For a quarter century, the Mazda Miata has been one of the very best cars any enthusiast could buy. It was great. It is great. But it’s not perfect. The 2017 Fiat 124 Spider, which is almost but not entirely like a Miata under the skin, brings it a hell of a lot closer to nirvana. Really.
It’s that good.
(Full Disclosure: Fiat actually sent me the invoice for the flight, which means I can tell you they paid $554.85 to fly me to San Diego, California. They put me in a nice hotel, which I can imagine was not cheap, either. I ordered room service. Twice.)
When Fiat was given the Mazda Miata and charged with the task of changing it without fucking it up entirely, you’d think that’d be an impossible task. It’d be like replacing the lead singer of a band, like finding a new frontman for Queen. Freddy Mercury is the GOAT. It couldn’t be done. It shouldn’t be done.
And the frontman is different here for sure. The Italians did away with the 2.0-liter, 155 horsepower naturally aspirated Mazda mill and replaced it with a 1.4-liter turbocharged power plant of its own, good for 160 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque—or 164 HP in Abarth trim.
But add in a few suspension tweaks, an insane new exhaust and one less doofy grin, and Fiat’s gone and made a roadster that’s better than the Miata.
I know I sound like a crazy person. Like I’m going around licking windows and random strangers. There’s no way that messing with near perfection could work.
But it’s true.
In case you’re wondering how Fiat managed to get its paws on the bones of a Miata, of all things, let’s back up a bit, all the way to 2012. That’s when we first heard that the then next-generation Miata, now known as the widely-beloved ND generation, would spawn an Alfa Romeo sibling.
I know, I know, we’re here in the future, riding around on our flaming hoverboards and talking about a Fiat roadster, not an Alfa Romeo one, but bear with me. That report at the time was correct. Everything was proceeding along with an Alfa roadster in the works, until sometime around late 2013 or early 2014. That’s when we first heard that Alfa’s stablemate, Fiat, would be stealing the roadster from Alfa.
Or rather, Fiat would be gifted the roadster. That’s because a gentleman by the name of Sergio Marchionne is the Chairman of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which owns both Fiat and Alfa. And Sergio wanted no Alfas to be built outside of Italy as long as he’s the boss.
This annoyed Mazda, which pointed to the lengthy agreement the two companies had about FCA agreeing to create a car based off of the Miata. And more importantly, FCA agreed that the car would be built by Mazda, at its factory in Hiroshima, Japan, where all the Miatas are built.
Faced with this quandary, FCA gave the roadster to Fiat, because Fiats get built all over the damn place.
And thus, the Fiat 124 Spider was born. Or rather, re-born, as there was already a Fiat 124 Spider made from the 1960s to the 1980s, which was very lovely and had a dash apparently made out of floorboards.
This is not about the floorboards car. This is about the later one. Made in Japan. Out of Miata.
So far the Fiata’s been getting love-it-or-hate-it reviews in the aesthetics department. “Giving me back my doofy face,” people with doofy faces who also want a car with a doofy face say. “Not Italian enough,” people who don’t understand the vast breadth of what constitutes Italian styling and the infinite limitations of designing a new car on an existing platform.
Either way, it still looks good. Every single piece of sheetmetal has been changed from the predecessor car, and it’s five inches longer overall, which mostly means a slight increase in trunk space and longer overhangs, giving more of a classic look. It doesn’t have as much of a “small car” vibe, on the outside, because of it.
The eyes are a bit meaner, with a bigger grille, and the sharply angled haunches of the Miata have become more curved in translation. The rear lights, which are just simple circles on the Mazda, become elongated and horizontal on the Fiat.
You can even get it with a stripe, as the “Classica” (or, as it’s more commonly known, the base model) I drove had. Or if you’re feeling especially racy, you can get it with a matte black hood and trunk on the top-of-the-line Abarth, which is absolutely what you should do, my God, I can’t believe that’s even a question.
Both the standard 16-inch and optional 17-inch wheels and tires do seem a bit too tiny for the amount of space carved out for them, but that’s about as big as my gripes get. But that can always be cured with fatter tires, as big sidewalls are coming back, baby.
The interior is damn near standard Miata in almost every single way. The switches are the same, the infotainment system is all the same, and the lights are the same. The little shift light is the same. Even the click-wheel you used to select the radio setting is the same. It’s really, really familiar.
There are some slight, yet important differences, however. While the seat structure is the same, Fiat’s sought fit to replace the foam inside with a softer, cushier feel.
The leather is different in the more upscale “Lusso” and Abarth models. The steering wheel feels chunkier, which is a good replacement for the skinny little thing in the Mazda. The shift knob is less of a golf ball and more of a, well, knob.
I do like that ribbed pattern on the Abarth’s seats, too.
Fiat says it’s replaced dashboard materials in the Spider with ones that are more “soft touch,” but that’s really only in the models you have to pay more money for. In the base model the plastic felt chintzy, even hollow. Lightly rap on it with your knuckle and it makes a noise. It’s all very traditional.
Think of the Miata and the Fiata much like you would the Toyobaru twins, the Toyota FR-S and the Subaru BRZ. They share the same basic genetics, so they’re going to be broadly similar in how they take a corner. But there’s a definite difference.
