On the Road Review: Fiat 124 Spider Roadster

In 1967, Fiat Motors of Italy debuted its own small roadster to battle the little two-seaters from England. Affordable and wearing the alluring styling that only Italian cars can, the 124 Spider cultivated a loyal following that enabled the diminutive sports car to remain in the market until 1985 — outlasting the Brits in a class they used to own. Even American drivers loved the little Fiat — when the brand used to be sold here.

In 1990, a relatively small Japanese automaker recreated the entry-level sports car with another taut two-seater that delivered on the promise of the original European roadsters — along with a healthy dose of practicality, reliability and general competence. Mazda’s initial MX-5 Miata debuted to raves, plaudits that have been renewed with this year’s fourth generation Miata. If only the sales levels matched the enthusiasm; Mazda’s execs would be prouder than Apple management.

Fast forward to late summer 2016. Fiat again has a new 124 Spider. It is small and priced aggressively. It is stylish and personally intimate. And, it is built by Mazda — the same automaker that builds the Miata. You can well imagine what the nickname for the Fiat version is.

The new Spider shares its basic underpinnings with the Miata, although Fiat fine-tuned the fully independent suspension for its desired European tastes. Both cars ride on either 16- or 17-inch wheels. Both cars have optional sporting packages — Club edition for the Mazda, Abarth for the Fiat — with larger brakes, sportier handling plus four more horsepower for the turbocharged engine that Fiat uses instead of the conventional four in the Miata. Fiat, in fact, elected to install its own 1.4-liter engine, which makes 160 hp and 184 pound/feet of peak torque — numbers that should make the Spider plenty peppy when teamed to either the six-speed three-pedal setup, or, the six-speed automatic.

Peppy, yes. As fast as the Miata, no.

With almost 200 pounds of additional mass — better interior finishing, more sound insulation (any is more than the Miata apparently has) and a car 5 inches longer that embellishes the more attractive Fiat’s stance — the Spider is just not as quick as the Mazda.

Part of the culprit is the Fiat’s turbo-lag; the motor is just not as responsive upon immediate throttle inputs as the Miata; where the Miata lunges with eagerness, the Fiat(a) thinks for a long second, spools up the turbo, and then reacts. By then, you are staring at the 148-hp Miata’s taillights — a view that doesn’t change.

By no means is the Fiat slow; it is entertaining and makes your spinal nerves tingle with its moves, its agility and general over-the-road competence. Think grand touring Euro roadster instead of thrilling S2000-esque racetrack ambitions.

Conversely, the Fiat displayed efficiency even after being pressed. Three fill-ups averaged out to a commendable 34 mpg — just one mile per gallon less than the EPA highway estimate.

The grand touring moniker seems fitting if you spend time in the Miata too. Our Lusso trimmed Fiat — the middle of three, Classica and Abarth being the others — felt more polished than our previous Miata sample. There are still no accessible storage spaces inside (they are behind the seats) no glove box or nets to retain anything, and goofy holders for any beverages you elect to consume. Yet the leather-trimmed cabin and excellent Recaro-style seats are significantly better than the Miata’s more Spartan presentation. Mazda needs to think about offering these seats.

Steering feel is excellent and the responses from your inputs are immediate. Handling grip from the Potenza tires is confidence inspiring as the little car whisks along your favorite route. You drive the Fiat with your brain almost as hard-wired to the controls as the Miata — almost. That missing 5 percent makes the Fiat more livable if you use the highway much (where it is much quieter than the Miata) or live where the roads are less than perfect — which is almost everywhere.

The Fiat also came with a rear-view camera (the Mazda lacks, which is shameful since all new cars will HAVE to feature next year) plus blind-spot detection. The Fiat also offered keyless ignition and passive locking, which became annoying as the car locked itself in the time it took for you to exit and take two steps to get to the gas cap. The large dash-top screen doesn’t hold function settings from start to start, so too much button pushing for simple acts that used to be accomplished by efficient knobs.

And since we are using a lot of Miata parts here, let’s not forget the best folding soft-top in the business. Unclick one lever on the headliner and just throw the insulated top over your shoulder. You can reach back and click it down to create a solid, finished cover that helps ensure controlled wind flow into the cabin — just like with the Miata. Raising the top is equally as fast — and easy.

Pricing starts at $24,995 for Classica editions and tops out at $37,870 for a fully loaded Abarth with leather Recaro seating, limited slip rear differential, quad tailpipes and automatic.

Fun to use, nice to look at and endowed with better bones and build quality than any Spider before it, this Fiat 124 should wow the faithful without shocking the purists.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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