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2016 Fiat 124 Spider Lusso (I)

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It is very rare indeed these days when a brand new car is unveiled for it to be a complete surprise. We have gone from the era when a small number of dedicated spy photographers managed to get shots of disguised prototypes testing, usually in some inhospitable place like a desert or winter testing north of the Arctic Circle, to an era when manufacturers themselves offer a mix of teaser information and deliberate leaks. So by the time of the official unveiling, pretty much about the new model has been in the public domain for a while. And sometimes that while can be measure in years rather than months or weeks. That’s certainly the case with the car under test here. Several years before public launch, in May 2012, news came out that the Fiat Chrysler Automotive empire was planning to re-enter the market for an affordable open two seater, and the way that the business case had been made to work (a vital consideration for any manufacturer these days) was by agreeing with another manufacturer to develop jointly, share a lot of the bits you cannot see and to build the cars in the same plant. And who better to partner with than the maker of what is now the world’s best selling two seater sports car, Mazda? Initially, we were told that the new car would be an Alfa Romeo, and the enthusiasts got all excited as the prospect of a rear wheel drive play-thing with Alfa styling but some Mazda build quality sounded like a winner. And then the wait began. And went on, and on. And next we knew, when the latest FCA Product Plan was presented to the investors and the market, the decision had been taken to make the car a Fiat instead, Sergio Marchionne declaring that Alfa belonged in Italy and that as this car would be built in Hiroshima alongside the Mazda, it should not bear Alfa badges. But with a rich history of cars in this format, the most recent being the pretty Barchetta of the mid 90s, and the news that there would be an Abarth version as well, there was still plenty to look forward to. And there was more waiting. A long time before launch, a bit of inside information from one of the Abarth dealers even advised me of the name, a dusting off of the iconic “cento ventiquattro”. Somehow, though, the prototypes managed almost completely to elude the spy photographers, so when the car finally made its debut in August 2015, its looks were a surprise. Unless some the results of other sharing ventures, this car certainly looked quite different to the ND generation of the Mazda MX5 which has been released earlier the year, wit not a single body panel shared between the two. With a Fiat engine to power it, the burning question on every one’s lips was which was the “better” product.

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As someone who was oh-so tempted by the very first MX5, but who took the sensible decision to take another rep-mobile company car and to put the money into a new house instead, I wanted to know the answer to the question, too. Both Fiat and Abarth versions were available from the outset, which was at various points during 2016, dependent on the market. Right hand drive cars were not ready until the closing days of summer, which was a bit of an opportunity missed, but the cars were on sale in Europe a bit earlier than that, and I noticed that the Fiat version appeared on the Hertz Italia website during the summer. It also had a rather ambitious price tag on it, so when it came to booking a car for my October trip to include my annual pilgrimage to the Auto e Moto d’Epoca in Padova, I made a booking for a Punto-sized car. However, on arrival at Bologna airport, a chat with the rental staff quickly elicited the fact that if I could manage to wait for a few minutes, they could clean a 124 Spider that has just been returned, something I was happy to do. I expected them to ask for some sort of an upgrade fee, but no, they gave me the 124 Spider for the price of a rental Punto. The Emilia Romagna and the Po Delta parts of Italy are not that warm by late October, but thankfully I had a decent coat, so I looked forward to a weekend of roof-down motoring, eager to find out just what I thought of the 124 Spider.

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Before setting off on the short journey from the airport to the hotel, 8 km along the Bologna tangenziale in the Friday evening traffic, I lowered the roof. Honestly, there cannot be an easier roof to erect or lower than this one. All you need to do is to release the catch, and push it back, and then just press down so it latches in place. No need for complex and heavy electric motors, and the whole operation takes you seconds. Erecting it is just as easy, just pull it up and then secure it in place. I drove the car with the roof down more or less the whole weekend, including the schlepp back from Padova to Bologna in the dark along the autostrada. Put the side windows up and there is no buffeting, even at the autostrada speed limit of 130 km/h, and if it gets a bit nippy, well, turn the climate control up a few degrees. You can still hear the radio, too. And as well as looking better with the roof down, the visibility all around is truly excellent, not that it is bad with the roof up. Why get a convertible and then not lower the roof?!

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Most of the bits that you cannot see are shared with the MX5, but the Fiat has its own MultiAitr engine, and Fiat tuned suspension. European spec Fiat models all come with a 138 bhp version of the well-known 1.4 litre Turbo MultiAir 4 cylinder engine, with all cars having a Mazda sourced 6 speed manual, the automatic only offered in Abarth guise in Europe. This means that the Fiat is not as potent as the slightly shorter Mazda, and the suspension is a little softer, making this more of a sports tourer than an out and out sports car. Those who want a more raw performance need to look at the Abarth version, but my test of one of those will have to come on other occasion.  Like so many modern Turbo engined cars, this one sounds pretty ordinary when you start up. But keep the faith. Whilst you need an Abarth for the sounds it makes and greater performance, this one hits its own mark pretty well. It does feel a bit sluggish until the turbo wakes up, but when it does, the car goes well. It is mid-range urge which impresses most. There is little to be gained, apart from a lot of noise by using the last 750 rpm before the red line. But if you use the gears, and drive like a Fiat (ie hard), the 124 is decently brisk. And using the gears is something you will enjoy, as whilst needing a firm hand, the change is very precise and the movements required of the short and stubby lever are extremely short, in true sports car tradition. And when you reach a steady speed, the car cruises quietly, so you really could take this on a long journey without it tiring you out. I covered a total of 436 km, over the weekend, at the end of which it needed 31 litres to fill the tank That works out to 39.45 mpg, which is a pretty decent result.

