When I was coming up to my seventh birthday, my parents told me I was getting a new bicycle. There were two in the big display window of Kennys that I loved. One was a dark red; the other a larger blue one. I spent hours, nose against glass, looking at them, always diverting on my way home from school to see if they were still there. We decided on the red. But that wasn’t the end of the matter by any means.
I’m in something of a similar dilemma with two little roadsters (not that I could afford either). They have much in common but myriad little differences too.
One is the Mazda MX-5 roadster which is World Car of the Year (I gave it my second-best vote). The other is its close sibling, the Fiat 124 Spider, reviewed today.
Both are built alongside each other in Japan and share a fair bit. Yet their differences are profound on key fronts: not one of the 124’s panels is the same as the Mazda’s.
And the 124 has its own, distinctive, 1.4-litre (140bhp) turbo petrol while the Mazda has a 1.5 (130bhp) and a more powerful 2-litre (as well as having soft and hard-top versions).
I’ve reviewed the Mazda before. If you can’t love a car like that, I don’t know what to say. But could I love something else more?
The sense of difference is intriguing. Firstly, the Fiat is more muscular and angular to look at. I do prefer that somehow, but the margins are fine. The Mazda is simpler, cleaner of line. People love that too.
There’s also a throatier noise out the Fiat’s exhausts and that 140bhp engine (10bhp up on the MX-5 1.5) begged to be revved and driven. I obliged. That’s what driving a roadster should do; make you want to drive, feel the innate speed magnified by low-and-close proximity to the tarmac. There is only 10bhp between it and the Mazda 1.5 but it counts a lot. The Fiat felt rawer (in the nicest sense) and had that bit of roar that had me feeling I was driving a much more powerful entity.
My goodness, I sat low; the tall daughter and myself hadn’t much legroom in the cabin either but, as we said with the wind and rain battering the fabric roof, what did we expect?
Financial considerations could play a part in your decision too. And let’s be honest, so could perceptions around the marques themselves.
The Mazda starts lower (€27,995) and is €100 easier on the 124’s road tax (€280). Fiat’s price is affected by its higher emissions and, they claim, higher level of equipment.
This could drive you mad, you know; like looking at the two bikes in the window. So I’ll try to give you a flavour of the 124 drive. But not before giving out a bit first: about, for example, the non-retracting seatbelt which constantly fell to the outside when I exited: maddening. So was the lack of any movement on steering wheel adjustment. And it took a long time to warm the cabin. Brrr. Maybe the cabin is a good place to start because I had my usual bad luck with roadsters and weather. It was so bad when I went to pick it up, the nice people at Fiat waited until the last minute to leave it out of its sheltered cubbyhole for me.
I got reasonably comfortable, eventually – that bonnet is so long, and boy is the cabin low and dark. The few dials are cluttered; it’s not easy to glean info at a glance.
But a few blares of the engine turned thoughts to less mundane matters. Even with sleet in the wind and heavy traffic (you feel vulnerable from such a low vantage point) it was great fun. Even more so when I could give it a good scoot. The gearbox, older than that in the Mazda, was fine by me and I loved the free-flow of power and revs. Sure, you feel the ripples of road but not in an intrusive way; more engaging. It’s a classic set-up: rear-wheel drive, front engine and a wonderfully tight turning circle.
It got a lot of short 40km drives, and my luck never returned on the weather. Not once did I get to drop the hood. That’s what I get for driving a roadster in February.
But I’d say the most convincing argument for it came late on the Friday night that I picked it up from Quick Park at Dublin Airport. I was cold, tired, miserable. Within five minutes, I was happily scooting down the M50, relishing the high revs and slightly raucous engine note.
Look, this is all about marginal preferences. The 124 Spider has more thrust; the MX-5 is so refined, a beautiful car.
I’m leaning slightly towards the Fiat But I can’t dismiss the Mazda. Really, you know, this is emotional rather than analytical. I make no bones about saying that because that is what these cars are supposed to be about.
As you read this, I’ve probably changed my mind already. But the 124 gets the nod for now.
By the way, we did end up leaving back the little red bike and taking the larger blue one.
Facts & figures
Fiat 124 Spider 1.4 MultiAir Lusso Plus; 1.4-litre (1,368cc) turbo petrol, 140bhp, 6spd manual. 0-100kmh in 7.5 secs, 6.4l/100km, 148g/km, road tax €390.
From: €31,495; car tested: €35,795.
Equipment includes: BOSE system/ 8 speakers, 7ins touchscreen radio, satnav, DAB, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, 2 USB ports, front electric windows, cruise control/speed limiter, parkview rear parking/camera, LED headlights, adaptive front lights, rain/dusk sensors, rear parking sensors/camera, 17ins alloys, leather, chrome double exhaust, Fix&Go puncture repair kit, heated seats, auto climate control, electric/mirrors, front fogs, 45-litre fuel tank.