They share much of their architecture, yet go their own way with styling, engines and suspension tune. But which is the more rewarding roadster, Mazda’s MX-5 or the new Fiat 124 Spider?

by richard meaden
PHOTOGRAPHY by gus gregory

Once upon a time, small two-seater sports cars were the proud preserve of British and European marques. From the delectable Lotus Elan, gutsy six-cylinder Triumph TRs and fruity-sounding MGBs to the exquisite, exotic Spiders from Alfa Romeo and Fiat, relatively affordable roadsters were thick on the ground. Then along came the hot hatch, at which point enthusiasts rapidly fell for a new breed of performance car. One that offered weekday practicality and weekend fun in one neat, reliable package. The world, it seemed, had fallen out of love with the roadster.

Then along came Mazda with the MX-5, a car that rekindled the romance of affordable, open-top sports cars so successfully it rapidly became the world’s biggest-selling roadster, with more than a million cars built since 1989. Fast-forward to 2016 and the story has come full circle, with the European-inspired MX-5 spawning a new Japanese-built Fiat 124 Spider built on the same platform but using an Italian engine. You really couldn’t make it up.

Whether or not this global brand and engineering mash-up jars your sensibilities will depend on how fondly you regard Fiat. If your knowledge of this proud Italian brand extends far enough back to recall the rorty twin-cam 131 Mirafiori, Strada Abarth or original 124 Coupe and Spider, the thought of a Fiat made in Hiroshima is all wrong. Then again, if you’re happy to think of your iPhone as the product of California when it’s actually made in China, perhaps a Japanese Fiat matters not one jot.

Whatever, there’s considerable irony in the fact the MX-5 is the more authentic car, but that authenticity is richly deserved, for it was Mazda’s commitment and foresight in recreating the classic two-seater drop-top that reminded European marques of the heritage and legacies they squandered.

Given the unexpected and most likely inconvenient union of Fiat and Mazda (at least from a marketing perspective), it’s perhaps inevitable – or even essential – that from the outside you’d barely know these two cars are related, such is the stark difference in styling. Where the Mazda is a clean, compact collection of crisp lines and tight curves, the Fiat is a more traditional and, sadly, rather slabby shape. It looks back longingly to Fiat’s past glories, and to its far prettier forebear, whereas the Mazda confidently fixes its gaze on the future. Each to their own, of course, but to our eyes it’s the Japanese car that looks more cohesive.

Inside, the two are almost indistinguishable, both sharing the same dashboard and instruments, not to mention the same windscreen and roof mechanism. It’s a functional, comfortable place to be. Neat analogue dials are easy to read and suit the simple sports car recipe, while the roof is an absolute cinch to drop or raise. So easy, in fact, that you can do it with one hand from the driver’s seat. Simply unclip the single latch on the windscreen header, throw back the roof and push down until it clicks securely into place, or to raise, just release the retaining lock, pull the roof up and over your head, pop the hooked latch into the header rail and push the over-centre handle until it clicks. In an age of unnecessary complexity, this brilliantly simple manual mechanism is a welcome antidote. It also helps keep the weight of these two pared-back roadsters to a ton or thereabouts, which brings its own reward out on the road.

As you’d expect, much of the pair’s hardware is shared – gearbox, brakes and basic suspension – but when it comes to engines they couldn’t be more different. While Mazda sticks to its old-school guns with a naturally aspirated 2-litre in-line four-cylinder unit (a less powerful 1.5-litre four is also available), Fiat has elected to go with its turbocharged 1.4-litre MultiAir motor. The on-paper outputs of each are equally different – the Mazda good for 158bhp and 147lb ft of torque compared with 138bhp and 177lb ft for the Fiat – yet the claimed performance figures are extremely close, the MX-5 managing to hit 62mph in 7.3sec and a top speed of 133mph versus the Fiat’s 7.5sec and 134mph. A well-matched pair, then.

I start with the Mazda, both because the MX-5 is the established class leader and because I’ve heard so many good things about this latest, Mk4 model yet have spent very little time with one prior to this test. It’s fair to say the MX-5 is a divisive car amongst enthusiasts. Some are passionate to the point of evangelism, others are so disparaging that you question whether they actually enjoy driving at all. Personally, I’ve always sat somewhere in between, enjoying the simplicity and purity of the previous generations (and trying not to fall into the trap of fixating on its relative lack of straight-line performance) yet readily acknowledging that a similarly priced hot hatch offers far more pace and intensity.

