This review first appeared on LeasingOptions.co.uk in June, 2017 – Words and Images by Wayne Gorrett
As convertibles go, my ‘Lifetime Garage of Ten’ would certainly house the venerable Mazda MX-5 roadster.
It’s a traditional two-seat sports car with a lightweight body, small engine and rear-wheel drive. It has a quick folding manual fabric roof and is among the least expensive convertibles to buy and enjoy as a daily drive.
When the Mazda MX-5 arrived in 1989, it showed the world that an affordable, reliable, and extremely fun sports car was very possible. Consequently, it sold like well heated cakes to the point that now in only its fourth generation, the MX-5 continues to be the best-selling convertible sports car in history with more than 1.1 million MX-5’s sold globally. Indeed, Mazda is quite unapologetic about the fact that this model alone saved the company back in darker economic days.
The 2016 Mazda MX-5 is 105 mm shorter and 100 kg lighter than its predecessor, putting its curb weight at an entertaining 1,000 kg. It incorporates the latest in Mazda’s SKYACTIV technology and adopts the corporate ‘Kodo’ design language first introduced so elegantly on the Mazda 6 back in 2013.
The MX-5 has always been a compact sports car – cosy even. This fourth-generation has been significantly reduced in overall size, reinforcing its envious reputation as a dynamically superb driver’s car with immense likeability.
In conforming to Mazda’s latter-day Kodo design language, the cuteness and curves of previous generations have been replaced with severe angles, pointy creases and sharp edges. It works wonderfully on the firm’s hatchbacks and saloons, but I’m not convinced of its suitability on the MX-5.
Fortunately, what’s left of the previous car still has that classic sports car shape – the long bonnet, cosy two-seat cabin and a short boot – and with the cloth top up or down, it unmistakably remains an MX-5. The larger grille and new, low profile headlights make this new generation appear more aggressive than the previous three versions which, in all fairness, may have been what the designers had in mind.
True to form, the new Mazda MX-5’s interior is snug and the driving environment is very focussed on the driver. Getting in and out isn’t particularly difficult and the seats are surprisingly comfortable. The quality of the materials has improved significantly for this generation and for the price, the whole package is pretty spot on.
The controls are logically arrayed around the driver and there’s an excellent touchscreen interface on mid and upper level trim models with intuitive menus and crisp colour graphics.
The manual convertible top is exceptionally easy and quick to use. Practiced operators will be able to flip it open in one easy over-the-shoulder motion without leaving the driver seat, and raising it requires equally little effort.
Trims, Equipment and Pricing
Mazda UK have kept trim grades simple for the new MX-5 as the three now-familiar trims of SE, SE-L Nav and Sport Nav remain.
As an entry-to-market model for the sports car sector, prices of the MX-5 continue to be attractive and start at just £18,795 for the SE, rising to £20,495 for the SE-L Nav and topping out at £23,095 for the Sport Nav.
Despite the reasonable price, the MX-5 comes well equipped – even the base SE gets LED headlights, stop/start button, 16-inch alloy wheels, air-conditioning, electric windows, AM/FM radio, tyre pressure monitor, traction and stability control and airbags.
Step up to the SE-L Nav and more goodies can be had in this little fun pot, like climate control, cruise control with speed limiter, LED daytime running lights, 7-inch colour touchscreen display, DAB radio, Bluetooth and of course, satellite navigation.
The Sport Nav trim grade (as tested), adds keyless entry, adaptive headlights, auto lights and wipers, reverse sensors, dual speakers in both headrests, BOSE audio system, ‘Aha’ and ‘Stitcher’ app integration for web radio, Facebook and Twitter functionality, heated seats, leather furniture, lane departure warning and auto-dimming reverse mirror.
Engines, Drivetrains and Performance
In true sports cars like the MX-5, the chassis should always be the star of the show, with outright performance being a lower priority. Mazda have decided to offer just two four-cylinder petrol engines of 1.5-litre and 2.0-litre capacity, both of which are mated to a six-speed short-throw manual gearbox. There is no automatic option available on the rag top convertible. This is reserved for the new MX-5 RF (retractable fastback) hard-top launched just last month.
The smaller 1.5-litre 130hp unit is available across the range, but the 160hp 2.0-litre engine is optional on the SE-L Nav and Sport Nav variants. The smaller 1.5-litre engine is the better pairing as its lower mass makes the car even more enjoyable to drive.
The 1.5-litre engine is the same deployed in the Mazda 3, but tuned to offer an extra 10hp. That power of 130hp might not seem very much, but in a model that weighs less than 1,000kg, it offers sprightly and entertaining performance.
