In some ways the “Fiata” is the better Miata

Much has been made in the automotive press about the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider’s close relationship with the Mazda Miata. But the so-called “Fiata” is no mere badge-engineered Miata. In some ways, the 124 is better than the Miata with which it shares its chassis and a production line.

Continue reading to learn more about the Fiat 124 Spider Lusso.

Exterior

2017 Fiat 124 Spider Lusso - Driven High Resolution Exterior
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2017 Fiat 124 Spider Lusso - Driven High Resolution Exterior
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Primarily, I think the Fiat is the better-looking car. With a tip of its hat to the Pininfarina-penned original 124 Spider that was last built in 1985, this is one handsome little roadster.

Where Mazda takes a more modern, curve-centric design with its Miata, the Fiat 124 Spider has a slightly more angular bent.

Face-to-face with the Fiat, there’s a pair of big openings at the front with scowling, but not-too-mean eyes in the form of headlights. The hood is relatively flat, turning upward near the fenders to form athletic shoulders. There are twin U-shaped impressions on the hood, adding to that notion of athleticism.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider Lusso - Driven High Resolution Exterior
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2017 Fiat 124 Spider Lusso - Driven High Resolution Exterior
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2017 Fiat 124 Spider Lusso - Driven High Resolution Exterior
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2017 Fiat 124 Spider Lusso - Driven High Resolution Exterior
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The Fiat 124 Spider is equal parts fun and sporty. It speaks the language of speed without being angry about it in the way some sports cars are.

The side view sees a gentle contour that progresses from the headlight/turn signal in the front fender, across the top of the door, and upward slightly to the rear fender. It looks a bit like a classic Coke-bottle shape. A crease about 9/10ths of the way down the side turns the body work under slightly, adding to a sense of solidity. The windshield lays back at a somewhat steep angle, and there’s a very slight ducktail on the rear edge of the trunk lid, again adding to the angular, sporty look.

At the rear, the Fiat 124 Spider is its most attractive. Squared-off taillights frame a slight arch across the top of the trunk lid, while the bumper surface seems relatively square from dead-on but reveals complex curvature from the three-quarter view.

Taken as a whole, the Fiat 124 Spider is equal parts fun and sporty. It speaks the language of speed without being angry about it in the way some sports cars are. It’s refreshing to see.

Exterior Dimensions

Wheelbase (Inches) 90.9
Overall Length (Inches) 159.6
Overall Width (Inches) 68.5
Overall Height (Inches) 48.5
Track, Front/Rear (Inches) 58.9/59.1

Performance

2017 Fiat 124 Spider Lusso - Driven High Resolution Drivetrain
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If the looks write the check, then the Fiat 124 Spider’s chassis and powertrain cash it with surety.

The suspension is a bit stiff over expansion joints and potholes, sure. But it repays those minor inconveniences by supplying the kind of handling joy you haven’t experienced since the last time you drove a go-kart. And I don’t know about you, but the last go-kart I drove had no suspension at all, so I didn’t mind the occasional harsh bump given the 124 Spider’s fun handling around twisty Tennessee backroads.

Under the hood was FIat’s 1.4-liter MultiAir turbocharged four-cylinder engine. In the tiny, front-wheel drive Fiat 500 Abarth, this engine is a whole lot of fun and makes all the right noises. In the Fiat 124 Spider I tested, the 500 Abarth’s raspy exhaust note was muted, unfortunately, but the engine was turned 90 degrees so it could drive the correct wheels – the rear ones. You win some, you lose some. If I wanted the rorty exhaust note of the 500 Abarth, I’m sure it’s just a muffler upgrade (or delete, as the 500 Abarth doesn’t have one) away.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider Lusso - Driven High Resolution Drivetrain
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The Fiat 124 Spider is available with either a six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed automatic. My tester featured the latter. Shifts were quick and, considering it was a sports car, smooth. Mashing the accelerator resulted in a no-nonsense downshift behavior if left to its own device, or I could elect to manually downshift a few cogs by using the automatic shift lever’s manual gate ahead of time. I would have preferred a manual transmission, but I realize there are lots of people who won’t buy the Fiat 124 Spider with three pedals. To that end, the automatic didn’t numb the enjoyment too much for me.

Bottom line: I enjoyed the 124 Spider so much that I drove it, top-down, in cold weather until I caught a cold. It was totally worth it. The 124 Spider put a big, stupid grin on my face every time I drove it.

Drivetrain Specifications

Engine 1.4-liter In-line four-cylinder, liquid-cooled, turbocharged
Horsepower 160 HP @ 5,500 RPM
Torque 184 LB-FT @ 3,200 RPM
Transmission 6-speed manual
Fuel Economy (city/highway/combined) 26/35/30
Suspension front: Double-wishbone front with stabilizer bars
Multi-link rear with stabilizer bars
Brakes front: Ventilated front disc
rear: Solid rear disc

Value

2017 Fiat 124 Spider Lusso - Driven High Resolution Exterior
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2017 Fiat 124 Spider Lusso - Driven High Resolution Exterior
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My Fiat 124 Spider Lusso tester was loaded with saddle brown leather seats and dash trim, an easy-to-use infotainment system borrowed from Mazda that included a backup camera, and more. Its base price rang in at $27,495.

