The new 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Elaborazione Abarth and 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club Sport are the best antidotes for the coming onslaught of autonomous vehicles.
No lane-departure controls, no adaptive cruise controls, no cross-traffic alerts, nor blind-spot information systems. Say “hell no” to automatic braking systems. Autonomy? We don’t need no stinkin’ autonomy. The Fiat 124 Spider Elaborazione Abarth and the Mazda MX-5 Miata Club are cars to drive, not to be driven in. The only concession to such modern automation gadgetry is the navigation system in the Spider Abarth and the rotary knob that controls infotainment screens in both, poorly located too close to the gearshift.
The Miata and Spider Abarth—Spiata, if you will—are your first defenses against the onslaught of these building blocks towards driverless cars. If you accept the theory that autonomous vehicle technology will soon begin accelerating the way computers and the internet have, then it won’t be long before you’ll have to trailer your sports car to a private racetrack just to experience the joys of cranking a steering wheel and executing a perfect heel-toe downshift.
As we approach that cold, automated future, the last roads in the U.S. to be coordinated for autonomous driving comfortably inside your compact sport/utility vehicle’s navigation system will be those like California Highway 58 between McKittrick and Santa Margarita: remote, twisty, and hard to map precisely. Highway 58 and its ilk are perfect for cars like these. They’re not heavily traveled, and the twisty mountain bits play to their handling rather than to their power and torque. Pairs of eyes, hands, and feet will be fully involved in the drive.
This could well end up an AUTOMOBILE Collectible Classic feature circa 2040, but it’s our first opportunity to compare the new 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Elaborazione Abarth head to head with our Four Seasons 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club on the type of road for which these cars were built. Of course, the first thing you’ll ask is, which do we prefer?
The short answer is that either of these two represent top-of-the-list choices for navigating the driver’s roads hidden from the coming throngs of multi-camera, LIDAR-equipped, rolling, driverless, wireless hotspots. One nice advantage of the Miata and Spiata is that they don’t have adjustable chassis that demand you complete the final suspension tuning. Their relative simplicity of controls just requires you to get in the car and go. After serious study on 17.4 choice miles of Highway 58 (see Trip Notes), it’s easy to conclude this is a good thing. And when it comes to chassis tuning, there is as much difference between the two roadsters as between the Subaru BRZ and Toyota 86, which is to say, degrees.
Like the Scion FR-S-slash-Toyota 86, the 124 Spider Abarth is set up to be the bigger drifter of the two. Prior to Highway 58, we had the chance to autocross three Spider Abarths—two six-speed automatics and a six-speed manual—as part of Fiat’s introduction program at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. The autocross course was loose enough to allow a third-gear straight along with mostly second-gear turns, and it revealed a sports car that could dance around the cones like Gene Kelly shuffling on and off the curb in “Singin’ in the Rain.”
As on the autocross, you want the traction/stability control off for both cars on Highway 58. Stability control allows a bit of snap-throttle oversteer that’s quickly blunted after a short slide, but turn it off (it defaults to “on” with every push of the ignition button) and oversteer is as catchable and predictable as ever, so you can snap the tail into the apex more quickly. But there’s a clear difference in the way the Miata and the Spider behave.
First, the Miata has sharper steering, reacting immediately to inputs. We’ve heard complaints the MX-5’s steering feels “nervous” and needs constant corrections. This is not quite true: The Mazda suffers some bump-steer, reacting to every imperfection in the road. Find a rare bit of virgin highway pavement and the car tracks steady. The upside is the quick turn-in and perfect feedback, which makes it easy to tackle a tight second-gear turn with precision and casually collect the car when the tail snaps out.
The Spider’s steering is perfectly fine. It’s a Fiat-tuned variation of the Mazda’s electrically assisted power steering that feels a bit more relaxed. It’s such a subtle difference that you wouldn’t notice it if you’ve never driven an ND Miata.
All Fiat 124 Spiders feature exclusive Fiat tuning of the Mazda’s double-wishbone front/multi-link rear suspension, and the Abarth manual adds a limited-slip differential and Bilstein shocks, like the Miata Club. As with the Miata, there’s some initial compliance at turn-in, with springs becoming stiff as the body takes a set. The difference is that the Spider Abarth feels a bit stiffer in its initial compliance and a bit softer after turn-in. Again, it’s a subtle difference that requires back-to-back drives to discover. Hard work, that, especially on Highway 58.
