No spoiler alert needed: The Fiat 124 Spider is built on the all-new Miata.
But don’t dismiss it as a Japanese sports car – and an excellent one at that – trying to pull a fast one by donning an Armani suit. It’s surprisingly different from Mazda.
Let’s start with style, ok? Per favore!
When the new Miata debuted, it was a surprise, the previous generations felt like organic developments of the same design, with a lot of thanks owed to the original Lotus Elan, if you ask us.
But when the new model saw daylight, it was noticeably smaller, tighter, and more aggressive. Even though you could never accuse it of getting fat, it looked like the Mazda had been going to the kickboxing gym and working out hard. It also looked like more of a departure than the previous models, from its angry headlamps to a jaguar-esque F-type rear end.
Compared to the Mazzer, the Fiat is slightly larger, and more flowing, with a sexiness that just says “Italian”. There’s some nice heritage touches that call up the original 124 – we especially liked the bullet-shaped bulges in the hood and the oval shape of the headlights. Our Lusso really helped sell the lines with an expensive-looking Grigio Moda Meteor Grey, contrasting beautifully with a saddle leather interior.
Two interesting observations. One came from a passerby who had owned one of the original Fiat 124 Spiders back in the ‘70’s. He immediately recognized the car as a Fiat, and as a 124. No idea a Mazda was underneath. We’d call that a win.
The second observation was that we got the most looks from people driving new Porsche Boxsters. Maybe many of those buyers got into the Boxty because they like the sleek design. And many would probably gag if they found out that the swanky Italian costs half of what they paid. Win-win.
Step inside, and the Mazda connection is much more apparent. Fiat does its best here with plusher leather seats (heated too), featuring a stylish horizontal ribbed pattern carried on the backs and lower cushions. Add tasteful Piano Black trim, a padded lower dash and chrome interior accents, and you have a handsome place to do the business of driving.
The touchpoints do feel like a notch above Mazda, but the rest is pretty much the same, but that’s no bad thing – ergonomics are excellent, and despite the tidy exterior dimensions, it’s relatively spacious and comfortable for a small sports car.
Storage is at a premium, but Fiat has found a way to give you a small storage space under the center console, and a large, deep locking glovebox mounted in the rear bulkhead. It’s a bit of a twist to get to, but useful.
The removable cupholder can be mounted on the passenger side of the console – the easiest reach – or behind your elbow on the center console. The Fiat’s slightly larger dimensions do net you a slightly larger trunk, however.
When you consider the overall size of the interior, and the fact that it has to house all the modern airbags and modern conveniences, it really is an impressive amount of engineering.
Speaking of engineering, the 124 wears the same super-easy convertible top that’s a one-hand affair. So, let’s drop the top and take the Fiat for a drive on the Autostrada. Or the 405 Freeway, in our case.
The Fiat goes its own way under the hood, with a 1.4-liter, turbo 4-cylinder that pumps out 160 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. If this sounds like a recipe for high-performance, don’t get too excited. We found that the little engine has a relatively-narrow powerband and needs to be kept on the boil for maximum effect.
Our tester was equipped with the optional 6-speed automatic, and it helps keep the turbo in the right rpm range to get the most out of the engine, and it feels especially punchy when merging on the freeway, where that turbo whoosh pushes you along smoothly.
Surprisingly, there are no paddle shifters for the auto, but you can nudge the shifter if you want to be more involved. In the everyday drive the little four purrs along, and is unobtrusive.
The fact that it’s an automatic and a Lusso luxury model tells you that our tester is made more for happy sun-drenched cruising, enjoying your favorite mountain road at a quick but relaxed pace, rather than out and out cut-and-thrust traffic carving that the Miata is designed for.
The Fiat is notably smoother, more relaxed and quieter than the Miata, so what you might lose on the track, you make up for on a long cruise, where the ride is supple, and the steering feels less twitchy than the Mazda.
The Fiat says, “hey, put your elbow on the window sill, steer with two fingers and enjoy the sights, the sounds, the smells of Al Fresco driving.”
Now if you want a more enthusiast experience, but love the Fiat’s suave styling, we’d point you to the 124 Abarth, with its more aggressive matte-black, hand-painted hood and trunk lid, blacked-out wheels and more vocal exhaust. Look for our test of one soon.
Another nice Fiat tradition – putting a little Dolce Vita in your life won’t break the bank. Our tester started at $27,495, and includes all the niceties like heated leather seats, Bluetooth streaming audio system, air conditioning with climate control, 17-inch alloy wheels – basically the works.
Our tester added the Customer Preferred Package that includes Blind Spot and Cross Path Detection (useful in a small car –especially with the top up) auto-dimming interior and exterior mirrors (nice, as you sit low, in the line of fire of most car’s headlamps) reasonably priced at $1,495. The 6-speed automatic adds $1,350 to the tab. All totaled with Destination charge, our Fiat rang the bell at $31,335.
We built up a similar Miata, and totaled out at $32,145. An Audi TT roadster starts at $47,000. Mercedes SLC – $47,950. The Boxster – also featuring a turbo, 4-cylinder starts at a nosebleed-inducing $57,400 and goes from there.
So, the Fiat 124 owns a nice little slice of the pie in the sports car market place. Fun, affordable, with a relaxed attitude and excellent fashion sense. And perhaps the one fly in the ointment of Fiat ownership in the past – questionable reliability – should be well handled by the sterling reputation of Mazda components. Dolce, indeed.
Ben Lewis grew up in Chicago, and after spending his formative years driving sideways in the winter – often intentionally – moved to sunny Southern California. He now enjoys sunny weather year-round — whether it is autocross driving, aerobatics, and learning to surf.