- Available for £14,000
- 1.4-litre inline four turbo, rear-wheel drive
- More boulevardier than barnstormer, but still fun
- Softer than an MX-5, and a lot rarer
- Abarth's extra power adds oversteer to the mix
- Mazda core means good reliability
Back in the mid 1960s, before many of us were even born, Fiat's 124 was a blandly styled four-door saloon for skint Italians. Even skint Italians wanted to have fun behind the wheel though so the 124's chassis was somewhat better than the boxy looks might have you believe. That made it a good basis for the two more sporting versions of the 124 that Fiat decided to build. One was the Pininfarina-designed 124 Sport Spider of 1966. The other was the 124 Sport Coupe by Mario Boano, who had previously worked for Pininfarina on the Ferrari 250 GT.
Both of these 124 offshoots achieved classic status long ago. Quite right too, as not only were they masterpieces of clean design, they were lovely to drive. Sadly, the standard of Italian rustproofing wasn't so hot back then, so just about every Coupe and Spider ended up in the scrapyard after going through an ignominious and often dangerous process of bodgery to keep them on the road.
When Fiat announced in 2012 that it was going to revive the 124 Spider, there were some misgivings among those who were old enough to remember those original Sixties 124s. The intensity of the muttering rose up to an angry buzz when it was revealed that the new 124 Spider wasn't going to be a 'pure' Fiat but a joint venture project between Fiat Chrysler Automotive (as Fiat had become by then) and Mazda. Essentially the new 124 Spider was going to be a gen-four (ND) MX-5 put together at Mazda's Hiroshima plant with a turbocharged Fiat MultiAir 1.4 litre engine producing 140hp and 177lb ft in the base model, or 170hp and 184lb ft in the Abarth version. It would also have a few other changes like differently calibrated dampers and, most obviously, new bodywork. The 124's longer overhang look was designed to provide a bit more luggage space and (Fiat hoped) help the car to straddle the half-century gap between old and new.
There was plenty of historic 124 Spider goodwill to trade on, so despite the mutterings there was no shortage of excitement in the weeks building up to the car's debut at the Los Angeles show in November 2015. Unfortunately, things didn't pan out too well. The MX-5 that underpinned the Fiat turned out to be its worst enemy. Potential 124 buyers had to ask themselves whether the Fiat badge was really worth bothering with when they could get effectively the same (or arguably a better looking) car with a Mazda badge, strongly hinting at better UK aftersales backup. The disappointment wasn't alleviated by lukewarm press reviews revealing that the MX-5 didn't just look sportier, it backed up its visual promise on the road rather more effectively than the base model Fiat did.
Not an auspicious start, then. Although the Abarth version was a decent step up with improvements to both chassis and performance, it was offputtingly expensive at not far short of £30,000, or well over that in special edition. That was quite a bit more than the dearest MX-5. It wasn't all that surprising, therefore, when the 124 Spider was largely ignored in Fiat showrooms by all but the keenest marque devotees.
In January 2019, just three years in, the Spider was abruptly deleted from Fiat's UK range. The Abarth version followed it into obscurity three months later. No official reason was given by Fiat UK, but we can probably read something into the fact that WLTP emissions tests became mandatory for measuring CO2 emissions and fuel economy on all new cars in the EU from 1 September 2017, and the MultiAir might not have been up to the task of passing them.
At the end of 2020 it was decided that there would be no 2021MY cars for the US. That was a particularly bitter blow for Fiat as the 124 was meant to be spearheading the company's renaissance in that huge market. Interestingly, the remaining 124 inventory in the US has been selling very well (and practically undiscounted) over there since it was axed, perhaps benefitting from focused PR activity given that there are next to no other Fiat models on sale in the States now. Getting back to the UK, what it all adds up to is three years' worth of cars for anyone interested in buying a used 124 Spider.