To this, Fiat added Bianco Perla Tri-Coat exterior paint ($595), the aforementioned six-speed automatic transmission ($1,350), and the Customer Preferred Package ($1,495), which included niceties such as blind spot and cross-path detection, ParkSense rear park assist system, heated exterior mirrors, auto-dimming mirrors inside and outside the car, a universal garage door opener, and a security alarm.

All-in, my Fiat 124 Spider Lusso stickered at $31,930 after a $995 delivery charge. The sticker price is almost as friendly for fun-on-a-budget types as its fuel efficiency. Our Spider returned 29 mpg under hard driving on mostly rural highways, right on the nose of its EPA fuel economy estimates of 25 mpg city, 36 mpg highway, and 29 mpg combined.

Fiat 124 Spider Lusso $27,495
Bianco Perla Tri-Coat exterior paint $595
Six-speed automatic transmission $1,350
Customer Preferred Package $1,495

Competitors

There are few competitors in this small, open-top, rear-wheel drive segment, so understand the net here is being cast somewhat wide:

Mazda MX-5 Miata

2016 Mazda MX-5 High Resolution Exterior
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2016 Mazda MX-5 High Resolution Exterior
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You can’t talk about the Fiata without mentioning the Miata. The two roadsters share an assembly line and basic chassis components, not to mention an interior. But Fiat’s exterior design is far less polarizing than the latest Miata, and the Fiat turbocharged engine is a little more fun than the naturally aspirated Miata mill.

Really, it comes down to what you like. Both cars start under $25,000. Mazda has the MX-5 RF with a retractable hardtop starting at $31,555, where Fiat doesn’t have that option. But for the price of the MX-5 RF, you can buy the top-performer 124 Spider Abarth.

Read more about the Mazda MX-5 Miata here.

Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ

2017 Toyota 86 High Resolution Exterior AutoShow
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2017 Toyota 86 High Resolution Exterior AutoShow
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The Toyobaru Twins are not available as convertibles at any price, just as the Fiat 124 Spider is not available with a rear seat at any price. However, both cars offer a similar mix of direct driving feedback and a low MSRP like the Fiat 124 Spider, and they’re also similar in size to the diminutive roadster.

Where the Fiat turbo hits its stride in the engine’s midrange, the flat-four “boxer” engine in the Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ hits a flat spot. Fans of the twin sports coupes have been clamoring for a turbocharged option, and this is why. Also, the 86/BRZ has poor rubber from the factory, so spirited cornering often results in tail-happy shenanigans. If that’s your thing, you’ll love it. If it’s not, you’ll be shopping for stickier tires right away.

Find out more about the Toyota 86 here and the Subaru BRZ here.

Nissan 370Z

2009 - 2017 Nissan 370Z
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2009 - 2017 Nissan 370Z High Resolution Exterior
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2013 Nissan 370Z Facelift

The Nissan 370Z is bigger and an awful lot heavier than the FIat 124 Spider, but it’s available in Roadster trim with a convertible top, and it only has two seats. It carries a much higher starting MSRP of $41,820. By the time you add a few options, you may very well find it possible to buy two Fiat 124 Spiders for the price of one 370Z Roadster.

The 370Z Roadster is not as fun to drive as the 124 Spider on public highways. There are two reasons for this: First, its limits are much higher than the little Fiat – heed the old saying, “it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than to drive a fast car slowly.” Second, it doesn’t have the same kind of direct, communicative steering and chassis the Fiat has. I’d blame most of that on its weight – nearly 1,000 pounds heavier than the Fiata. Adding to its demerits, the 370Z’s technology is dated, and its engine is thirsty – you’ll probably struggle to obtain the EPA-estimated 25 mpg highway. My brief highway jaunts in the Fiat 124 saw trip computer-reported efficiency well into the mid-30s without even trying.

Read our full review on the Nissan 370Z here.

Conclusion

2017 Fiat 124 Spider Lusso - Driven High Resolution Exterior
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Fiat did two good things when it loosed the 124 Spider upon our streets: First, they provided Mazda’s production line with a reason to keep building the Miata, perhaps the most celebrated, pure roadster of our time. Second, they took the Miata’s platform and improved upon it by giving us a car whose design harkens back to the original 124 Spider, with a great turbocharged engine.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider Lusso - Driven High Resolution Exterior
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If my budget could make space for a $30,000 convertible, I’d have one of these tomorrow. It’s that simple for me. Incredibly rare are automobiles that give me this level of driving enjoyment with such a modest sticker price.

The world needs more cars like this to remind us how much fun driving used to be, even for those of us who didn’t have huge amounts of disposable income to spend on cars.

What do you think?
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