Despite being heavily related, the two roadsters look markedly different. The 124 has eye-catching round headlights, a long bonnet and a distinctly retro flavour that harks back to the original 124 of the ’70s. It’s 139mm longer and 10mm wider than the MX-5 and, despite those larger dimensions being aimed at the American market, we think it’s a very handsome machine.
In contrast, Mazda has given the MX-5 an much more futuristic look that’s a lot more dramatic. The roadster’s styling features more sharp edges than the Fiat but, thanks to its shorter overhangs, it appears smaller overall. The rear end is more sculpted than the 124’s squarer one, but is marginally more divisive. Which one you prefer will probably come down to whether you prefer the Fiat’s retro look or the Mazda’s distinctly modern one.
There’s not a massive difference in the way the two cars drive, but subtle tweaks have been made to ensure that keen drivers will be able to spot the changes. The Fiat has been developed with the American market in mind so will be offered with an optional automatic gearbox and, coupled with the more torquey engine and increased sound deadening, it makes for a slightly more relaxed motorway cruiser. Despite this, there’s a meatier feel to the steering and slightly stiffer suspension, making it equally talented on a back road jaunt.
The MX-5 is without question one of the most entertaining vehicles to drive ever made. Its sharp steering and lightweight body mean it’s very fast to change direction and incredibly responsive to driver inputs. We suspect that the keenest drivers will prefer the slightly purer driving experience of the Mazda but, as we’ll explain, that choice might depend more on what type of engine you’d prefer.
This is the area where there’s the greatest distinction between the Fiat and Mazda – both manufacturers have decided to fit their own engines under the bonnet. Mazda has developed a pair of lightweight non-turbo petrol engines for the MX-5 – a 130hp 1.5-litre and a 160hp 2.0-litre. Both are rev-happy and match the peppy handling and eager character of the car but, compared to the Fiat, need to be revved more to get the same performance.
Fiat has picked its 138hp 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine for the 124 and, for some buyers, it’ll be one of the most important factors determining whether they choose it over the MX-5. The increased torque offered by the turbo gives more effortless acceleration requiring fewer revs to get the same performance. Reviewers say this mid-range muscle works well both in town and on longer runs. It won’t have the linear acceleration that makes the Mazda such a blast on a back road but, in most normal situations, will be easier to use.
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