The Fiat 124 Spider was reborn as a 2017 model, from the sweet little 1966-1986 roadster of the same name. However, this time around it’s more Japanese than Italian, as a partnership between Fiat and Mazda brought the light and rigid chassis from the MX-5 Miata to the sheetmetal and suspension by Fiat. It’s a win-win-win deal: Mazda, Fiat, and buyers of the two-seat 124. Just don’t call it a Fiata.
The turbocharged 1.4-liter engine is Fiat’s, from the inventory of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, the first time it’s been used in a rear-wheel-drive platform. It makes 160 horsepower (164 in the Abarth version) and 184 pound-feet of torque. It comes with a six-speed automatic, which falls short of the spirit of the car, or the same six-speed manual that the MX-5 uses, which is far more fun than the automatic: The manual brings crisp shifts and a sweet clutch.
A sporty Abarth model features a sports suspension and other performance enhancements.
Because the 124 Spider was new for 2017, there aren’t any significant changes for 2018. Options for the Fiat 124 Lusso and Abarth models are more flexible. There’s a new Red Top Edition, and there are three new colors: Puro Blanco Perla (pure white pearl), Grigio Chiaro (silver metallic) and Blu Scuro (dark blue metallic).
The Fiat 124 Spider convertible comes as Classica ($24,995), Lusso ($27,595); and high-performance Abarth ($28,295). Also the Lusso Red Top ($27,595).
Lusso gets handsome leather seats, but it only comes with the automatic. The Abarth adds Bilstein shock absorbers, limited-slip differential, a sport mode that alters the engine dynamics, and special trim.
There are MoPar chassis enhancements available, along with a tuned exhaust system and turbo bypass air valve.
The 124 Spider and MX-5 have the same 90.9-inch wheelbase, but the Fiat is 5.5 inches longer and a small bit wider. It only resembles the MX-5, it doesn’t really look like it. The Fiat has a longer hood with a retro rectangular grille and scooped headlamps, features that make it resemble the original 124. There are strong character lines on the side panels, a higher rear deck over a slightly bigger trunk, and contemporary alloy wheels.
The convertible top is by Mazda, easy to operate with one hand, and easily secured with a single windshield header latch; it’s perfectly simple. The fabric is heavier than that in the MX-5, to provide more sound insulation. There is no hard-top as there is with the MX-5, but the twin rollbar hoops are taken from the MX-5.
The Classica trim is black and body-colored; Lusso trim is silver; and Abarth is gunmetal, often with a black hood.
Only a few interior bits are shared with the MX-5; the Fiat’s soft-touch materials are better, and its cabins is more refined. There’s a Fiat instrument package, Fiat door panels, Fiat cloth upholstery in the Classica, and elegantly stitched Italian leather in the other two models.
Naturally there’s the availability of navigation and connectivity, with readouts on the small screen rising from the dash, like the MX-5.
The interior is snug like the MX-5, especially the passenger side; the Spider’s extra length is all in the overhangs. Six-footers will be challenged.
With the top down, the cockpit is fairly free of turbulence; caps stay on, without having to be turned backwards. Conversation is possible, with raised voices, but still possible. With the top up, the interior is quiet at freeway speeds. Fiat put extra effort into noise suppression.
The turbocharged 1.4-liter engine uses a single overhead cam. Thanks to 22 pounds of turbo boost, it makes a strong-for-its-size 160 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque. But the MX-5 is quicker, because although its engine isn’t turbocharged, it is 2.0 liters. The Fiat will do zero to sixty in 6.8 seconds, while the MX-5 will do it in just 6.0 seconds. The Fiat’s weakness at the low end is felt more with the automatic transmission, which is otherwise responsive; using the shift paddles helps, but they’re not available on the base Classica.
The Fiat feels better out on the highway, where it brings a better mid-range passing response, especially with the manual gearbox.
The Spider brings some sports car traits than not all sports cars deliver: flat cornering, cat-like reflexes, eager responses, quick steering with sharp accuracy, extension of the driver’s will.
It’s about 100 pounds heavier than the MX-5, but the Fiat is still a very lightweight 2436 pounds, so it changes directions quickly, although not without body lean. But it’s still precise, and always predictable.
The ride in the Classica and Lusso is surprisingly supple, even soft, in not quite like a family sedan, but close.
The Abarth is in no way soft, and far less supple. In fact, some might say it’s stiff, as well as loud. Some also would say that’s what makes it so much fun. It’s quicker to turn in, and more responsive, taking full advantage of its Bilstein shocks and strut tower brace.
We got to drive an Abarth on an autocross course in a big parking lot, where its handling was impressive, but the super-aggressive laps didn’t offer much sense of what it would be like to drive around town every day.
We got more seat time in the Lusso, and it’s pleasant enough, but the 6-speed automatic leaves something to be desired. Shifting is smooth but leisurely, and the manual function, achieved by moving the shift lever fore and aft, doesn’t seem to quicken the shifts.
The 6-speed manual is far more satisfying, with crisp engagements and a sweet clutch.
The 1.4-liter engine’s 184 pound-feet of torque give it respectable thrust, thanks also to boost from the turbocharger. But it doesn’t rev as freely as the MX-5’s naturally aspirated 1.5-liter engine. We guess that it’ll do zero to sixty in about 6 seconds, same as the MX-5.
The Fiat 124 Spider brings Italian styling and it’s more comfortable than the Miata. Its a turbocharged engine is good and quick, but it’s not as satisfying as the higher-revving normally aspirated engine in the MX-5. Go for the crisp 6-speed manual with a user-friendly clutch, rather than the slow-shifting 6-speed automatic, which means a Classica, unless you want the hard-edged sportiness of an Abarth.
Sam Moses contributed to this review from the Pacific Northwest, with Mitch McCullough reporting from the Northeast, and staff reports.