evergreen Mazda MX-5. But you know what? It just might be.
The new “Fiata” is, as you’re probably well aware, a convoluted Japanese import. Originally destined to be badged as an Alfa Romeo, built in Hiroshima, using turbocharged 1.4-litre engines shipped out from Turin to replace the Mazda’s 1.5- and 2.0-litre four-cylinders. It’s dressed in retro yet dowdier bodywork, stretched in length and width, resulting in a heavier, less shrink-wrapped car than the diminutive MX-5. Doesn’t sound like the most auspicious start in life.
The turbocharger is crucial to the Spider. It gives the Fiat an entirely different character to the Mazda, which thrives on revs, blips and momentum to keep the wind rustling off the header rail and ruffling your hair like an overly friendly Jimmy Kimmel. You can lope in the Spider – you’d never lope in the Mazda. It’d labour and vibrate and shudder like it was having an allergic reaction to such low revs, but stick the 124 in fifth or sixth through a village and it’ll chunter along in peace and haul out the other side meaningfully. So effectively, it’s a bit easier to drive. A nice trick for a roadster.
Obviously, it’s got more torque – 29lb ft more, deployable with half the revs the Mazda requires. And as a result, the beefed up gearbox doesn’t shift with the magnetic precision of the MX-5’s world-class action, requiring more force and rewarding with less tactility. You wouldn’t call it agricultural – it’s not as if Brunel would baulk at the effort required – but what I’m getting at is it’s just as well the Fiat doesn’t ask for such frenetic gearchanging and fastidiously rev-matched downshifts, because it’s more of a chore to execute.