Let's look at the positives first. In isolation, away from all the Mazda hullabaloo, the 124 was a lovely little car. As a result of its short lifespan it has achieved something that Fiat never wanted for it, namely, a degree of exclusivity. It's hard to be sure about how many are presently registered in the UK because it's not at all clear whether the sites that provide this sort of info aren't accidentally double-counting models within their overall stats, but we'd be surprised if the number was much higher than 2,000 and it could easily be as few as a thousand.
Cheerily, this unwanted exclusivity hasn't had an enlarging effect on used prices, which currently start at under £14,000. That's about what you'd pay for a reasonable looking but very possibly extremely dodgy 124 Spider from the 1970s. We saw a 13,000-mile 2018 Spider for £9,995, although that was Cat S (structurally damaged but by the looks of it decently repaired). Shows you what these cars could end up getting down to in the not-too-distant future though. Or maybe they won't. Maybe their relative rarity will get noticed and prices will start to rise, Elise-like. Is that already happening, in fact? Hmm.
Values to one side, 124 Spider prices look interesting for what is, at worst, a five-year-old turbocharged convertible with a heaped teaspoon of 'what's that?' stirred into the pot. Would you spring for one if you had the wherewithal? Let's look at some of the reasons why you might, and some why you might not.
SPECIFICATION | FIAT 124 (2016-19)
Engine: 1,368cc inline four turbocharged
Transmission: 6-speed manual (automated auto available in Abarth), rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 140@5,000rpm (170@5,500rpm)
Torque (lb ft): 177@2,250rpm (184@2,500)
0-62mph (secs): 7.5 (6.8, auto 6.9)
Top speed (mph): 134 (144, auto 142)
Weight (kg): 1,050 (1,060)
MPG (official combined): 44.1
CO2 (g/km): 148
Wheels (in): 16 (Classica), 17 (Lusso)
Tyres: 195/50 x 16 (205/45 x 17 Lusso)
On sale: 2016 - 2019
Price new: from £20,105
Price now: from £14,000
(Figures in brackets are for the Abarth version)
Note for reference: car weight and power data are hard to pin down with absolute certainty. For consistency, we use the same source for all our guides. We hope the data we use is right more often than it's wrong. Our advice is to treat it as relative rather than definitive.
Despite having hydraulically activated variable valve timing as well as its single turbocharger, the 1.4 MultiAir motor from the Abarth 595 seemed oddly relaxed in the 124 Spider. Road testers and owners alike did find that the engines loosened up noticeably after a couple of thousand miles, which perhaps partly explained the slightly underwhelming experience noted in very low-mileage test vehicles, but on the other hand Fiat's advertised specs did kind of confirm that the laid-back feel was engineered in from the start. The 140hp maximum power of the base car was developed at just 5,000rpm, with maximum torque of 177lb ft coming in at an almost diesel-like 2,250rpm.
Let's compare that to the specs of the entry-level 1.5 ND MX-5. Without a turbocharger the Mazda couldn't compete on torque, mustering up just 111lb ft. The power difference between them was less marked, however, the Mazda managing 129hp, but the revs at which the Mazda made its best efforts - 4,800 for torque and 7,000 for power - really highlighted how different the approaches of the two cars were. Nobody could definitively say that one approach was better than the other, but if your idea of small-scale sporty motoring included working the throttle and gears for fun you might have found the Fiat an easy but ultimately less engaging drive. If, on the other hand, you were more into relaxed cruising, then the Fiat might do you very nicely.
The 1.5 MX-5 was around 50kg lighter than the Fiat, the Italian car's weight penalty being mainly down to its iron-blocked MultiAir engine, with the extra sheet metal in the body not helping. The entry-level 1,050kg 140hp Fiat had a marginally better power to weight ratio than the 1,015kg 130hp MX-5 1.5, but a worse one than the 1,047kg 160hp MX-5 2.0. The ratios in the Fiat's six-speed manual box were lower than the Mazda's, and in the six-speed automated manual option (which in the MX-5 was only available on the 2.0, and in the 124, only on the Abarth) the Fiat's final drive ratio was tweaked to help its acceleration.
