As it turns out, the Miata makes a hell of a donor car for a truly unique Italian revival.
– San Diego, California
When all is said and done, I suffered a pretty decent sunburn driving the new Fiat 124 Spider around Southern California for a day. I don’t expect your pity; I’d like you to see that as a data point. Throw away the Mazda-based origin story of this Japanese-built convertible with an Italian badge; ignore the comparison with the pure 1960s roadster that America fell in love with. Here’s the fact of the matter: The 124 is enjoyable enough to drive that I did so until my big, dumb, smiling face went all red, and then I kept going.
There are plenty of bad examples of both “badge engineering” and “platform sharing” across the globe, that all of us – car writers and car fans alike – get a bit concerned when one of our motoring sweethearts gets involved. The Mazda MX-5 Miata is nearly a sacred nameplate, and I know I hesitated a bit as it became clear that it would underpin Fiat’s then upcoming roadster redux. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. Not only is the 124 Spider a worthwhile carrier of that MX-5 DNA, but it has been thoroughly engineered to have its own, completely distinct character.
Starting with what’s different, one must almost necessarily gravitate towards the completely changed exterior sheet metal. Both Fiat and Mazda have a wheels-at-the-corners stance with big rolling stock, but the longer, wider 124 Spider defies its counterpart in most every point of design detail. Fiat stylists pushed the car’s nose out to Roman proportions, giving the new convertible a classic long-hood, short-deck profile. In back, the upturned trunk lid harkens back to the “swallow tail” of the original 124. There are stampings in the metal of the Fiat – most obviously the raked hood – that utterly defy the smoothness and flowing lines of the donor car. And while I can’t personally say that I like the 124 styling better than the MX-5’s (it’s a bit too busy for me) there will be plenty of lookers and buyers that do.
While I can’t personally say that I like the 124 styling better than the MX-5’s, there will be plenty of lookers and buyers that do.
At the product presentation before I drove the car, Fiat talking heads made a special emphasis on items like added soft-touch surfaces in the 124’s cabin. I think the effort was expended because, unlike the outside, it’s often hard to tell the difference between this interior and the Mazda iteration. Seats and surfaces are a bit distinct, to be sure, and the dash has been clothed in a rubbery kind of mat that the MX-5 lacks, but if you’ve spent two minutes behind the wheel of an ND MX-5 you’ll feel completely at home here. The layout of the controls is the same, as are the knobs and switches themselves. The whole of the cabin packaging is the same, too, meaning if you fit or don’t fit in a MX-5, the case won’t be changed by Fiat, despite the added exterior dimensions.
At a class-busting six feet, five inches, I can just find room to operate the 124 Spider comfortably with the top up or down – there aren’t many millimeters to spare. The top of my head just breaks the plane of the windscreen if I’m sitting fully upright (a fact that contributed to my forehead burn), and the passenger seat is truly too small for me to ride in comfortably, thanks to a low dash. If you’re an average-sized human being you shouldn’t have any issues. And, hey, the trunk is a smidge larger (up 8.5 litres to a total of 137.5), so everyone’s luggage has slightly more of a chance to fit.
Chances are good that most people will be interested in the 124 Spider, or not, based on its looks. But for anyone willing to drive the car back to back with a MX-5, the clear difference in driving character between the two should make the choice really easy. Fiat engineers have done a lot of work creating a stellar driving character, albeit one that’s very distinct from the Mazda’s.
Seats and surfaces are a bit distinct, to be sure, and the dash has been clothed in a rubbery kind of mat that the MX-5 lacks.
If I were to summarize the difference in a phrase, I’d say that the 124 has a more “grown up feel” than the MX-5. To start, the noise level has been greatly reduced in the Fiat. Unless the throttle is heavily booted, the exhaust note is practically nonexistent. At speed, or even accelerating through some typically curvy California canyon roads, the rush of wind is the primary aural driver.
