Pay no attention to the Miata behind the curtain! Yes, Fiat’s newly resurrected 124 Spider, first seen way back in 1966, is largely based on Mazda’s immensely popular two-seat convertible — and it’s built in Japan right alongside the Miata using mostly Mazda parts. But after spending a week behind the wheel of the sportiest member of the 124 lineup, the Abarth edition, it’s evident that — for better and for worse — the new 124 Spider is a distinctly different machine from its Japanese progenitor.
Surprisingly, given Italy’s storied fondness for alluring curves, the Mazda is the more voluptuous of the two. Whereas the Miata is all soft contours and gentle swells of sheetmetal, the 124 Spider adds a sharp crease in the belt line and twin scallops in the hood (the etched lines make for a modern twist on the similarly shaped hood “bumps” seen on later versions of the original). The Fiat’s face is also more in-your-face, with larger headlamps and, on the Abarth edition, lots of additional black grillework. To say the new 124 Spider resembles the original (sold in various forms by Fiat and Pininfarina for nearly two decades) would be a stretch, but the design achieves the goal of masking its Miata roots while offering a decidedly different exterior flavor. Unique Abarth features include 17-inch “gun-metallic” alloy wheels, quad polished exhaust tips, a front fog lamps.
The Mazda and the Fiat are considerably more alike inside, with mostly minor revisions (different shift knobs, thicker door padding, and shinier surfaces in the 124) marking otherwise equally clean and efficient cockpits. My test car, at $29,190, had not a single option on it, but included heated seats, automatic climate control, steering-wheel audio controls, and a leather-wrapped manual shifter. Controlling such features as the four-speaker audio system and Bluetooth phone hookup is achieved via a rotary knob on the center console and a few surrounding buttons. It’s an intuitive system to use, and I had no trouble scrolling through the displays on the central 7-inch color display without having to look down at the rotary controller. Overall, the cabin its roomy and pleasant for two — but I’m not gonna lie: getting and out of the low-slung Spider is like trying to lie down on a skateboard. Said one passenger after finally contorting his frame down into the seat beside me: “Ugh. I’m not sure I’d wanna do that every day.”
It’s in the driving experience where the Mazda and the Fiat grow far apart. Unlike the Miata’s twin-cam, naturally aspirated 2.0-liter four (which makes 155 hp and 148 pound-feet of torque), the 124 uses a Fiat-sourced “MultiAir” single-cam, 1.4-liter unit boosted by an intercooled turbo. Whereas the Miata’s mill is snappy, rev-happy, exciting to the tympanic membranes, the Fiat’s is muted and torque-dependent, pushing the car forward with 184 pound-feet of low-rpm grunt rather than revs. Thanks to a sport exhaust, the Abarth edition gets an additional four horsepower (to 164) over other 124 variants — not that you’d feel much of a difference.
The 124’s torque advantage over the Miata is more of a “thing” on paper. In the real world, the turbo needs a few beats to spool up and torque doesn’t peak until 3,200 rpm, so making the most of the available brawn means judicious use of the six-speed manual gearbox and staying on top of the boost. Even then, though, the Miata just sounds better when you’re hustling, and it’s far happier at the upper reaches of the tach. The 124 is the more relaxed cruiser, however, burbling along the highway without the Mazda’s more pronounced drone.
The Abarth edition with the manual gets a limited-slip rear diff, and in a stretch of my favorite twisties around Malibu, I found the Spider’s chassis plenty playful. Frankly, it borders on being too stiff — you’ll grit your teeth over broken pavement — and it’s arguably not as much fun as the Miata, which tends to heel over more at the g forces build, providing more of a sensation of hustling hard. But the Fiat is impressively neutral nearing the limit; I can’t recall another car under $30K with so little understeer. Which is to say, Fiat probably made the right call here, offering an alternative “feel” on a chassis already so astutely bred it would’ve been hard to make it “better.” If you prefer the go-kart approach, the 124 is your ride.
Ultimately, the 124 Spider Abarth departs enough from its Miata underpinnings to stand as its “own” vehicle. Buyers cross-shopping the two could well decide based purely on their affinity for one design over the other. Or perhaps you’d rather cruise with the Fiat’s swell of turbo torque underfoot than bother revving-out the Mazda’s naturally aspirated four to achieve a similar pace. There’s also that conspicuous difference in handling feel that might sway you toward one of the two. But in starting with a base as good as Mazda’s MX-5 Miata, Fiat couldn’t go wrong. More than a few onlookers, eying my test car at stoplights or when parked, remarked, “Fiat 124? They’re still making those?”
To which I was happy to reply, “They are now.”
2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth Specifications
|ENGINE||1.4L SOHC 16-valve turbocharged I-4/164 hp @ 5,500 rpm, 184 lb-ft @ 3,200 rpm|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD convertible|
|EPA MILEAGE||26/35 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||159.6 x 68.5 x 48.5 in|
|0-60 MPH||6.8 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||135 mph|