Because the original Spider was a hit. Launched in 1965 it sold solidly before becoming a US-only model in 1975. When production of the by-then Pininfarina-branded Spider Azzurra (Spidereuropa this side of the pond) finally ended in 1985 they'd apparently shifted nearly 200,000 of them, three quarters of that total in the States. Four years later, and inspired by that same Stateside demand for dinky European roadsters, that damned Mazda appeared and anybody else's chances of cleaning up in the small sports car market were knackered.
So it's impossible to approach the 124 Spider without comparisons to the MX-5 first and foremost in your head. But there are key differences, emotionally and mechanically.
Split the difference
Styling-wise the Japanese have pushed ahead with a defiantly modernist interpretation of their winning formula. Fiat, meanwhile, makes no pretence and offers a checklist of styling features influenced by the original Spider. At first glance it has an air of 'retrofuturist' trend-setter J Mays' Ford Thunderbird revival of 2002. At second a hint of Mk2 MX-5. Yes, the blobby one. With known structural rust issues. What was that about reviving the spirit of 70s Italian roadsters?
Pricing is keen, starting at £19,495 for the Classica; Lusso spec as driven here adds leather, 17-inch wheels, the silver windscreen surround, a seven-inch screened infotainment and nav system and rear parking camera for £22,295. Spending another grand for Lusso Plus gets you LED lights and Bose speakers, including ones in the headrests.
Meanwhile the biggest difference influencing the driving experience is under the bonnet. The Skyactiv G 2.0 in the more powerful MX-5 is alloy-blocked, oversquare and has an unusually high compression ratio of 13:1. It doesn't take a genius to figure out it's an engine that needs revs to give its best, its 160hp matched with just 148lb ft of torque, delivered at 4,600rpm.
There will be a 160hp version in some markets too but for this launch version the Fiat's iron-blocked 1.4 turbo has 140hp but a more muscular 177lb ft from just 2,250rpm. This alone should inform as much as anything about the differences between these two cars and will appeal to tastes as contrasting as those of the styling.
The Multiair engine sounds good, with a convincing snarl under power and the occasional turbo chuff when you're really pressing on. The power delivery is good too, the off-boost lethargy soon overcome and from there on a hearty mid-range making it feel respectably flexible compared with the more peaky Mazda. Inevitably throttle response isn't as crisp either, the Fiat engine having more inertia and steadier response. This suits the character of the car, the Spider more about mooching and enjoying the atmosphere than cornering on the door handles. In that sense it's very much the traditional European roadster that made the original such a hit.
Springs, dampers, anti-roll bars, steering calibration - all are unique to the Fiat and at town speeds it initially feels a little brittle, high-frequency bumps sending shudders through the body and making the bonnet wobble. A little disappointing in this day and age but things improve as speeds rise and on sweeping roads even bigger bumps are swallowed convincingly without any further shudders or wobbles. It's a relaxing car to drive and doesn't come apart when you start driving faster.
The softness that makes it such refined company does mean the front end can be a little vague and sudden direction changes can upset the grip levels; it's a lot better when you load it up steadily and don't spring any nasty surprises on the chassis. Nicely weighted and responsive steering, well-placed and weighted pedals and a short, positive manual shift are all conducive to putting a smile on your face, there being a hint of the rear-driven balance if you keep it tidy. Push harder and a scrabble or a squeal from the inside rear reveals the diff is open, unlike 2.0-litre MX-5s which get Torsen limited-slip units.
Overall it's simply not as taut or zingy as the Mazda. But that's no bad thing necessarily, Fiat clearly wanting to put some distance between the Spider and the car from which it takes so much. And when the Abarth version lands it'll have a product that decisively answers those questions, that car getting 170hp, 184lb ft and a locking diff as standard, not to mention a more aggressive look and sound. Forced induction obviously gives Fiat the chance to squeeze more power out of the car without too much effort.
An impressive opening act for the 124 Spider then. It's not a hairy chested sports car, but then nor was the original. It is, however, stylish, decent to drive and another affordable rear-wheel drive car at a price point dominated by front-driven superminis and their upwardly mobile derivatives.
FIAT 124 SPIDER
Engine: 1,368cc 4-cyl turbo (1,998cc, 4-cyl)
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 140@5,000 (160@6,000rpm)
Torque (lb ft): 177@2,250rpm (148@4,600rpm)
0-62mph: 7.5sec (7.3sec)
Top speed: 134mph (133mph)
Weight: 1,125kg with 75kg driver (1,075kg with 75kg driver)
MPG: 44.1 (40.9, both NEDC combined)
CO2: 148g/km (161g/km)
Price: £19,545 Classica, £22,295 Lusso, £23,295 Lusso Plus (MX-5 2.0 £20,495 SE-L, £21,095 SE-L Nav, £23,095 Sport, £23,695 Sport Nav)
(Figures in brackets for Mazda MX-5 2.0 for comparison)
Photos: Stan Papior