From 1966 through 1978 the Fiat 124 Spider roamed the streets of America, and Europe, and became an icon of a classic, affordable, Pininfarina designed Italian two-seat roadster. Light and agile, with decent performance, the car appealed to iconoclastic drivers who wanted something different than the heavy muscle cars of the era, and when most Japanese cars looked like the boxes that their parts came in.
On the downside, they were much like their British counterparts of the time, like MG’s and Triumphs, in that they weren’t very reliable. In those days, it was joked that Fiat stood for “Fix It Again, Tony”
For 2017 Fiat has revived the 124 Spider and this car has many throwbacks, especially in styling, to the original, and in its mission statement to provide fun open-air motoring for two people, and at an affordable price.
For this new Fiat offering, they teamed up with Mazda, and in fact, the 124 Spider is built in Japan alongside the Miata. It is a good marriage with both company’s benefitting. Neither car is a high volume model, so the added production volume the Fiat will bring, makes more economic sense for both companies, since Fiat didn’t have to start from scratch. And since the Miata is and has always been an outstanding vehicle, Fiat gets to share the engineering excellence from Mazda, so they’ll get a great car, and still be able to put their own styling and tuning specialists to work and create a car that is similar, yet different.
The Fiat’s basic chassis, underpinnings, interior layout, and convertible top mechanism are all Miata. But the Fiat’s powerplant is their own 1.4 liter turbocharged engine that puts out 160 horsepower and 184 ft. pounds of torque. That’s just a hair more horsepower than the naturally aspirated 2-liter engine in the Miata, and 34 more ft. lbs. of torque, for a bit more low end punch. But the Fiat is an extra 100 lbs. heavier. (around 2435 lbs.) Still Fiat claims zero to 60 in 6.8 seconds. So in terms of performance, they are about the same, and that performance is more than adequate for driving excitement. The performance feels even stronger by the seat of the pants butt dyno, since the drivers butt feels like it’s barely above the pavement. Think go-kart low. And think respectable gas mileage of 26 City and 35 Highway.
One thing that separates the Spider from the Miata is that the engine is very quiet. Some of those extra pounds in the Spider went to sound deadening materials, which also keeps the Spider’s cabin quieter as well. But with the top down, under hard acceleration, you can still hear a nice exhaust note coming from the dual exhaust tips. For those who like it noisier, a dealer installed performance exhaust is available. The Fiat’s convertible top is also a bit more padded, so with the top fixed, the cabin is a pleasant place to be.
Both cars share the same 90.9 inch wheelbase, but the Fiat is 5.5 inches longer and a bit wider. The extra few inches are in the front and rear overhangs. So you get a longer hood, a tad higher deck lid, but the interior cabin is virtually identical in space. Styling-wise, I prefer the Fiat. It’s a bit more classy and grown-up looking versus the Miata’s boy racer looks, which I still think is stylish and attractive. The Fiat’s headlight cutouts, the creases in the doors are attractive and reminiscent of the original Pininfarina design and the dual hood bulges give the car some attitude as well.
On the road, the power is very entertaining. There’s a little bit of turbo lag in first gear, but after that the power comes on strong and smoothly. At 2000 rpm or so, you get the turbo thrust, and the motor keeps pulling up to around 5500 rpm, when it tapers off for the last 1000 revs before hitting the redline at 6500.
The six-speed manual is delightful, with excellent clutch operation, and very short, sure throws. This is the only transmission available on the base Classica model. This would be a perfect car to teach a young driver the joys of a 3-pedal arrangement. An automatic transmission is available on the Lusso trim, the next model up from the Classica.
Fiat did a great job of fine tuning the chassis with their own anti-roll bars, springs and dampers. There is little body roll in turns, so you can toss it into a tight curve with confidence, then roll on the power as you exit, and the Spider is eager to find the next curve. Side to side transitions feel well balanced in this rear wheel drive car and do not upset the chassis a bit. On rough road surfaces, the Fiat feels kinder and gentler on the driver, soaking up bumps with more composure than the Miata. The steering is quick and precise, and the 16” standard 3-season tires provide all the grip you need. By comparison, the Mazda feels bit more nervous and twitchy.
The interior space is tight, and drivers much over 6 feet might have a problem, especially with the top up. The basic layout is the same as the Miata, and that’s a good thing. The 3 gauge package in front of the driver is perfect, and only the gauge faces are changed. The door panels are different, and there is good soft touch materials on the doors and tiny center armrest, which can hold a pack of cigarettes only. A small storage bin by the shoulder area between the seats is about the only cabin storage you get, and a little cubby at the base of the center stack for a phone. One complaint I had with the Miata was the lack of any cupholders. Fiat addressed this with a spot that places two removable cub holder brackets that attach at the very back of the console, between the seats. Inconveniently located, but at least they are there.
The cloth seat materials are top shelf, and the buckets are comfortable. Short legged drivers like myself will even be able to take advantage of the seat-back rake. Fit and finish is top shelf, and all the controls feel right when you use them. An easy three round dial set up for the HVAC controls are simple and easy, as are the radio controls. And the manual convertible top operation is as simple and easy as it gets. One latch unhooks it from the top of the windshield, and you just push it back until it locks down behind your head. Then a latch release between the seats at shoulder level, unlocks the top, pushes it up a few inches to make it easy to grab, and flip over to close it again. It seals tightly and no leaks in the rain. All this can be done while sitting in the drivers seat.
The Classica model we tested stickered for $24,995, and had no options. Standard features are the expected power windows, ABS brakes, stability control, along with push button start, tilt, and leather-wrapped steering wheel with radio/phone/cruise control operation. With destination charges, the bottom line as $25,990.
Moving up to the Lusso model, (Italian for Luxury) at $27,495 adds 17’ Aluminum wheels, automatic transmission, luscious Italian leather heated seats, upgraded radio, fog lights, and rain sensing wipers.
The Abarth performance model starts at $28,195, and buys a Bilstein Performace Suspension, Premium Sport Steering Wheel, Sport Mode Selector that allows you select performance tuned mods to the steering, throttle, and transmission shift points. Brembo brakes are an option as is the automatic transmission.
Over the years, I have spent a lot of time in a Mazda Miata on the street, and I’ve scrubbed off a lot of rubber on a race track in one. It has been one of my favorite cars of all time, especially on a track. I have not yet experienced the Fiat 124 Spider on the track yet, so I can’t make that comparison. I suspect that the Miata might be marginally better.
But if I was going to buy one for myself, which would never see a race track, I’d go with the Fiat. For every-day driving, it is more to my liking because the suspension is more forgiving and provides a smoother more comfortable ride quality. And it has less engine noise, so the cabin is quieter. The Italian-styled exterior also is more appealing to me.
This is a fun car to drive, and I can’t think of another car in this price range, much less a roadster, that will give you more smiles per mile than the Fiat 124 Spider.