The 124 Spider is the newest compact convertible in the Italian automaker Fiat's lineup and the revival of a 50-year-old nameplate. But it's no secret that the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider is, at its core, a fourth-generationwith some added Italian flair.
The two cars use the same unibody, set over the same wheelbase, with the same basic suspension geometry. Put the Fiat on a lift and peer beneath and you may even spot the Miata's signature powerplant frame connecting the gearbox to the rear differential and improving responsiveness and rigidity.
The similarities are so strong that the 124 earned the nickname "Fiata" shortly after its unveil at the 2015 Los Angeles auto show. I recently found myself behind the wheel of a Fiat 124 Spider Lusso in Rosso Passione (a very Italian shade of red) and set free to roam the hills around San Diego. But before Fiat tossed me the keys, the automaker went to great lengths to stress that this wasn't just a warmed-over Mazda and that I should expect a very different, very Italian driving experience.
How different would it be? I hit the road to find out.
What's the same? Structure and tech
From the driver's seat, the Fiat doesn't look much different from the Miata. I really needed to see the cars side by side to tell them apart.
At the center of the dash is the Fiat Connect infotainment system, which is perfectly identical to the Mazda Connect system in the Miata, aside from displaying a Fiat logo on the splash screen at startup. It has the same physical controller on the center console and the same 7-inch display, which features touch input but only when the roadster is stopped. I'm not a huge fan of this system, but it gets the job done with decent navigation and basically stays out of the way while I'm driving, which is pretty much all that I need it to do.
I am a fan of the Bose Audio system, which is also shared with the Miata. The Fiat system even includes the same headrest speakers, which really help with audio clarity and staging when driving with the top down. Also like the Miata, the Bose system has different audio profiles for top-down and top-up motoring that automatically change when the soft top locks into place.
The soft top and windshield hoop are also identical bits borrowed from Mazda's parts bin. This is a good thing, as the Miata's convertible roof is one of the best drop tops in the business, with its easy one-handed operation and spring-loaded release that allow the top to be raised or lowered in seconds from the driver's seat. Interestingly, the color of the Fiat's windshield hoop is an easy way to tell trim levels apart. The base Classica model has a color matched frame; the more luxurious Lusso has a silver frame; and the enthusiast-friendly Abarth model has dark trim.
Driver aid tech is sparse but, like the Miata Grand Touring, the Spider Lusso can be had with blind-spot monitoring and rear-cross traffic alert. The Fiat lacks the Mazda's lane-departure warning system and automatic high beams. It is available with a rear camera and proximity park assist sensors, features that are not available on the Miata.
What's different? A 1.4-liter turbocharged engine
Speaking of the trunk, I was surprised to learn that the Fiat's boot is bigger than that of the Miata. The 124 is a total of 5 inches longer than its Japanese cousin; two of those inches manifest as a longer rear overhang and just a bit more trunk space. It's still a small cargo area. I estimate that there's maybe room for two small weekend bags.
The other three additional inches are taken up by the Fiat's unique fascia. Fiat says that the Spider's large headlamps and upturned grille give it an approachable appearance, but I think the shark-like eyes and forward-jutting front end make it look so much more aggressive and predatory. The hood has a pair of sculpted bulges that look like angry eyebrows. I love it, especially in red.
This is no mere facelift. Fiat has changed every single body part on the 124 Spider. The changes are subtle, but they add up to an appearance that is very different when the two cars are viewed side by side. The Italian has more squared-off and defined shoulders that rise sharply just behind the door and form a very strong horizontal character line that Fiat says is evocative of the original 1966 124 Spider's silhouette.
Viewed side by side, I think I prefer the more compact proportions of the Miata -- it's amazing how much of a difference 5 inches makes. The Miata's sloping hood gives a slightly better view down to the road ahead of the roadster, which makes placing the car at an apex just a little more accurate and slightly enhances the perception of speed.
The biggest differences between the two roadsters are their hearts. The Fiata is powered by a 1.4-liter Multiair turbocharged engine, the same engine that you'll find powering the but oriented for rear-wheel drive rather than front. In this incarnation, the Multiair turbo makes 160 horsepower and an impressive 184 pound-feet of torque. That's only five more ponies than the Mazda, but a noticeable 36 extra pound-feet.
That engine is mated to a six-speed manual transmission, which is sourced from the third-generation Mazda Miata, but with unique gear ratios. My example was equipped with the six-speed automatic transmission option, which -- as an enthusiast -- was disappointing, but actually wasn't too bad on the road.
The extra torque makes itself evident at low RPM when putting around town, yet somehow this engine manages to feel less lively and eager to rev than the Miata's 2.0-liter engine. I'm fairly certain that the six-speed automatic was sucking the life out of the Fiat's city driving experience. On a slow country road, things start to look much better. The turbocharged engine can breathe a little and spool up. At seven-tenths, the Fiat's torque advantage over the Mazda makes for a more relaxed driving experience than I remember when I first drove similar roads in the automatic MX-5 Grand Touring so long ago.
The Lusso model that I was able to test features no sport program and no paddle shifters, which make it clear that Fiat has a casual, touring focus in mind for this and the base Classica trim level. There is a manual shifting mode activated and controlled with the shift lever, so it's possible to coax out a bit more spirit.
