Here’s a perplexing recipe: take what may be the best all-around pure sports car of the modern era. Add seemingly arbitrary touches, like a thicker steering wheel and new door handles. Give it a turbo engine, but don’t give it that much extra power. Make the suspension a whole lot softer. And make it Italian, but never convincingly so. What you get is the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider.
If you’re confused why anyone would do this, great: I’m right there with you. Starting this year Fiat bolsters its scant lineup in the U.S. with this new roadster derived the great current-generation Mazda Miata, but the end result falls so short of that, I can’t imagine any reason why you’d buy one over the car it’s based on.
(Full disclosure: Fiat Chrysler needed me to drive the 124 Spider so badly they sent me one for a week with a full tank of gas. I was happy to oblige, because unlike my E30 it had air conditioning and started with regularity, most unusual for a roadster with a Fiat badge.)
I’ll say this right off the bat: I had fun driving the Fiat 124 Spider, but I didn’t have much love for it.
I knew I was in for trouble when my colleague Mike Ballaban said how much better it was than the Mazda, beamed about it, swore he had some kind of religious experience in it. In my experience, that never bodes well for anything. Needless to say, I walked away with an entirely different hot take.
You probably know the basics of this car by now, but in case you don’t, here’s a brief recap: Fiat has a deal with Mazda where the latter builds the Spider in its Hiroshima plant alongside the Miata.
The Spider gets entirely different sheet metal, a 1.4-liter turbo engine to replace the Miata’s 2.0-liter naturally aspirated one, a new suspension, and other tweaks. The weight comes in at 2,436 pounds, around 100 more than the Mazda. (Pricing on this fairly basic white Clasica came out to $27,880, with the only options being the white paint and a $1,295 technology package.)
Fiat gets a roadster that salutes, in name more than anything else, one of its historic sports cars; small and mostly independent Mazda gets money. And we, the car buying public, get another small rear-drive sports car to choose from. Everyone wins.
But because it’s part of a very, very small segment of cars, and because of its nearly identical pricing, the Spider will inevitably be compared to the Miata on which it’s based. And it’s not as good.
My verdict on this mostly comes down to handling. The Spider gets its own springs, dampers, anti-roll bars and electric power steering tuning, and in the end it feels like Fiat Chrysler’s engineers messed with something they shouldn’t have messed with.
The Miata, despite the persistent body roll it’s always had, is direct and fierce and exact, like a scalpel, if I can dip into the auto journalist cliché box for just a second. A precise and finely-tuned handling instrument, it will do whatever you ask it to on the street or on the track.
The Spider, by comparison, feels much softer and much less direct. The suspension is vastly more pliant, but this comes at the expense of controllability. And the steering feels dull and dead compared to Mazda’s superb tuning.
Perplexed, and worried that I was somehow completely off the mark—though I’ve driven several ND Miatas over the last year, including one soul-enriching drive up the California coast—I asked Jalopnik photographer and former amateur racer Kurt Bradley for his opinion too.
“The 124 Spider seems soft,” he told. “Understanding that this model I drove isn’t the more aggressive Abarth option, it still feels like there’s confusion in its setup. The steering doesn’t offer that crisp MX-5 feedback. When tossed into some tighter bends, you get that expected Miata body roll, but then the understeer kicks in. Damping is soft, and feels comfortable at highway speeds, but doesn’t give you the bite you have come to expect from a Miata. There isn’t that confident turn-in sensation, and overall the car didn’t put a smile on my face the same way the ND MX-5 did.”
He’s right. I tested the Spider on the same Austin backroads I test every car on, and in it I found myself tackling corners at lower speeds than I would in the Miata, and with less confidence.
It’s cushy. It feels weirdly large from the cockpit with the new hood and front end. Who asked for a cushy Miata that feels bigger than it is?
It’s sprung like a grand tourer, but it’s not a grand tourer. It’s a tiny two-seat sports car. You can’t grand tour in a Miata. Like all Miatas, being in one with the top up is deeply unpleasant, like being in a coffin, or a Volkswagen board meeting. It’s not something you choose. It’s something you deal with.
Similarly, the gearbox is also a disappointment. It’s the six-speed manual from the previous NC Miata, and compared to the one in the new car, it’s much more balky and awkward. It gets the same job done but with far less finesse.
So what, then, does the Spider do right? For one, it’s pretty. It has a fantastic side profile with lovely curving lines that recall both the original 124 Sport Spider and, to some degree, the NB Miata. The face is cute and retro without overdoing it. That’s tough to pull off.
The inside is all Miata, all day. Tweaks are so minimal that you can be forgiven for not noticing them at all, like the slightly bigger wheel and new door handles. (Oh, and all those Fiat badges.) It even keeps Mazda’s not-bad infotainment system, although given the choice I’d rather have Fiat Chrysler’s generally excellent UConnect instead.
No, the place where the 124 Spider shines most is its engine bay. I’m here to report the 1.4-liter mill, sourced from the 500 Abarth and pumping out 160 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque, is not some raucous turbo monster. But it is quick. There’s a small amount of lag down low, but after that it offers punchy midrange powerband that pulls nicely to redline, one that’s 300 RPM less than the Miata’s.
This non-Abarth version of the car was a bit of a letdown in the sound department. The turbo motor is loud, but it’s more uncouth and bland than sensual and silly, like an Alfa Romeo 4C or the 500 Abarth. The aural experience isn’t as notable as you’d expect.
But power-wise it’s a good engine, and while it doesn’t feel ridiculously faster than a Miata—and indeed, is a bit slower from zero to 60 mph—it makes for a better highway car. In the Miata, passing on the highway is a manic, rabid affair, full of gear changes and teeth gritting and wringing that little engine out for all it’s worth. Cocaine, if you have some, is often helpful.
Things are a lot more laid back in the Spider. The torque from that turbo offers ample passing and cruising power. It’s nowhere near as high strung because it doesn’t need to be. In that way, again, the Spider emerges as the better grand touring car.
Or attempt at one, because it’s not one. That’s my biggest issue with the Fiat 124 Spider: what is it supposed to be, exactly? Does it simply exist as a Boomer nostalgia play? Considering most people who can say “I used to own a Fiat Spider” usually end that sentence with “and it was a rusty, unreliable piece of shit,” I doubt that’s the case.
I suppose Fiat is somehow banking on buyers not knowing it’s a Miata, but of course they’ll know it’s a Miata. Any Google search on their mobile phone at the dealership will tell them that. More people will know this is a Miata than will know that a Scion iA is a Mazda2, that’s for sure.
It’s not Italian. Not really. Nothing about this car feels truly Italian, and not just because it started every time and never caught fire. No, in the end it emerges as a slightly different Miata with inferior handling and a new name, and I’m not sure that’s enough.
What I would have liked to have seen was a Fiat 124 Spider that was more substantially different than the Miata to really justify its place in the automotive landscape. Maybe something bigger, more expensive and luxurious, more unique. Or even more considerably more powerful.
I suppose if this car is really your bag, go for the Abarth version. I haven’t had a chance to test that yet, but with its more aggressive looks, a bit more power and a wild and crackling exhaust, it appears to be closer to the crazy Italian roadster that’s different enough from the Miata to make sense.
Noise, after all, is the ultimate automotive narcotic.