Why you'd want the auto box is another matter. Mainly aimed at the US market, it was a crude sort of thing with a lot of distracted hunting for the right cog in auto mode and some noticeable driveline jolting in paddleshift manual mode. A well driven manual 124 was fractionally quicker than the auto (by 0.1sec) through the 0-62mph. There was a recall on the autos, actually, when some of them revealed a disconcerting tendency to shift down to first when the car was moving at non-first speeds, potentially causing rear wheel lockup. The fix was a control module software update.
Obviously the 30hp more powerful Abarth was quicker than the regular 124 but not by that much in the real world as you needed 500 more revs to hit the power peak, and the torque boost was only 7lb ft, again at higher revs. Still, the Abarth sounded great thanks to its standard fit dual mode Record Monza exhaust.
The official combined fuel consumption for both 140hp and 170hp 124s was given as 44mpg. You'd get high 40s on the motorway and low 30s in town. In average use you had a useful theoretical range of 435 miles from the 45-litre tank.
In the UK there was a three-year unlimited mileage warranty from new. Service intervals were every 12 months or 15,000km, which is a fairly short 9,300 miles. Despite that, running costs should be low. We haven't dredged up anything worth banging on about in the way of common problems, and Fiat offered fixed price servicing plans for these cars. Major services would be £300, minors £200. Changing the timing belt would be around £300, while replacing the clutch would cost about £400.
Although the 124's double-wishbone front, multilink rear suspension design was no different to the Mazda's, albeit with Fiat's own mix of settings, the base 124 didn't get the superior Bilstein dampers of the Abarth, which also had stiffened springs and anti-roll bars and the mechanical limited slip diff that you got in the 2.0 SE-L MX-5.
The ESP was switchable but that felt like a redundant feature on the 140hp cars. The Abarth's extra power brought oversteer to the table and combined well with the chassis mods to add extra life to the 124 drive. Its electronic power steering (shared with the Mazda) seemed heavier than the normal 124's, but neither of the 124 helms felt as direct as the MX-5's.
The thing with the Fiat though, regular or Abarth, was the excellent ride quality, 124s of Lusso spec or higher got 17in wheels instead of the Classica's 16s and although that didn't greatly detract from the ride comfort, the bigger wheels were easier to kerb. A Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyre for a 17in wheeled Lusso is £125 fitted from Blackcircles, while Kumhos would be under £80 each. A Toyo Proxes for a 16in Classica is under £75.
Some muddled thinking must have gone on in the Fiat boardroom when they were having a chat about how to make the 124 different to the MX-5. Both cars made use of aluminium in their construction - we think it accounted for every panel bar the doors and the rear quarter panels - but somewhat amazingly there were no common body parts between the two, a missed cost-saving opportunity for the sake of - what?
Well, according to Fiat, one of the main reasons for changing the body style was to generate more cargo space. If you asked most owners, or prospective owners, of small two-seater sportsters to come up with a list of stuff they would like to see in their cars, 'more luggage space' probably wouldn't be too high up on it. Yes, the 124's bigger overhangs did boost the cargo space as promised, but only from a small 130 litres to a still small 140 litres. Despite throwing in distractions like 'classic 124' twin bonnet blisters, Fiat's stylists weren't able to fully conceal the dumpiness that resulted from the 124's extra five inches of body length. The imbalance was actual as well as visual too because, although Fiat laid claim to the Mazda's 50/50 front/rear split, weight testing appeared to indicate that it was nearer to 55/45 front/rear thanks to that weightier MultiAir engine.
On the plus side, both cars had the benefit of Mazda's well loved one-handed-operation fabric roof. The Abarth 124 GT range-topper came with a bolted-on carbon fibre hardtop as well as the soft top, another odd decision by Fiat you might think as the faff of removing it on a nice day could kill off the spontaneity of a 'let's just jump in and go' drive. The normal fabric roof did create something of a blind spot over the driver's shoulder but that's standard for a soft top. To check for leaks, which can also be standard with a soft top, one well-known car site recommended that you take your 124 Spider into an automatic car wash. Not sure we'd be doing that, but you might know someone who is up for a damp laugh.