At higher RPMs, you can extract plenty of fun out of this powertrain. The Fiat feels more straight-line responsive than the Miata, but only just so. I could pour on a bit more torque with a squeeze of the pedal in some situations when the Miata would have probably needed to downshift, but overall it's not exactly a night and day difference. Both powertrains are lively in their own ways.
The differences in handling, however, are more pronounced. The Fiata rides noticeably softer than the Miata. Both cars exhibit some roll when chucked into a corner, but the Fiat leans over just a touch more. The Miata feels more active, agile and playful, where the 124 Spider feels more planted, stable and grown up. Both offer very direct and rewarding steering and very good seat-of-the-pants feel. Fiat chose well when it picked Mazda, maker of one of the best roadsters of all time, to revive its 124 Spider nameplate.
Autocrossing in the Abarth
After a full day's driving in the 2017 124 Spider Lusso, I was able to hop behind the wheel of the enthusiast-friendly.
The Abarth model is more powerful than the Lusso and Classica, but only nominally. Its 164 horsepower is only four ponies stronger than the standard models. That's the sort of horsepower difference you'll get in some cars using regular gas instead of premium...i.e. not much.
All Abarth examples offer a sport setting that sharpens the throttle and engine response; automatic Abarth models also get paddle shifters, but I can't understand why an Abarth buyer wouldn't want to row his or her own gears, especially since the automatic is a more expensive option. (#learntoclutch)
The suspension has been tweaked with Bilstein dampers, anti-roll and stabilizer bars, and a grippier wheel and tire package. Handling is sharpened to a point that feels more on par with that of the Miata Club. It's more eager to rotate when manhandled around a cone course and the seat-of-the-pant feel is so much sharper than the softer Lusso model.
Additionally, the Abarth features dark trim, a unique, more aggressive lower fascia and a unique rear diffuser with a quad-pipe exhaust. It can also be had with grippy, Alcantara Recaro seats ($1,195) and Brembo brakes with four-piston monoblock front calipers ($1,495). You'll recognize these stoppers, of course, from the Miata's options list.
Fiat had two examples of the 124 Spider Abarth on hand. One, with an automatic transmission, was stock. Its exhaust was louder than the subdued tones of the Lusso, but not as raucous as the 500 Abarth, which was my personal benchmark for how I hoped the Spider's exhaust would sound. The other example on hand featured the six-speed manual transmission and a selection of Mopar upgrades that included an even louder exhaust and a turbocharger blowoff valve that made a very "2 Fast 2 Furious" PSHHHHt sound when shifting, as pressurized air was vented to the atmosphere...I'm not 100 percent sure if that last bit is street legal.
With the exhaust BRAAAPing behind me and the turbo going PSSHH-PSSSSHt ahead, it's hard not to push the modified 124 a bit harder than I should. I found myself slipping the rear end out into controllable (and some not-so-controllable) slides that were easy to feel, catch and correct. Dare I say, the Fiat 124 Spider Abarth is just a hair more fun on a closed course than a Mazda Miata Club, but only just a hair and only with the visceral aid of aftermarket parts.
Which is better?
The Fiat is more comfortable, more stylish and more grown-up than the Miata. It's got more torque, is a more relaxed drive and may offer just enough of a storage advantage for luggage that pushes the limits of the Miata's small trunk. If you're (heaven forbid) the kind of person who's looking at getting a Miata with an automatic transmission, perhaps the Fiat 124 Lusso would be a better fit for you.
On the other hand, the Miata is more of a driver's car. Its handling is more precise and playful. It's more compact and, as a sports car, I prefer its proportions to those of the Spider. It's got less torque, which means it's a more involved driver, but for Miata buyers more involvement is a good thing. Bizarrely, Mazda's less powerful engine just feels more peppy around town. For the life of me, I don't know how they do that.
Which is better? Honestly, I doesn't matter. Both are great and the world is better with more amazing little convertibles.
The 2017 Fiata...erm, Fiat 124 Spider starts at just $24,995 for the entry point Classica model with the base, non-display radio and cloth seats. I was able to test the more luxurious Lusso trim level, which adds heated leather seats, Fiat Connect infotainment, automatic climate controls, a rear camera and silver trim on the windshield frame for $27,495. At the top of the line is the Abarth with its slightly boosted power, sport suspension and other go-faster goodies for $28,295. Add a $995 destination charge to those prices to get your off-the-lot price.
Options will run you extra. My Lusso example included a Premium Collection package that boosts it close to fully loaded with driver aid functions and amenities and a $1,350 option for the automatic transmission, pushing the as-tested price to $33,635. The true "fully loaded" setup -- the 124 Spider Abarth with the Elaborazione package (which brings its features to parity with the Lusso) and Brembo brakes -- tops out at $34,680.
Predictably, the trim levels line up with those of the Miata, but the pricing may surprise you. With destination charges, the Classica starts just $180 more than the base Miata Sport, this Lusso with its Premium Collection is $2,305 more than a similarly equipped Grand Touring Miata with premium keyless entry, but the Abarth with Brembo Brakes is $1,255 less than a similarly equipped Miata Club.
The lower starting prices for all but the more premium Lusso may tip the balance just a bit in the Fiata's favor.