Mechanical twins have now officially become a thing in small sports cars with the introduction of the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider. Sharing its basic platform with Mazda’s MX-5 Miata, just as the Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ are fraternal twins, the Fiat borrows from one of the most successful two-seat roadsters of all time. However, unlike the Subaru and the Toyota, you have to look a bit more closely to see the exterior similarities between the two cars.
The Fiat’s predecessor (produced between 1966 and 1982 as the 124 Sport Spider and from 1983 to1985 as the Pininfarina Spider) was among the loveliest small roadsters of its day. Borrowing from that design for this contemporary version of the car was a smart move, as the resemblance is readily discernible. Meanwhile, the 124 Spider’s nose is three inches longer than the Mazda’s to house the Fiat’s turbocharged engine. An additional two inches were added to the tail to balance the overall proportions of the car.
Power is supplied by Fiat’s 1.4-liter turbocharged inline four with 160 horsepower and 184 ft-lbs of torque, which is also found in the Jeep Renegade and Fiat 500X. If you opt for the 124 Abarth, you’ll get a freer-flowing exhaust system, which lets four more horsepower out of the engine. My test car was equipped with a six-speed automatic transmission, channeling the powerplant’s output to the rear wheels. Fuel economy is rated at 25 mpg in the city and 36 on the highway. I saw an average of 28 mpg overall.
Seated at the wheel, you’ll note the interior layout and much of the switchgear are shared between the two cars. However, there’s a Fiat-specific steering wheel, soft-touch plastic is employed more extensively and all the other materials used to upholster the passenger compartment look and feel more upscale in the Fiat. The 124 is also quieter than the MX-5 when underway, thanks to the addition of more sound deadening insulation.
Legroom is good for both the driver and passenger. The seats are comfortable and outward visibility is first rate with the roof lowered, though rear ¾ views are compromised when the roof is deployed. All of the instruments are easily legible and the controls are readily decipherable—just as in the Mazda version of the car. If you’re getting the impression Fiat ‘s goal was to offer a more luxurious version of the Miata, you’d be spot on in your assessment, as that is exactly the case. Different suspension tuning also gives the Fiat a more compliant ride than the Miata, unless you opt for the Abarth version of the 124, which is noticeably stiffer.
Essentially, the 124 Spider represents a refinement of the character of the Mazda. Though it rides more smoothly, it still offers crisp handling and precise steering. The engine is quieter (which may or may not be a good thing, depending upon how engaged you like your sports car to be) even while it is ultimately more powerful. The Fiat also has more road-hugging weight, so it feels a bit more substantial going down the road—though no less alive. It’s like Fiat took all of the best aspects of the Miata and softened the delivery a bit to produce an alternative MX-5 with a more genteel character.
All in all, I enjoyed driving the Fiat 124 Spider, with one exception. The automatic transmission is out of place in this car. Yes, I realize it has to be offered to broaden the 124’s market appeal, but it bogs the car down. If you see the 124 as a cute personal commuter, then OK, I suppose the automatic makes sense. But if you’re envisioning it as a driver’s car, you’ll find the automatic dulls the Fiat’s throttle responses significantly, get the six-speed manual.
Still though, on a twisty road, the delightful agility of the Miata shines through mostly unfettered, even with the extra weight, robo-gearbox and more plush accoutrements. The Spider turns in nicely, bites with ferocity, brakes with tenacity and just generally feels right going quickly. Yes, the Miata feels even better, but hey, you didn’t honestly expect Mazda to let Fiat build a better MX-5—did you?
Pricing starts at $24,995.