As you'd expect, the Abarth wore the usual array of scorpion badges along with black wheels and red detailing, or grey detailing on blue cars. Often as not you would also have a slightly jarring patchwork quilt effect caused by the mixing of red mirrors and chin spoilers with matt black bonnets (harking back to the anti-glare bonnets of old Abarth rally cars) and disassociated body colours.
As usual with this type of car it's important to look for odd panel gaps suggesting poor accident repairs, especially when so many of the panels are aluminium and therefore more expensive to repair.
This was the area in which it was perhaps most difficult to separate the Fiat and the Mazda, if only because they were so similar. Tall folk (six feet and over) would find life awkward in either car as there wasn't a lot of room for humans or their nick-nacks. The steering wheel moved up and down but not back and forth. There was plenty of wind and road roar in both cars, too.
The physical points of differentiation between the 124 and the MX-5 included the door cards, the fonts and colours used for the instrumentation, a thicker-rimmed leather-wrapped steering wheel in the Fiat and an additional layer of soft-feel material that Fiat stuck over the Mazda's plastic dash.
There were three main specs for the standard 124 Spider, no-frills Classica, Lusso with a seven-inch touchscreen, parking sensors, silver body trim and chromed exhaust tips, and Lusso Plus with adaptive LED headlights and Bose stereo. There were also Anniversary and S Design editions. All models had climate control, Bluetooth connectivity, heated seats and cruise control. There were no cupholders and no facility for Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, but you could pay a little extra to have sat-nav put into an Abarth.
Abarth cars had special sports seats with red stitching, a steering wheel with a 12 o'clock stripe and Alcantara for some trim pieces like the gearlever boot that made the interior feel nicely special. A Heritage Abarth was available at the same £29,750 price as the regular Abarth.
Build quality was very decent altogether, with a satisfying action to the controls, but the bolsters on leather-seated cars didn't stand up that well to wear.
It was a shame that so many comparisons were made between the Fiat and the Mazda, and we haven't helped that now by doing exactly the same thing in this buyer's guide, but you just couldn't get away from the fact that the Mazda cast a long shadow - and the Fiat spent most of its time squirming slightly in that shadow. Most if not all of the changes that were made to the core MX-5 to endow the 124 with some unique Italian character only seemed to do so at some kind of negative cost to the ownership and driving experience. According to legend, Fiat even fitted a different battery to the 124. It was nearly 5kg heavier than the Mazda's.
If we can forget about the Mazda for a minute, however, we have to conclude that a 124 Spider would be a perfectly good shout in its own right. One way to describe it would be to say that the 124 is a little softer than the Mazda. Not much seems to go wrong with them, and if you like the styling and the slightly blurrier-edged driving experience, you'll enjoy it. Judging by the small number of Abarths on the market it appears that people are enjoying those models in particular. Expect to pay around £21k for a 10,000-mile 2018 Abarth, or as little as £13k for a cat N auto with 40,000 miles.
There's no need to pay more than £23k for any used 124 Spider. For that sort of money you'll get a late model with low miles and upgrades to stuff like the exhaust. Just about every 124 Spider on PH Classifieds as we were putting this story together was a Lusso. At the bottom end of the prices there was a choice of two sub-£14k cars. On the basis of its lower mileage and its jollier red paint, if not its repetitive ad copy, our pick would be this 47,000-mile 2017 car at £13,990. If you would be happy with a simpler Classica, here's a white 14,000-miler, again from 2017, at a pound under £15,000. Don't forget to ask for your £1 change.
For an Abarth, prices start at £19k, which buys a blue 2018 car with 35,000 miles. Most are around the £20-£22k mark, with the most expensive at this time of writing a 19-plated Abarth with just 1,600 miles for £25,490.
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