If the Mazda MX-5 Miata taught us anything, it’s that fun cars don’t have to be expensive, complicated or unreliable.
Engine: 1.4L turbocharged 4-cylinder
Power: 160 hp, 184 lb.-ft.
Transmission: 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic
EPA Fuel Economy (MPG): 31 city, 42 hwy (manual)
CAN Fuel Economy (L/100 km): 9 city, 6.7 hwy (manual)
US Price: Starts at $24,995 (before freight)
CAN Price: Starts at $33,495 (before freight)
It’s been almost 30 years since that car was introduced, and almost 30 years since it forever altered the perception of what a roadster should be. Sure, there were those that came before it — the MGs, Triumphs and Lotuses from Britain; the Alfa Romeos and Fiats from Italy — but Mazda single-handedly resurrected the segment from the ashes in the late 1980s because it brought something those cars didn’t have: Japanese reliability.
Tired of its roadsters being remembered as little more than relics of bygone days, Fiat is ready to take another shot at droptop dominance with the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider. And in the ultimate if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em fashion, the 124 Spider is based on the very car it hopes to challenge in the sales race.
More Than a Rebadged Miata
Three and a half years were spent designing and refining what brand executives hope will become a true halo car for Fiat, and it shows. The 124 Spider may ride on the same architecture as the fourth-generation Miata, but every bit of bodywork and drivetrain has been swapped out to help set it apart from its platform mate.
ALSO SEE: 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata Review
Like its Mazda sibling, this new Fiat is made from a monocoque unibody with suspension subframes bolted to the front and rear. The two ride on the same 90.9-inch wheelbase, though the 124 Spider measures more than five inches longer than the Miata, giving it a decidedly different silhouette that harkens back to the Fiat 124 Sport Spider of the 1960s. The overall design, too, follows the course mapped out some 50 years ago, with classic looks that are reserved where the MX-5 is aggressive. If you’re looking for a companion for those new perforated leather driving gloves, the 124 Spider would be it.
Regardless of trim — the 124 Spider is available in base Classica, Lusso and Abarth — all cars come with a 1.4-liter MultiAir turbo four-cylinder under the hood. Yes, this powerplant sports forced induction, but no, it’s not exactly the turbocharged Miata fanboys and fangirls have been asking for.
With 160 hp (164 hp in Abarth guise) and 184 lb-ft of torque, it does make more power than the Miata’s 2.0-liter, but not enough to wow the diehards. That’s particularly the case when considering that the engine is virtually a direct transplant from the likes of the Dodge Dart and Fiat 500L. But don’t let that disheartening fact ruin your 124 experience, however, because the engine feels completely different in the roadster than in that awful crossover. The engine is more than adequate no matter the driving mood. Turbo lag is also minute, with the full monty of torque on tap from as low as 2,500 rpm.
The standard transmission is, well, a standard transmission; a six-speed manual, to be exact. It’s a different gearbox than the one found in the MX-5, and boasts short throws and a friendly clutch. It definitely feels different from the Miata, but it’s not better or worse — just different — and it’s well suited to the car. Low gears are a touch on the short side, but it makes a nice companion to the 1.4-liter when you feel like banging through the gears.
The available six-speed auto is a bit of a mixed bag, proving great on the highway, but a touch out of its element when the twisties beckoned. Putting it in manual mode certainly helped, forcing the the Aisin-built unit to hold the gears a little longer, though steering wheel-mounted paddles are only available on automatic Abarths, making pushing and pulling on the shifter for gear changes the only choice. That transmission could also benefit from a sport setting for those who would rather let the gearbox handle the workload on its own.
The suspension setup, double wishbone up front and multi-link around back, is soft in all the right places — or, more aptly, at all the right times. Re-tuned shocks and springs are just enough Miata and just enough gelato, providing a firm yet comfortable ride that makes the 124 Spider equally as happy carving up corners as it is cruising the highway. I found the 124’s suspension to be more comfortable than the Miata during regular driving, but still capable in the corners.
Steering, too, is weighted in a way that allows the car to pull double duty as both daily driver or weekend warrior. It is not an adjustable setup, but the electrically power-assisted rack and pinion system is equally light and tight depending on the situation.
Stuck in the Comfort Zone
The exterior of the 124 Spider stands in stark contrast to Mazda’s roadster, but the interior does anything but, looking and feeling almost exactly like the Miata, albeit with different materials strewn throughout the cabin. Everything from the door panels to the dashboard and center stack feel all too familiar, right down to the infotainment system that is taken straight from the Mazda and dropped into the Fiat, including the console-mounted media controls. This is actually kind of a shame, because UConnect is so much more user friendly.
The cabin does, however, seem to feel a touch tighter than the Miata’s, with an aluminum header in the soft top that was designed to reduce wind flutter doing taller drivers no favors when it comes to headroom.
Priced to Compete
For all its differences from the MX-5 Miata, the 124 Spider is nearly identical to its platform mate in one very important way: Price. With the base Classica starting at $24,995 and the speedy Abarth sporting a sticker of $28,195, the 124 Spider provides nothing if not choice for those in the market for a compact roadster. A bare-bones Classica with cloth seats and 16-inch alloy wheels will certainly do the job, while the $27,495 Lusso adds heated leather seats, a seven-inch touchscreen and aluminum-look exterior accents.
And then there’s the Abarth. For a slight premium of $700 compared to the Lusso, the 124 Spider goes from reserved to absurd, with Bilstein sport suspension, mechanical limited-slip differential and sport-tuned exhaust that provides a raspy snarl across the rev range, as well as plenty of exterior and interior accents to help it look the part.
ALSO SEE: 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth Video
The Verdict: 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Review
So if the MX-5 Miata is the standard by which all roadsters are now measured, where does that leave this new Fiat? Well, off to a good start.
Everything that makes the Miata so lovable — its light weight, great balance and near-impeccable handling — carry over nicely to the Fiat, making it a viable alternative to a car that has dominated the segment for close to 30 years.
So which one is better? It all boils down to taste.
The Fiat brings the same level as enthusiasm and performance as the Mazda, but in a distinctly Italian package that comes across as slightly more modest. It’s unlikely the 124 Spider can overtake the Miata as king of the compact roadsters, but it’s certainly a worthy contender when it comes to affordable, topless fun.