That’ll be a different story entirely with the Abarth version and its retuned and roaring exhaust, of course. I drove that hotter looking and sounding 124 Spider for a bit, but only on a large autocross track. Expect a full review of that car when we get one in Detroit for a real test.
The powertrain of the Spider also exhibits that mature touch. Fiat has installed the turbocharged 1.4-litre MultiAir four-cylinder that powers the 500 Abarth, here making 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque (the 124 Abarth’s freer-breathing exhaust bumps the horsepower figure up to 164). A snicker-snack-quick six-speed manual is offered, as is a six-speed automatic, and unfortunately just about all of my drive time was spent trying to make that autobox work with the rest of the car – a frustrating task.
The 124 uses the turbocharged 1.4-litre MultiAir four-cylinder that powers the 500 Abarth, here making 160 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque.
The plucky turbo four should be a home run in this car, with a lively chassis and a really well-sorted suspension setup. And indeed, the 124 proved more than willing to turn-in quickly, minimize body roll, and still offer up fine ride quality. The balance between ride and handling will really require testing on worse roads than SoCal could throw at me, but early returns are that the 124 is smoother and easier riding than the MX-5.
But the engine and trans were at odds with that good backroad behavior. Left in automatic mode, the transmission seemed only to want to get in as high a gear as possible, as quickly as it could. Floor the throttle on a neat quick corner exit and the response was as lazy as Sunday Morning brunch. Eventually the thing would kick down, and with ample torque as a reward, but the delay was such that it effectively ruined many a corner for me. Using the shift lever (push forward for a downshift, pull back for an upshift) to change ratios aided in the efforts to extract the best from the engine, but it still wasn’t as good – presumably – as just opting for the manual trans. Paddle shifters are available, but only on the top-end Abarth trim.
A driving enthusiast on great roads, it’s only natural that I want more revs than the lethargic automatic transmission was willing to cough up, but I’d go so far as to say the 6AT won’t be much fun for tamer drivers, either. Gearing simply felt oriented for fuel economy, more so even than the smooth application of power. Unless perhaps there were issues with torque steer when more aggressive ratios were used – it’s hard to say. In any case, buy the manual.
Not only is the 124 Spider a worthwhile carrier of that MX-5 Miata DNA, but it has been thoroughly engineered to have its own, completely distinct character.
Fiat brought along a Volkswagen Beetle Convertible and a Mini Cooper Convertible for comparative drives (and a MX-5, of course), and I’m sure that loads of recreational dollars will be spilled on all of those models by shoppers simply looking for an open-topped small car. But the real competitive set, for those of us rational enough to know that rear-wheel drive is the important bit, is just 124 Spider vs. MX-5. As I said at the top, it’ll be a choice dictated by your personal aesthetic, and how you like to drive. But it won’t be imposed upon by price.
The 124 Spider is in lock step with the MX-5 in terms of MSRP, basically. Trim levels begin at the Classica with an asking price of $33,495. That's just above the MX-5 GX trim MSRP of $31,900. The middle child Lusso nets out to $36,495. Comparing the top trims, you see pricing delta jump a bit in favor of the Fiat: A 124 Spider Abarth with the six-speed manual runs $37,995, while a MX-5 GT commands $39,200. Eventually dealer incentives might be the kicker here, but at launch that’s about as close as you can get. I consider it a moral imperative to get some kind of comparison test together with these two, to bring you a true estimation of the fun-value on offer.
Convertibles, as a rule, are some of my favorite cars. Those entertaining enough to force me to keep the top down while my face is lighting up, like this impressively hilarious Fiat Spider, are nearer to the top of a very impressive group. Pass the aloe, and the keys, please.
|2017 FIAT 124 SPIDER LUSSO|
|ENGINE||Turbocharged 1.4L I4|
|OUTPUT||160 Horsepower / 184 Pound-Feet|
|NRCAN FUEL ECONOMY||9.3 City / 6.5 Highway / 8.0 Combined L/100 km|
|CARGO VOLUME||138.7 Litres|
|ON SALE||Summer 2016|
Photos: Seyth Miersma / Motor1.com