Powertrain differences are not as subtle. Aside from the short-lived NB Mazdaspeed Miata, Mazda has left turbocharging of the Miata’s inline four to the aftermarket, even the original NA model’s 116-hp 1.6-liter. That number is now 155 hp and 148 lb-ft, from a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder, naturally aspirated engine from the Skyactiv family with direct gas injection. For the 124 line, Fiat ships its 1.4-liter MultiAir turbo-four to Hiroshima for installation in the Spider. In the Abarth, the engine is rated 164 hp (4 more ponies than in the Classica and Lusso trim levels) and 184 lb-ft.
Both engines arrive at 30 mpg combined EPA fuel economy averages, with the Skyactiv 2.0 doing so with 27/34 mpg city/highway, and the MultiAir 1.4 achieving 26/35 mpg city/highway. Similarities end there.
While Miatafisti will recognize the naturally aspirated 2.0’s linear power delivery, the turbo 1.4 in the Spiata features a strong mid-range with lag at the low end and lack of steam at the high end. When Mazda first unveiled the ND Miata at Laguna Seca, a few of us bristled at the Sport button placed at the bottom of a prototype’s gearbox shifter. We feared it was a suspension adjustment.
“It’s for holding upshifts with the automatic,” a Mazda product planner explained. But it’s also for the 124 Spider, manual or automatic, in which a Sport button lowers the 184 lb-ft peak torque’s kick in to 2,500 rpm, from 3,200 rpm, likely at the expense of reaching those EPA numbers. Loping around town, non-sport on the Spider Abarth is sufficient. You’ll want it on for the Highway 58s of the world, but there’s still that lack of linearity you’ll find in the Mazda’s bigger, naturally aspirated four. This becomes most obvious when double-clutching or heel-toeing a downshift. The Miata matches high rpms easily and naturally, while the Spider Abarth requires a more deliberate throttle blip. Fiat pairs the MultiAir engine with the previous generation, NC Miata’s six-speed box, by the way, to handle the turbo four’s greater torque.
Features editor Rory Jurnecka says the Fiat is “a bit more playful on the throttle” and finds its mid-range torque useful around town. “Unfortunately, when you’re trying to keep the momentum on a hilly, winding section of a road like 58, the car feels outside of its ideal operating range much of the time. You’re either waiting for boost in the lower rev range or running out of steam on the high end.”
The famously dieted ND Miata is about 125 pounds lighter than the Spider. Some of this is the Fiat’s turbocharger and its nearly 5 inches added length and filled-out body form. It’s also better at sound insulation, thanks to an acoustic windshield, which pays off with improved sound attenuation with the top up (the Spider Abarth’s exhaust note, sampled with the top down, is disappointingly unlike the Fiat 500 Abarth’s). The Fiat’s interior is a better place to be, anyway, with more upper- and lower-dash panel padding, unique door panels eschewing the Mazda’s body-colored door inserts, and better seats, though Jurnecka prefers the palm-fitting sphere of the Miata’s gearshift knob to the “irritating” square knob on the Spiata. The 124 Spider Abarth’s optional suede-trimmed Recaros are perfect in the way they hold you in place, and offer this author’s back just the right degree of lumbar support without need for adjustment. Clearly, Fiat didn’t have time to decontent an interior originally designed for Alfa Romeo.
So which should you choose?
It’s not—really, it’s not—a cop-out to say that both the Fiat 124 Spider Elaborazione Abarth and the Mazda MX-5 Miata Club deserve to be at the top of your list for surviving post-autonomocalypse driving pleasure. Drivers who favor a European sensibility and style can buy the Spider safe in knowing that the Fiat Chrysler engineering and Centro Stile design blend well with the “Made in Hiroshima” stamp.
Those of us who might be described as overly familiar with the Miata as a modern and reliable European-style sports car will prefer the MX-5’s natural power delivery and the way its very capable steering and handling can push the driver to improve his or her skills on challenging roads.
Unlike the NC Miata, the ND cannot be had with the Grand Touring package’s luxuries combined with the Club Sport’s Bilsteins and LSD, but a properly optioned Spider Abarth essentially solves that issue. Both sports cars suffer Germanic paint palettes; they could use brighter, happier color choices.
“My perfect car would be the Fiat with the Miata engine,” Jurnecka says.
Indeed, the problem with two distinct cars off the same excellent sports-car platform is you’re unlikely to find the perfect setup. But it’s clear that without Fiat’s partnership in this program, not only would there be no Spiata, there would be no ND Miata, two modern, efficient, and affordable sports cars that will help us survive a bleak enthusiasts’ future of roads filled with zombie automobiles.
President Obama called in to Garrison Keillor’s last “A Prairie Home Companion” broadcast as host last summer. The first question the nearly retired Minnesotan asked the soon-to-be former president was, “Will they let you drive?”