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The Mazda MX5 was won many friends for being fun to drive, with sublime steering, handling and road-holding, and whilst the suspension settings of this car are different to those of its alter ego, and the perfect 50/50 weight distribution of the Mazda is not quite preserved thanks to the longer front end of the Fiat (it is 55/45), everything else is the same, so my expectations were high. I was not disappointed. There is a perfectly sized leather wheel to hold and the steering is excellent. Perfectly judged, there is plenty of feel, and the weighting is just right. There is lots of grip and the 124 Spider attacks corners with all the enthusiasm that you would want. There is negligible body roll, and plenty of grip, so you really could have fun with this car, even at slow speeds, and as you go faster, the 124 Spider rewards you by hanging on. The car certainly feels solid, and there was no trace at all of scuttle shake. There is a good ride quality, too. The test car came on 204/45 R17 alloys and the Fiat-tuned suspension coped well with the variety of surfaces that I encountered during my weekend. The brakes seemed well up to the task, too, and there is a nice conventional pull-up handbrake between the seats. Visibility is excellent with the roof down, but not bad even with it erect, and there is a good field of view from the mirrors. There are parking sensors and a rear-view camera is included, to help you to see exactly where the back end is.

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Like many low-slung sports cars, there is a definite knack to getting in. The less mobile or those of large build may find it a bit too challenging, but for those who are fit and agile, it really is not that hard, and once you have been in and out a couple of times, it seems just as natural as getting in any other car. For sure, once you are in, you will not forget that this is a sports car. You do sit low, and will be looking up at a lot of the surrounding traffic. Not an issue in Europe, but I remember being quite intimidated by this in a Mazda when surrounded by what the Americans call Semis (huge trucks) some years ago. Seat adjustment is manual, with a height adjuster as well as backrest rake and fore/aft movement. Once positioned correctly, the seat proved very comfortable, with plenty of grip from the side bolsters, and the seats were covered with a nice leather trim. Black in the case of the test car, but I have seen a nice tan which would look very good when combined with the red paintwork.

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The 124 is strictly a 2 seater. If you set the front seats well forward, you may be able to squeeze something thin between the seat and the rear bulkhead, otherwise you will have to put your luggage in the boot, and be warned, that is pretty modest, too, being shallow apart from in its centre and quite restricted in both length and width. The roof drops into a well that is separate from the luggage area, so unlike a lot of convertibles, it is not a case of roof down or luggage, you can do both. I am assured by Abarth 124 Spider owners that as long as you pack soft luggage, you can get a surprising amount in, but traditional hard suitcases would definitely be a problem. Inside the cabin, there is no glovebox and no bins on the doors, just a central armrest cubby and quite a deep cubby on the rear bulkhead.

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The interior of the 124 Spider finds a pleasing balance between being truly modern and some retro touches. Those familiar with the latest Mazda will recognise it, too, as unlike the completely changed exterior styling, little has been Fiat-ised here apart from badges and things like the software that powers the start up images on the Infotainment system. That’s no bad thing, as this is a neat and cohesive design, and everything fits together well, with a quality feel to it. Although the main mouldings are all black, there are contrasting colours and textures, with chrome highlights and piano black inlays in the dash and console. Three deeply recessed dials contain a combined water temperature and fuel gauge, speedometer and the central and larger rev counter. The dash contains airplane style air vents at either end, with the automated climate control operated by three rotary dials. The centre of the dash contains a fixed 7″ touch-sensitive display screen, which is mounted nice and high where it is easy to see use and to reach. There is a mouse-style controller in the centre console and this is used for the audio system and navigation. Audio quality seemed decent, though the use of an old-style whippy aerial may cause you to wonder before you get to experience it. The navigation system proved easy to use, and it did help me finding my destination in the centre of Padua, something I seem to need help with every year. There are a pair of chunky column stalks with the lights operated by twisting the end of the left hand one. There are audio repeaters on the steering wheel hub. A conventional pull-up handbrake is between the seats.  There is a leather wrapped steering wheel and keyless starting features.

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There are two trims available, the standard car and the Lusso, and my test car was one of the latter. Mechanically the two are the same, both using the 138 bhp 1.4 litre engine, and the 6 speed manual, so the differences are in trim and equipment. The Lusso rides on 17″ alloys whereas as the standard car has 16″ ones. The Lusso trim also adds automated climate control, leather upholstery, a silver coloured roll bar as opposed to a black one and parking sensors. Red (Rosso Passione) is the standard colour on both, though you can also have Bianco Gelato (frozen white) at no extra cost on the Lusso. The other paint finishes are cost options. Other extra cost items are grouped together into option packs. The Radio Pack gives you a larger 7″ touchscreen with multimedia control, DAB Radio, Bluetooth, MP3 and AUX connectors. The Premium Pack gives keyless entry, navigation and the rear-view camera. The Visibility Pack has full LED front lights with an adaptive lighting system, headlight washers and dusk sensors, and the Bose Pack brings along a Bose sound system with 9 speakers, 4 of them in the headrests.  The price difference between the standard and Lusso cars is not unreasonable, at around £2800, and I would have thought that the Lusso would be the trim to choose.

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I had high expectations for the 124 Spider, and it is fair to say that I was not disappointed. You may wish for more power, in which case, the Abarth would be the car for you, but if you want a stylish open-topped two seater that is good to look (in my opinion), fun to drive and a car you could take on a long journey without feeling worn out before you reach the destination, then this Fiat is well worthy of consideration. Whether you prefer it to the Mazda probably comes down to personal taste, or automotive religious conviction. I’ve not sampled the Japanese car since its initial NA series a long time ago, but for me, the styling alone could be enough to ensure my Italian allegiances did not wander East.

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