Fiat 124 Spider shifts two-seater convertible fun into overdrive

BIZ AUTO-FIAT-REVIEW 2 MCT
The 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Lusso shares a lot of traits of the Mazda MX-5 Miata, but supercharges them.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth: Just in time for spring, some top-down fun.

Price: $33,185 as tested (the Abarth starts at $28,195, and a base 124 Spider can be had for $24,995). A $3,995 Preferred Package was the only upgrade, and it added a blind-spot and cross-path detector, and other features that come up throughout the column. 

Conventional wisdom: Edmunds.com liked the Fiat’s fun ride, highway comfort, and easy manual top. It had problems with the automatic, but if you’re thinking of an automatic 124 Spider, go play video games or something.

Marketer’s pitch: “The true sports car is back.”

Reality: Starts with an MX-5, but punches it up.

A Mazda by any other name? When I first heard about Fiat reviving its old Spider convertible, I was excited. Mazda’s MX-5 Miata is the only game in town for a small, fun, semi-affordable convertible in the old European sportster vein. My excitement waned when I saw previews and thought, “Sure looks like an MX-5.” Then I found out it was built in Hiroshima, the same plant as the MX-5. Wait a minute. It must be an MX-5. Well, an MX-5 that uses Fiat’s 1.4-liter turbo four-cylinder. 

But the differences are — there: Fiat insists it’s a different car — from its interior components to calibrations of the suspension, springs, shocks and bars, and steering calibration. And no one who looks closely can really say they look that much alike. The Fiat has taller corners and bigger lights, and a far more Italian flair.

Up to speed: The Fiat engine produces 164 horsepower (160 in sub-Abarth trims), where the Mazda 2.0 offers 155. But the Fiat has 184 pound-feet of torque, compared with Mazda’s 148, so the car has a much more sprightly feel.

Shifty: Fiat also says the transmissions are different, but the window sticker says the Fiat transmission comes from Japan, and the gear ratios are identical to the MX-5’s. The Fiat requires a more motivated driver than the Mazda, though. Turbocharged engines generally give their best performance at higher RPMs, and in the 124 Spider, that translates into a juiceless second gear. 

On the road: After learning that trick, though, I found the 124 Spider as peppy and fun, perhaps more so, than its Japanese counterpart. Winding country roads are a pleasure, as are slight inclines and descends. The Spider and MX-5 are both an absolute blast at legal speeds, too. 

Driver’s Seat: Mazda improved the MX-5 immensely in the latest incarnation, and the 124 Spider gets full benefit of that. The convertible is far easier to enter and exit than it once was. Loyal readers may recall 5-foot-3 Sturgis Kid 3.0 almost wetting herself laughing as she watched me slithering out of a 2012 model. The Fiat seat is different, Fiat says, and I found the Sport Seat (part of the Preferred Package) a comfortable companion.

Friend and (just a little bit of stuff): And if you’re bringing a companion, bags want to ride in the trunk. Not too many, though, as there’s only 4.94 cubic feet back there, a bit more than the 4.5 advertised in the MX-5. Plenty of headroom is accessed when the top is down, of course, but it can be more of a challenge with the top up. Sturgis Kid 4.0 found the seat still cramped for all 73 inches of him, but the fun ride made up for it.  (Fortunately for him we had the top down that afternoon.)

Outside: It’s five inches longer than the MX-5, Fiat says, but the two are equally pretty. 

Inside: Almost everything else is straight-up Mazda — the dashboard, the gauges, the heater vents, even the white LCD trip computer. Why mess with success?

Play some tunes: Fiat benefits from the Mazda’s handsome infotainment screen and simple dial control. Even though the 9-speaker Bose system came as part of the Preferred Package, the music sounded a little flat, with too much treble for my tastes. 

Fra-gee-lee? Must be Italian: I cut the turn into my driveway a little wide, hit a six-inch pile of packed snow, and one of the trim pieces fell off. (I put it back on, and it stayed.) Yikes. Also, large highway seams would shut the cruise control off.

Fuel economy: I averaged about 31 mpg in the little funster, 1 better than the MX-5. Both want premium flavor.

Where it’s built: Hiroshima, Japan.

How it’s built: Consumer Reports predicts its reliability to be average. Better than you expected, right?

In the end: This car may be a souped-up MX-5 Miata with a bigger chance of breakage, but that wouldn’t stop me. Yee-haw!

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