“I’m working with the Secret Service on that,” Obama told Keillor, “perhaps on certain roads.” He’s not interested in getting stuck in urban rush-hour traffic or blasting across I-80 but perhaps cruising something more picturesque, like the Pacific Coast Highway.
We’ve got news for you, Mr. President. PCH is over. Done. If there was any chance of finding some free, open bit of PCH before you took office in 2009, that isn’t true anymore. May we suggest something a bit more open and out of the way?
California Highway 58 essentially connects the desert town of Bakersfield with the Central Coast wine country of San Luis Obispo County, but the salient part is 17.4 miles of constantly twisting mountain road west of the small town of McKittrick. Start there, drive 18 miles or so, then turn around to enjoy the opposite direction, then make the westward drive all over again before continuing on to Santa Margarita for about 69 miles total. If the rare truck or SUV that gets in your way turns out to be a local, the driver will probably pull over to let you pass. Turns and switchbacks allow aggressive speeds, though you don’t need to get anywhere near 10/10ths in the right car, whether Miata, Spider Abarth, Subaru BRZ, Toyota 86, or even Porsche 718 Boxster/Cayman (you won’t need an S model) to have fun and improve your motoring skills.
In Santa Margarita, try The Porch Cafe for breakfast until 11:30 a.m. if you start with an eastbound run, or stop for espresso, burgers, sandwiches, salads, or wraps at the end of your drive. Tell them the AUTOMOBILE Anti-Autonomy Brigade sent you.
2017 Fiat 124 Spider Elaborazione Abarth Specifications
|Price:||$29,190/$37,870 (base/as tested)|
|Engine:||1.4L turbo DOHC 16-valve 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:||140 mph (est)|
2016 Mazda Miata Club Specifications
|Price:||$29,420/$32,820 (base/as tested)|
|Engine:||2.0L DOHC 16-valve I-4/155 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 148 lb-ft @ 4,600 rpm|
|Layout:||2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD convertible|
|EPA Mileage:||27/34 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H:||154.1 x 68.3 x 48.8 in|
|0-60 MPH:||6.0 seconds|
|Top Speed:||140 mph (est)|
Four Seasons 2016 Mazda Miata Club Specifications
- Body style 2-door front-engine RWD convertible
- Accommodation 2-passenger
- Construction Steel unibody
- Base price (with dest.) $29,420
- As tested $32,820
- Engine 16-valve DOHC I-4
- Displacement 2.0 liters (106 cu in)
- Power 155 hp @ 6,000 rpm
- Torque 148 lb-ft @ 4,600 rpm
- Transmission 6-spd manual
- Drive rear-wheel
- EPA Fuel Economy 27/34/30 (city/hwy/combined)
- Steering Electrically assisted
- Lock-to-lock 2.7 turns
- Turning circle 38.8 ft
- Suspension, Front control arms, coil spring
- Suspension, Rear multilink, coil springs
- Brakes F/R Vented front discs, solid rear discs
- Wheels 17-inch aluminum
- Tires F/R Bridgestone Potenza S001
- Tire size F/R 205/45R 17
- Headroom 37.4 in
- Legroom 43.1 in
- Shoulder room 52.2 in
- Wheelbase 90.9 in
- Track F/R 58.9/59.17 in
- L x W x H 154.1 x 68.3 x 48,8 in
- Cargo capacity 4.6 cu ft
- Weight 2,332 lb
- Weight dist. F/R 52/48 %
- Fuel capacity 11.9 gal
- Est. fuel range 404 miles
- Fuel grade 91 octane (premium)
- Sport suspension with Bilstein shocks, shock tower brace
- Limited-slip differential
- LED headlights with LED daytime running lights
- Manual air conditioning/climate control
- Black cloth bucket seats with red stitching and manual adjustment
- 3-spoke leather-wrapped steering wheel
- Leather-wrapped shift knob and parking brake handle
- Mesh-board windblocker
- Touchscreen infotainment with rotary knob control
- Remote keyless entry
- Bose 9-speaker audio system
- Bluetooth phone and audio, AUX port, CD player, USB connectivity
- 17-inch aluminum wheels
- Cruise control
- Pushbutton start
options for this vehicle:
- Brembo/BBS Package ($3,400)
- Brembo front brakes with red calipers
- 17-inch forged aluminum BBS wheels
- Advanced keyless entry
- Aero kit: side sill extensions and rear bumper skirt
- Ceramic Metallic paint: $0
- Appearance package for Club ($0)
- Front air dam
- Rear lip spoiler