It’s a warm day, so the first thing I do is drop the roof. Not much point having a soft-top car if you’re not going to enjoy the fresh air, is there? The engine starts with an encouraging rasp before settling into an unassuming idle. All the controls are light, but once you get your head around the lack of weight, you also appreciate there’s a welcome amount of feel, together with an energy and effervescence that pervades the whole car. The lack of mass is immediately evident, the MX-5 responding well to steering and throttle inputs without being aggressive or sharp-edged in any way.

The engine enjoys being revved, which is just as well, for you need to work it reasonably hard if you’re to bring the MX-5 to life. That’s not to say it’s unhappy when asked to pull a higher gear at lower revs – the engine is smooth, tractable and happy to lug – but the fizz and fun comes between 5000 and 7000rpm. This is where you’ll feel the car really come to life: the engine sounds more purposeful, the gearshifts snap home with more conviction and the whole car really begins to sing. It’s as infectious as you’d hope.

The chassis is equally adept at raising its game and drawing you in with modest grip levels and damping supple enough to work on bumpy roads (even with the upgraded suspension, including Bilstein dampers, of the Sport Nav trim level, as fitted here). This ensures you can enjoy the car and exploit its performance most of the time. It’s not remotely aggressive setup-wise, but it has that special something that only a well-sorted rear-wheel-drive car can give: the clarity of uncorrupted steering, an even division of labour between each end of the car, and a delicate, readily exploitable balance.

It’s swift enough on the straights, but you need to point it at some corners to discover what the MX-5 is all about. If you’re new to rear-wheel drive, it’ll take you a while to gain the confidence to chuck the Mazda around. Likewise, if you’re more used to powerful rear-wheel-drive machinery with enough grunt to slide on throttle application alone then you too will need to learn some new tricks. Funnily enough, it requires a mix of front- and rear-drive skills to get the most from the MX-5: a lift on turn-in to get some forward weight transfer and agitate the tail, then some measured throttle work to sustain the slide. It’s at this stage that the 2-litre MX-5’s standard-fit limited-slip diff becomes your best friend, for it gives you finer control and precision. Then all you need to do is apply some corrective lock with the well-judged steering (2.5 turns lock-to-lock) and you’ve got tidy, entertaining slow-speed oversteer on tap whenever you feel the urge.

At higher speeds the MX-5 is reassuringly neutral. It flows freely along bumpy roads, absorbing lumps and cambers that would deflect a more firmly suspended car. You feel connected to the car but not distracted by the road beneath it. In the higher gears you can thread it through sweeps and kinks with a gentle squeeze of the steering wheel, enjoying the way it readily settles into an unfussed flow. Simple pleasures, but ones you don’t need exceptional roads, skills or excessive speeds to enjoy.

Step from the Mazda towards the Fiat and the first thing that strikes you is how much bigger and heavier it looks. In profile it’s thick round the middle with excessive overhangs, while from head-on its headlights look too far apart. Once behind the wheel you get that MX-5 level of intimacy – and frustration at a non-adjustable steering column – but the view out over the huge, table-like bonnet reinforces the sense you’re in a bigger car.

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.

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.  

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’.

Mazda MX-5 2.0i Sport Nav
Engine In-line 4-cyl, 1998cc
CO2 161g/km
Power 158bhp @ 6000rpm
Torque 147lb ft @ 4600rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip differential, ESC
Front suspension Double wishbones, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension Multi-link, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes Ventilated 280mm discs front,
solid 280mm discs rear, ABS
Wheels 7 x 17in front and rear
Tyres 205/45 R17 front and rear
Weight 1000kg
Power-to-weight 161bhp/ton
0-62mph 7.3sec (claimed)
Top speed 133mph (claimed)
Basic price £23,695
On sale Now

evo rating: ★★★★☆

Fiat 124 Spider
Engine In-line 4-cyl, 1368cc, turbo
CO2 148g/km
Power 138bhp @ 5000rpm
Torque 177lb ft @ 2250rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive, ESC
Front suspension Double wishbones, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension Multi-link, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes Ventilated 280mm discs front,
solid 280mm discs rear, ABS
Wheels 7 x 17in front and rear
Tyres 205/45 R17 front and rear
Weight 1050kg
Power-to-weight 134bhp/ton
0-62mph 7.5sec (claimed)
Top speed 134mph (claimed)
Basic price £19,545
On sale Now

evo rating: ★★★☆☆

‘In the MX-5 you’ve got tidy, entertaining, slow-speed oversteer on tap whenever you feel the urge’

‘the Fiat steers cleanly through faster curves, but the lack of front-end bite limits your options’

‘Neither car is a ten-tenths hooligan, but the Mazda will raise
its game’