And it came to pass that Triumph begat the Spitfire. And later, Mazda begat the Miata. And later still, the Miata begat the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider. And all was well in the sports car world.
In biblical language, those brief statements encompass the history of affordable two-seat sports roadsters. There were many back in the 1960s, mostly from Great Britain but also from Italy, which produced the original Fiat 124 Spider.
A long drought ensued until Japan’s Mazda brought forth the modern iteration in 1990, dubbing it the MX-5. But almost everyone still uses its nickname, the Miata. Closing on a million sales over the years, it continues today in a superb fourth generation version.
Now it has a fifth column competitor in the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider, which reappears after an absence of over 30 years. That’s because Mazda decided to sell the basic MX-5 chassis and other components to Fiat. Moreover, the 124 is built in a Mazda plant in Hiroshima, Japan.
It’s a coup for the Italian manufacturer. It gets Japanese design and build quality—sorely needed because Fiats of yore, including the 124, had dismal records for reliability despite their sexy looks.
While the new 124 reprises its attractive Italian styling, the Miata has its own exciting personality, so the choice comes down to customer preference. The cars are priced similarly.
At 13 feet 4 inches, the 124 is nearly six inches longer than its cousin, which imparts that long hood, short rear deck characteristic of muscle cars and sports cars like the BMW Z3. However, the wheelbase—the distance between the centers of the front and rear wheels—is the same 90.9 inches on both the Miata and 124. The latter has more front and rear body overhang.
The 124, which uses Fiat’s 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine with 160 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque, delivers more power than the Miata’s 155 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque from its non-turbo 2.0-liter four-banger. But that slight advantage is mitigated because the 124 weighs around 100 to nearly 200 pounds more than the Miata, depending on the model and equipment.
There are three 124 Spider versions: Classica with a price tag of $25,990 including the destination charge, mid-level Lusso at $28,490 and top-line Abarth at $29,190. All three come with a six-speed manual gearbox. If you want to go shiftless, a six-speed automatic is an additional $1,350.
In any sports car like this, the purist’s choice will be the manual, and the 124’s does not disappoint. Though the shift linkage operates a bit stiffly, the shifter obeys the driver’s instinctive inputs, whether shifting up or down. Clutch engagement is smooth without any tendency to grab and kill the engine.
Fiat rates the 0-60 mph acceleration in the six second range, with the more heavily equipped models slightly slower than the lightweight Classica, the subject here. But all three models, either with the stick shift or the automatic, feel faster because of their tidy size.
The rear drive 124’s behavior on a tight autocross course is joyful, with near neutral balance and responsiveness to both steering and throttle inputs. In a tight turn, the car easily rotates to set up for the next corner.
Some testers have written that the 124 actually feels better planted on curving roads, with less body roll, than the MX-5. But that Miata characteristic is deliberate. Mazda engineers assert that a bit of body roll imparts a more natural handling feel. Take your choice and pay your money.
Both roadsters have similar interiors and about the same space of 49 cubic feet for a driver and one passenger, along with a small trunk of five cubic feet. The trunk can hold enough soft sided luggage for two on a weekend but not much more.
The convertible top is manually operated with a single locking lever. When dropped for open air motoring, it settles into the body and forms its own boot cover.
On the road, with the top up, the 124’s cabin gets noisy with a combination of road, wind and engine sounds, though less so than the Miata. Engine sounds are more noticeable in the Abarth, which sings more raucous exhaust notes than its garage mates.
For a minority of motorists, there’s nothing more satisfying than top down motoring on a sunny day following a twisty, traffic free highway. Raw power doesn’t count; it’s all about driving enjoyment. The Fiat Spider 124 adds a tantalizing new choice.
- Model: 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Classica two-seat sports roadster.
- Engine:4-liter four cylinder, 160 hp, 184 lb-ft torque.
- Transmission: Six-speed manual.
- Overall length: 13 feet 4 inches.
- EPA passenger/trunk volume: 49/5 cubic feet.
- Weight: 2,436 pounds.
- EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 26/35/30 mpg.
- Base price, including destination charge: $25,990.
- Price as tested: $27,285.