Blasting around tight mountain twisties, you really got a sense of the changes the Italian engineers made. While they only gave vague platitudes about “tuning” and “development work” without any specifics, there’s less body roll than in the Miata, though in the regular Spiders the car has a tendency to guide you into gentle understeer if you push it a little too hard.
On the highway it feels slightly stiffer too, though it was hard to tell on the smooth San Diego roads. The steering has more heft as well, though there’s a bit of a numb spot at dead-center, but when you’re just keeping both hands at nine- and three o’clock it’s nice to have something actually coming somewhat close to filling your mitts.
Obviously the biggest difference of all is the turbocharged engine. It’s oddly quiet in the standard cars, possibly owing in small part to the increased noise insulation, though it is better sounding than the Miata’s naturally aspirated powerplant, with a deeper note that’s less like an angry textile mill.
With forced induction you’d think it’d be even more peaky than the Mazda, which is famous for the way you need to wring the nuts off of it in every corner to keep the hustle going.
It has 36 more pound-feet of torque, however, with 184 torques to the Mazda’s 148. That means it’s also got a fatter powerband, too, and instead of having to constantly shift and shift and shift and shift and shift from corner to corner, you can instead keep it in just second or third, using the lower RPMs of the Fiat, focusing instead on the turn ahead.
But since there is no justice in the world, you can’t just have a more powerful engine without some sort of increase in weight. The Fiat weighs 104 pounds more than the Miata (the lightest Fiat is 2,436 pounds to the Miata’s 2,332 pounds), but you don’t really notice it in a meaningful way. Just think about it as if you’ve brought along a friend that recently put on 104 pounds. It happens, okay?
By the way, this car has a different manual gearbox than the current Miata does—it’s the old six-speed stick shift from the previous NC Miata, so it’s a bit heavier but more suited to the new car’s extra torque. It’s clunkier than the newer gearbox, but nobody ever really complained about the NC’s transmission back in the day, and it works great here too.
You could also get the automatic, of course, but it is a bit terrible. You can select your own gears with it, but it’s a bit slow. Let it do its own thing, and it never seems to be in the right gear when you’re really hustling. It’s always one or two off. Go for a pass on the highway, and you have to wait for it to do a little two-step before you actually get moving.
You can also get the automatic—complete with paddle shifters—even in the Abarth, which is something some people will do but which I will never understand.
Which brings us to the Abarth.
I fucking love the Abarth.
I merely drove it on an autocross course, but even still. “Not enough power,” the peasants moan. But you, dear peons of society, don’t know what you’re talking about. Want more power? Get a Mustang. This is about having fun. With a dollop of manic, guttural insanity on top.
First off, it sounds absolutely gorgeous, all rasp and moan and wail. Just listen to it:
That quad-tip exhaust adds an extra four horsepower, which you don’t notice at all. But it’s in the other bits that makes it so wonderful.
The stock dampers have been switched out for Bilstein units, and the brakes have been replaced by ones built by Brembo. The anti-roll and tower bars are beefier, for sturdier cornering. It’s got a mechanical limited-slip differential. The tires have a bit more stick to them.
The end result is that it’s a hilarious little monster. There’s less of a tendency to understeer, and when it is there, it can be cured with God’s medicine—an irresponsible heavy boot on the loud pedal, inducing oversteer. Push it too far and you will end up going backwards, but you’ll have plenty of warning before you get there. And even if you do end up going backwards because you’re a bit of a nut, that will still mean you’ve got your foot buried in the loud pedal, and the loud pedal sounds good.
Will it do 0-60 in less than two seconds? Probably not, but I don’t care. Will it pull 19 Gs in a corner? No, but that would rip your face off anyway, and you have a wonderful face that you should work hard to preserve.
That sort of attitude carries over to the Mopar accessories list, too. I drove one car around the autocross circuit which had a new exhaust and blowoff valve kit, which, as far as I’m aware, do absolutely nothing for the power. But they make it sound even more Abarth-y.
It’s got fat scorpions on the front and back, and it’s got suede-feeling seats. It’s got a sport button that supposedly brings out the full potential of the 184 torques, though I couldn’t really tell the difference. At the end of the day, there’s only one thing that matters.
It’s the sort of car that looks good, sounds good, and makes you feel good. What the hell are you complaining about?
You’ve really got the best of a bunch of different worlds here. Engineered by Italians, partially built for the American market, and assembled by the Japanese, it’s hard to find something not to like.
The interior on the base model is a bit cheap, but at $24,995 before destination charges, that’s not that unusual. Spring for the Lusso model at $27,495, and you get gorgeous saddle-colored leather seats and everything’s all very nice. Put an automatic in it, and it won’t be the end of the world, you end up with just more of a grand touring-type car.
Let’s be honest. What you really want is the Abarth, at a base price of $28,195, rasp and all. As I see it, the 124 Spider is slightly better than the Miata, and the Abarth is definitely better than the Miata.
It’s the little things that make something that was already pretty damn good into something that’s great. It’s that little extra heft in the slightly beefier wheel. It’s that slightly deeper engine noise. It’s that more widely available torque. It’s the way it tries to flatten itself out. It’s the way it’s ever-so-slightly better proportioned.
In Abarth guise, this is the Miata you always wanted. It’s the Miata the world always wanted. And for the weirdos out there, there’s still, always, the Miata.
But give me this instead.