Italian cars of the past had all the attributes of a practiced vamp: hugely desirable and ruinously expensive. Invariably, the design was gorgeous but the construction and electrics were often suspect and rust was an ever present spectre of impending brown doom and general owner misery.
Today, all that is past is now gone. Waking as if from a deep narcoleptic sleep brought on by a whole series of dull, dispiriting cars designed to suck the vitality out of petrol-heads the world over, the latest Italian cars are now desirable and reliable again.
For some people cars are about driving, first and foremost. How many children a vehicle will take and how much luggage will go in the back are not questions that trouble the car fanatic unduly. Is the seat just right? Is the short-throw gearshift just so and is the handbrake perfectly placed? Is it, above all, fun? It’s a question of priorities. FIAT have made it so. Say hello to a Spider.
Italian Desire, Japanese Efficiency
The diminutive FIAT 124 Spider may have Italian ancestry but is in fact only part Italian. Essentially, it is a Mazda MX-5 in a designer Italian frock but with a different engine and slightly revised suspension. Instead of being built by Mediterranean types, the 124 Spider is built by the Japanese on the same production line as the MX-5. Scratch a Japanese car worker and he bleeds precision.
About The FIAT 124 Spider
Certainly the classy £23,000 Lusso version as tested here is very well assembled. The bodywork is pure Italian design with no panels carried over from the Mazda. Under the bonnet, there’s a FIAT 1.4L engine which, unlike the Mazda motors, is turbo-charged.
Driving the MX-5 it is necessary to keep the revs right up to get the best from the engines. Let it fall below 3,000rpm 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.
The rear-wheel drive 124 feels a little more softly set-up than the Japanese car but the steering still responds instantly and sharply to driver input. Out on the go this diminutive motor handles country roads like a dream, remaining flat and stable through corners.
The FIAT 124 Spider is not particularly quick as it takes over seven seconds to reach the benchmark 62mph (100kph) but straight line speed isn’t the point with a car like this. Once settled into the low slung and just about perfect laid back driving position, my buttocks only inches from the road, it just felt quick. If you want to go really fast get a Bugatti Veyron; if you want to have a smile every quarter mile get a 124 Spider.
The cabin for two is snug but the seats are great; very comfortable and supportive. Despite its small size the Spider makes for a very good distance cruiser. The small boot is deep and will easily take a weekend bag plus your bits and pieces. The fabric hood fits snugly when in position and, although manually operated, raise and lowers in seconds, which is probably just as well in the UK.
More Fun For Your Bucks
On balance, I really prefer the Spider over the Mazda based predominantly on the looks but also with a nod to the feisty little engine. Prices start at under £20k and the value thing is important because folk who love driving will also love that these cars are very affordable, economical and reasonably cheap to maintain. As the Italians say, favoloso! Geoff Maxted