There were two things we were worried about with the new 2017 Fiat 124 Spider. One was that it would be too much like the Mazda MX-5 Miata. The other was that it wouldn’t be enough.
The Miata and the 124 Spider were, of course, “co-developed” on the same platform (at first the 124 Spider was to be badged an Alfa Romeo), and there’s little difference to what’s underneath. The share the chassis, and the suspension—double wishbone in front and multi-link in the rear) is identical except for tuning.
The front and rear clips, however, are different, with the headlights and grille, along with the rear fenders and taillights, deliberately bearing a strong resemblance to the current 124 Spider’s antecedent with the same name from the sixties. It’s not exactly “retro,” but it’s obvious that Fiat’s designers had the original 124 Spider in the studio.
Frequently when cars share as much as the Miata and 124 Spider (or more, such as the Subaru BRZ and Scion FR-S), the interior stays much the same. There are significant changes from Mazda to Fiat, however. Although the tablet-style multi-information screen are mounted atop the dash, the surrounding area is different, and the hood over the instrument panel (which is essentially the same between the two) are markedly different. The door panels and pulls/window switches don’t match either.
The biggest difference is under the hood. The 124 Spider, even with the visual differentiation, would still be a badge-engineered poseur, truly a “Fiata,” if it were powered by a Mazda engine. Fortunately for everyone, it isn’t. The 124 Spider gets the Fiat 1.4-liter turbocharged four, and engine that gives the Fiat an edge over the 155 hp Mazda. The Fiat engine puts out 164 horses and 184 lb-ft of torque. It’s the same engine used in the Fiat 500 Abarth, but mounted lengthwise rather than transverse.
If that doesn’t sound like a lot, consider that the Fiat weighs between 2436 pounds and 2516 pounds, depending on the trim and transmission. Compare that to our test Miatas. Whether the sport-equipped Miata Club or the “luxury” trim Miata Grand Touring, Mazda lists curb weight at 2,332 pounds. Look at the difference as carrying a passenger in the Miata. Of course, if you want to make friends in the Fiat, there goes that advantage.
There are more differences in the drivetrain. The 2016 Miata got a new six-speed manual transmission while the Fiat makes do with the transmission that was used in the third generation Miata. That’s not really suffering, as we don’t remember hearing anyone complaining about the third generation Miata’s gearbox…though it does have a slightly heavier case than the new transmission.
Both Miata and Fiat 124 Spider are available with an automatic transmission, and true confessions, we haven’t driven the Miata with an automatic, and that’s how our first drive 124 Spider was equipped. The Fiat’s Japan-made Aisin transmission is available with paddle shifters but only in the sport-trim Abarth. All autobox Miatas come that way.
Our 124 Spider Lusso stuck with manual-shifting the automatic via the lever on the console and in our admittedly brief drive, we never came to terms with it. On the other hand, the roads we were driving didn’t have much of a need to shift. It was easier to just leave it in an intermediate ratio rather than letting the engine bog in full automatic mode, which it did whenever we wanted a skosh more power.
Our first driver came in Lusso trim, which is a step up from the Classica—Fiat-speak for “base.” Classica’s not so bad, however, with 6-inch alloy wheels, Nero (black) cloth seats, halogen headlamps and LED tail lamps, along with a leather-wrapped steering wheel, keyless entry and pushbutton start, cruise control and manual air conditioning.
Fiat 124 Spider Lusso niceties, however, include automatic climate control, automatic headlamps, rearview camera, rain-sensing wipers, leather seats and a leatherette wrapped interior with piano black accents. The Lusso also replaces the 16-inch alloy wheels of the Classica with 17 inchers.
The Fiat 124 Spider 124 Abarth adds sport to the sports car, with front and rear Bilstein sport suspension, mechanical limited-slip differential, front strut tower brace, Sport Mode selector and sport-tuned chrome quad-tip exhaust that replaces the one pipe per side of the other two…and provides an Abarth exhaust note missing on the Classica and the Lusso, perhaps the source of four more horsepower for the Abarth and bit more torque. The front and rear fascia are unique to the Abarth, along with 17-inch Gun Metal aluminum wheels and matching exterior accents, plus the option of a hand-painted hood stripe. And speaking of options, only the Abarth can have Brembo brakes system and Recaro seats, for a bigger number on the price tag of course.