You could say that the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider is simply a Mazda Miata in a nice Italian suit. While that’s close to reality, you’re really selling this two-seater sports car short if you don’t look a little closer.
We’ll start with a brief history lesson. The original 124 Spyder was built by Fiat starting in the late 60s and ending in 1980. It was a stylish little sports car with a lot of appeal. Of course those great looks had one minor drawback. Back in those days Fiats were not known for their reliability. As the hosts of Car Talk once proclaimed, the world would be a better place if everyone owned an old Fiat. That’s because we’d be forced to meet our neighbors when we needed to get a ride someplace because our car wouldn’t start.
Zoom forward to modern times and we find an interesting marriage between Fiat and Mazda. The Italian company formed a joint venture with the Japanese manufacturer to build Fiats in Asia. But why build something from scratch when you’ve got a great platform like the latest generation Miata? The result is the best of both worlds. Italian style and Japanese reliability. The Fiat version has different body styling, engine and some suspension tweaks, but any Miata owner will feel right at home. Frankly, it all works well.
Let’s start with the car’s looks. This new body is a great tribute to the original Pininfarina design. The grille has angled corners that are a nice homage to the 1960s look. The headlights hold the same place on the front end but look very modern. Because of the styling changes, the 124 is slightly longer than the Miata. But the result is that you definitely won’t mistake it for its Japanese cousin.
In place of the Mazda 155 horsepower normally aspirated engine, Fiat has installed it’s 160 horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder. Normally, I’d call 160 horsepower pretty anemic, but it works very well in the 124. In fact, my test car had the automatic and I still found it entertaining (although I’d still probably go for the six-speed manual). There is a touch of turbo lag so you have to wait just a moment for the power to arrive, but once engaged, it gives you everything it’s got. While it has five more horsepower than the Miata, it’s also slightly heavier, so I can’t say it gains much of an advantage. If you want a little more performance you can bump up to the Abarth edition that gives you an extra four hoses, paddle shifters and suspension mods.
You can expect 30 mpg combined (26 city/35 highway) with the manual transmission, and 29 mpg combined (25 city/36 highway) for the automatic. I got 28 mpg during my test week and I was constantly pounding the throttle (because it’s just so much fun).
Which leads me to the 124’s handling. What a joy. I love the way the Miata drives, and the 124 is right there with it. It’s a little more comfortable, but that’s not a bad thing for the daily commuter. Still, you enjoy flinging it into any sequence of turns that you find free from traffic. Like the Miata, it’s a car you’ll that will put a smile on your face every day.
Of course, that assumes you fit. The 124 is not a big car. It has essentially the same cramped cabin as the Miata. I’m six feet tall and I thought it was just fine, but if your dimensions are a little larger, you’ll definitely want to try it on for size. Like the Miata, it has cup holders that are awkwardly placed at the back of the center console. It will carry your drink, but you won’t causally take a sip.
The 124 has a manual soft top that works incredibly well. It’s perfectly balanced and can fold down in just a few seconds with very little effort. It goes up just as easily. Don’t be reluctant to buy because it’s not motorized. It actually works better. Of course one thing you lose is trunk space. Don’t count on carrying anything large. It’s good for one carry-on suitcase and not much more. But then, this isn’t a car built for hauling stuff, it’s built for hauling you.
If there is a weak point for the 124, it’s the display. It’s a standard Mazda unit and just doesn’t work as well as designs from other manufacturers. Whether it’s the radio or the other applications, it requires too many actions to get what you want.
My test car was the mid-range Lusso edition. Base price was $27,495. The optional automatic transmission and delivery charge totaled $29,840. Frankly, I’d save the money and stick with the manual transmission. There is a base model Classico that starts at $24,999, or you can bump up to the Abarth.
Right about now, I know what you’re thinking. Should you buy the Fiat 124 or stick with the Mazda Miata? If your priority is having fun while you drive, frankly, either choice is great. Personally, I think the looks of the Fiat give it an edge. I love the styling and the fact that you just don’t see as many of them on the road. It’s a great way to connect a classic design with modern mechanicals.
Besides, who wouldn’t want a nice Italian suit?