From a dead start, 60mph arrives in a respectable eight seconds and the willing engine is more than happy to nudge its 7,500rpm limit. Some may prefer the extra throttle flexibility that comes with the more powerful 2.0-litre, but few will lament choosing the 1.5-litre engine which is far more suited to the well-engineered chassis. Less is more, as they say.
The manual gearshift is still as brilliant as it always has been in the MX-5, the six-speed ‘box offering short, light and positive shifts. The pedals are superbly placed but there is no resting place for your left foot which can become tiresome on longer, inter-city journeys.
Ride and Handling
The 130hp 1.5-litre SKYACTIV-G petrol engine is arguably the one to have with this car, offering everything you need and nothing you don’t.
Sure, it’ll max out at 127mph, but straight line speed was never what the MX-5 was about. Instead, this model has always majored on tactility, usability, comparatively entertaining grip levels and a chassis that’s helped generations of drivers grasp the joys of rear-wheel drive dynamics.
Through the twisty bits, MX-5 buyers will certainly be extracting plenty of enjoyment from the sweet chassis. There’s a little more roll through corners than you might expect and the engine can’t boast a particularly inspiring soundtrack but nonetheless, there’s a huge amount of fun to be had behind the wheel.
The little Mazda has undergone extensive mechanical changes this time round, to make it the finest handling version yet. In order to improve weight distribution and lower the centre of gravity, the engines sits 13mm lower and 15mm further back than in the old model, offering incredibly balanced road manners and frequent ‘wow’ moments.
The steering is quick, sharp, and communicates the necessary information to give the driver confidence along more challenging roads. Barely a flick of the wrist sends the MX-5 diving into a corner while the weight savings over the old version are tangible in the way that a series of bends can be strung together so smoothly.
The engineers have done a splendid job on the suspension, too: firm enough to let you know you’re driving something sporty, but with enough compliance to offer surprising levels of comfort on longer journeys.
The MX-5 has reinvented itself several times through recent decades, but never quite so spectacularly as this. It combines a highly active and involving chassis, engines that are responsive and eager to rev and improved levels of quality and luxury.
The Sport Nav as tested has more goodies than most will ever want, but to keep it real and in tune with the MX-5 spirit of not overcomplicating things, the car’s best value lies with the mid-spec SE-L Nav.
Yay Superb Italian styling: Few achieve retro as well as Fiat. Yay Confident chassis, flat cornering, fun-revving engine. Nay £2,500 premium over the MX-5 at entry-level.
Backstory: The original Fiat 124 Spider was first revealed at the 1966 Turin Auto Show. Penned by Tom Tjaarda (Ferrari 365 California, De Tomaso Pantera), at the revered design firm Carozzeria Pininfarina, production started later that year at Fiat’s Turin facility. It was eventually made available in the UK, but only in left-hand-drive configuration.
For its final three years of production, the European model wore a Pininfarina badge and was renamed the ‘Europa Spider’, as the design house took over both production and marketing of the car until 1985.
In 2015, its spiritual successor – with a generous sprinkling of Japanese DNA running through its underpinnings – was presented at the Los Angeles Auto Show.
➤ What is it?
The 2016 Fiat 124 Spider is a front-engined, rear-drive, two-seat roadster. Designed at Fiat’s Centro Stile facility in Turin, the car takes inspiration from the 1966 original, not only in terms of its proportions and stance but also in terms of its detailing.
The new Fiat 124 Spider started life as an Alfa Romeo roadster, but Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne was adamant that, for the new car to wear an Alfa Romeo badge, it would have to be built in Italy. And so, the Fiat 124 Spider was born.
Based largely on the fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 roadster and manufactured alongside it at Mazda’s Hiroshima plant in Japan, the Fiat 124 Spider shares the Mazda’s platform, some nether mechanicals, much of the interior, the manual soft-top mechanism and the windshield. However, it features Fiat’s own turbocharged 1.4-litre MultiAir four-cylinder engine, unique exterior styling and increased length and cargo capacity over the MX-5.
Let’s face it, if you want to include a nifty sports car in your model line-up these days, your starting point need be no further than the best-selling two-seat sports car in the world for the past 26 years.
➤ Trim Grades and Prices
The Fiat 124 Spider is available in three trim grades; Classica, Lusso and Lusso Plus.
