Imagine, if you will, a solitary man sitting slumped at the bar of a dark, depressing dive. Further along, an unshaven bar man stands despondently polishing a glass, wishing the guy would leave so he could close up early. Instead the man raises a finger and gestures for another shot. Silently he sits, sadly weeping over his lonesome drink. This is a man who once bought not one but two Italian cars.
I know this man. This man is me.
The Bad Old Days
Italian cars of the past had all the attributes of a practiced vamp: hugely desirable and ruinously expensive. My first, back in the 20th century, rusted away in real time. You could see it happening. My second 21st century car, bought new, ate front tires like doughnuts and developed mysterious electrical problems within months. After these experiences I vowed never again to buy a car that had any Italian DNA.
Fiat 124 Spider
All that is now gone; like a man waking from a deep narcoleptic sleep brought on by a whole series of dull, dispiriting cars designed to suck the vitality out of gearheads the world over, I am again in love with an Italian cutie. That’s right, you’d think after two horrendous experiences, I would learn from my past errors of judgment yet I am once again smitten: but it’s okay, truly, because the diminutive Fiat 124 Spider may have Italian ancestry but is in fact hardly Italian at all.
Essentially, it is a Mazda MX-5 Miata in a designer Italian frock. Instead of being built by Mediterranean types, the 124 Spider is built by the Japanese on the same production line as the MX-5 Miata. Scratch a Japanese car worker and he will bleed precision, I hear.
Comparing & Contrasting
Certainly the 124 Spider I am driving at the time of this writing is very well assembled. The bodywork is pure Italian design with no panels carried over from the Mazda. Under the hood, there’s a Fiat 1.4 liter engine which, unlike the Miata motors, is turbocharged. The MX-5 is offered here in Britain with either a 1.5 or 2.0 liter normally aspirated engine, as Mazda eschews turbo-charging, preferring a different approach to power.
I have driven both variants at length and found that, although a blast on tight, twisting country roads, it is necessary to keep the revs right up to get the best from the engines. Let it fall below 3,000 rpm and everything goes a bit flat. The Fiat engine is altogether quicker to respond I found, and power comes in smoothly once the turbo is spinning. Thus it isn’t necessary to work so hard to make brisk progress.
To me, the 124 feels a little more softly set-up in that the MX-5 steering responds perhaps a tad more instantly and sharply to driver input, although I suspect most people wouldn’t notice much difference. What both cars do in equal measure is bring back that passion for driving, however.
Neither brand is particularly quick as it takes over seven seconds to reach the benchmark 62 mph (100kph) but straight line speed isn’t the point. Once settled into the low slung and just about perfect laid back driving position, my firm buttocks only inches from the road, it feels quick. If you want to go really fast get a Veyron; if you want to have a smile every quarter mile get a Fiat 124 Spider.
On balance, I prefer the 124 Spider based predominantly on the looks but also with a nod to the feisty little engine. Prices here in the UK are broadly similar and of good value. The value thing is important because folks who love driving will also love that these cars are very affordable, economical, and reasonably cheap to maintain. So after weeks of ubiquitous SUVs, and temperate family hatchbacks that leech your automotive soul away, it is great to experience a bit of hot-blooded passion once again.
I have to remember that I am, above all, British and therefore not given to overt displays of excitement or emotion or the wearing of Armani, but even this jaded Johnny English could feel the red stuff stirring as the Spider snapped into the corners with aplomb.
Love is a fickle thing. I’ve just checked my diary and noticed that soon I will have the pleasure of the company of another personal favorite, the newly revised Subaru BRZ for a whole week. Will the Italian passion fade like a holiday romance? Watch this space.
Geoff Maxted is a motoring writer, photographer, and author of our Letter From The UK series. Follow his work on Twitter: @DriveWrite