Standard equipment on the entry-level Classica trim grade includes 16-inch alloy wheels, DRL’s, LED rear lights, leather steering wheel with audio controls, 3-inch display radio with Bluetooth, USB port and AUX-in, cruise control with speed limiter, manual air conditioning, four airbags and ‘keyless go’ with engine start button. The 124 Spider Classica starts from £20,995.
Mid-range Lusso ditches the smaller alloys for a set of 17’s, chrome double exhaust pipe, silver roll bar covers, silver windscreen frame, heated leather seats, automatic climate control, fog lights and rear parking sensors with camera. There’s also an upgrade of the infotainment system to a 7-inch touchscreen DAB radio with multimedia control knob, navigation system with 3D maps, wi-fi and Bluetooth connectivity, dual USB ports and AUX-in. Lusso models start from £23,745.
The top Lusso Plus specification (as tested) adds a quality BOSE® audio system which has four of its nine speakers integrated into the headrest, LED headlights and DRL’s, adaptive front-lighting and rain and dusk sensors. Lusso Plus models start at £24,995.
➤ The Style Factory
While the Fiat 124 Spider may well be a ‘reworked’ MX-5, every exterior body panel is different and the Fiat looks nothing like the Mazda.
The Spider’s front end sports an elegant version of the original’s flattened hexagonal grille and the headlights are carved into the bodywork, much like the ’66 classic. The dual bulges on the bonnet lid also remain, but are now largely cosmetic; the original bulges were designed to facilitate the dual-overhead-cam engine underneath.
In profile, the 124 Spider doesn’t have the Mazda’s descending front end. Rather, it extends roughly three levelled inches further than the Mazda and the rear boot lid is also a couple of inches longer. The additional five inches affords the Spider a classier, ‘squared-off’ and less aggressive stance all of which is very reminiscent of 1960’s Italian styling. An extrusive crease line that begins behind the front wheel arch and runs into the door handle pays homage to the original Spider.
➤ The Inside Line
Given the Spider’s compact footprint, it is no surprise that the interior may best be described as cosy. But, as ground-hugging sports cars go, getting in and out isn’t too difficult thanks to the narrow sills and shallow seat bolsters. Head and leg room will be scarce for those gifted with excess elevation and elbows are likely to meet without prior arrangement while the removable cup holders remain in their respective slots at the very rear of the centre console.
The leather-clad steering wheel is comfortable and satisfying to hold, but still only adjusts up and down, not in and out. Also, there remains no dash-mounted glove box, rather a storage bin in between the seats.
Fiat changed the instrument gauge faces, added a few soft-touch materials, reworked the door panels, and screwed on their own squared-off gear shift knob. Fiat also specified its own seat fabric and padding and the seats themselves are comfortable and materials feel high-quality.
Good quality, soft-touch plastics cover the majority of the interior and feel good to the touch. The manual HVAC dials are simple and easy to use, as is the Mazda-sourced touchscreen that is the center piece for the dashboard. The interface’s menus are intuitive and require little attention from the driver to operate successfully. It is otherwise controlled by a rotary dial poorly located just below the gear shift which requires frequent visits of an elbow to the aforementioned cup holders.
The non-electric convertible top is unchanged from that deployed on the Mazda. It is light and very easy to use, taking around four seconds to open or close. Requiring the use of only one hand from inside the cabin, simply unlatch the locking mechanism above the rear view mirror, pitch the top over your shoulder and push down to click-lock in place. Raising it is just as simple and painless. The roof is very well insulated and keeps things reasonably civilised inside once it’s up by suppressing road, traffic and wind noise from outside.
Due to the nature of the beast, both Mazda and Fiat’s engineers main focus was on making this two-seater roadster a car that looked good and was fun to drive. At a meagre 140 litres, the Spider’s boot is quite small by sports car standards. But, it’s a deep, practical shape and is well up for a few weekend away bags, or the weekly shop.
➤ Engine and Transmission
Fiat is offering only one engine and gearbox on the 124 Spider…the same four-cylinder, turbocharged 1.4-litre MultiAir found in other current Fiats, including the feral 500 Abarth. On the 124 it delivers 140 bhp and 240Nm of torque from a useful 2,250 rpm. It is paired with Fiat’s own six-speed manual ‘box, which is a delight to use.
The engine is assembled in Italy and shipped complete to Japan to be installed during final assembly.
Maximum turbo boost pressure peaks at 2.94 bar and winds up quickly but some lag is present. This is easy to mitigate by keeping the revs above 2,000 rpm. Despite more horsepower and torque, an increase in size and weight makes the 124 Spider a little less spirited off the line than the MX-5, though the exhaust note adds to its thoroughly enjoyable Italian flair and fits squarely with the character of the original 124 Spider which, at the time, was every poor man’s take on a Ferrari.
➤ On-Road Cred
The Fiat 124 Spider certainly has a sporty Italian character; but instead of begging you to seek apexes, it yearns for elevated sweeping mountain passes and a more genteel Grand Touring pace. It’s less edgy and more compliant that the MX-5 – kinder, relaxed, gentler, if you will.
Still, the 124 Spider is a tremendously fun machine, offering a stiff and well-balanced chassis and plenty of power to tackle any road. Engine and road noise appear to have been reduced in the 124 Spider, compared to the Mazda, and the suspension feels slightly more forgiving.
The manual transmission is excellent in everyday use, and the pedals are well set up for effortless heel-and-toe shifting for those that prefer it.
Driving the 124 Spider is a cinch. The precise steering and rear-drive layout offer plenty of confidence when entering a corner at high speeds. The compliant suspension dampens road imperfections and harsh impacts, making it suitable for extended B-road stints. Also adding to its long-distance ability is the 124’s increased amount of sound-dampening material compared to the Mazda.
➤MPG, running costs and CO2
The Fiat 124 Spider is quite a lightweight sports car that should be relatively cheap to run, as is its donor, the Mazda Mx-5. Its 1.4-litre engine is quite economical and doesn’t need to be worked too hard which would impact on fuel consumption.
The combined cycle 44.1mpg from the 1.4-litre turbo petrol engine is good for a sports car and CO2 emissions of 148g/km are reasonable. Road tax will cost you £145 a year and it falls into insurance groups 25 and 26.
During the test week, I achieved 43.9 mpg over 249 miles, at an average speed of 31 mph.
The 124 Spider has a three-year 100,000-mile warranty like other new Fiats, with the first two years being provided by Fiat UK and the third year by your Fiat retailer.
Service intervals for the Fiat 124 Spider are 9,000 miles or 12 months, whichever comes first. Servicing costs are likely to be relatively low, and a fixed-price servicing package from Fiat will means budgeting for maintenance should be easy.
➤Additional 124 Spider models
Both spinoff models from the Fiat 124 Spider are via Fiat’s in-house tuning arm, Abarth:
Abarth 124 Spider: There’s more power (+30hp), a more focused chassis, more aggressive looks, more delightful noise and, more significantly, another £7,800 over the Spider Classica.
Abarth 124 Spider Rally: Four decades after the original Fiat 124 Abarth Rallye competed in international rallying, the Italian firm turns up the wick of the new 124 Spider to produce a motorsport version. It’s powered by a 1.8-litre turbocharged engine that is capable of pushing out 300 horsepower to the rear wheels via a six-speed sequential-shift gearbox and a mechanically locking rear differential. The only caveat is that you can’t buy it, at least, unless you’re keen on taking it rallying in this year’s FIA’s R-GT class. Approximate price: £127,000. I know.
The Fiat 124 Spider is a brilliant, five-star sports car: it looks great, is tremendous fun to drive and is reasonable value for money. It’s a very decent ride and our testy British roads do little to negate its enjoyment. The turbocharged engine gives it the flexibility to be fun for longer trips too. Overall, it’s more comfortable, powerful and quieter than the Mazda upon which it’s based, but adds to Mazda’s sense of adventure and fun.
An insider at Mazda EU told me that without the Fiat partnership for the 124 Spider, the fourth-generation MX-5 might not have happened. So, all hail an important global tie-up that everyone who loves to drive should go out and celebrate.
Having driven both the Mk4 MX-5 and the 124 Spider recently, I fully understand why someone might actually prefer the feisty Italian. I do.
➤Essentials : Fiat 124 Spider
* Price: £20,995 – £24,995. * Engine: 1.4-litre, 4-cylinder turbocharged petrol. * Power: 140 bhp @ 5,000 rpm. * Torque: 240 Nm @ 2,250 rpm. * Transmission: Six-speed, manual gearbox. * Chassis front: Double wishbone with stabilizer bar. * Chassis rear: Multilink with stabilizer bar. * 0-62 mph: 7.5 seconds. * Top speed: 134 mph. * Fuel consumption: 44.1 mpg (official combined cycle). * Fuel tank: 45 litres (9.9 gallons, theoretical mileage: 435 miles). * CO2 emissions: 148 g/km. * Luggage capacity: 140 litres. * Kerb weight: 1,050 kg. * Insurance groups: 25 (Classica), 26 (Lusso and Lusso Plus). * Annual VED: Band F – £148 from Year One.