2017 Fiat 124 Spider First Review: Take Comfort

By Micah Muzio on June 10, 2016 1:02 PM

Ever since Fiat’s return to the U.S. market something has been missing. Yeah, the 500 is cute and charming but for maximum Italian romance you need a two-seat roadster. Something that harkens back to rose-colored memories drenched in wind and sun. You need a Fiat 124 Spider.

Sold in America from 1968 till the early 1980’s, an original 124 Spider can run from $3,500 to $60,000. Of course at any price that old-school romance comes with a host of reliability and safety compromises. Perhaps the all-new 2017 Fiat 124 Spider is a more sensible alternative.

Critical fact number 1: The reborn 124 is based on the supremely well-regarded fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 Miata, which is a blessing and a curse. The latest Miata drives brilliantly, making it a great starting point for an open-air Fiat. Conversely, any deviation from the Miata formula elicits scrutiny.

Take the exterior (please). The most obvious distinction between the Mazda and the Fiat is the exterior design. Adding 5 inches of length to the Miata’s tidy package, the Fiat’s styling recalls the original 124 with its dual power-dome hood, round headlight treatment, and snazzy jutting accent lines adjacent the door handles. It’s a distinct design but the front looks awfully bulky next to the Mazda’s impossibly sleek nose. Count me in the Miata camp but I’m sure each car will have its proponents

It’s in less subjective areas like passenger comfort where the 124 Spider truly distinguishes itself. Interior space is essentially identical to the Miata but enhanced sound deadening and Fiat-specific suspension tuning result in a quieter, more pleasant ride. Truth be told if tasked with a long-distance journey up the coast I’d choose the Fiat.

The greatest difference between Miata and Spider is under the hood, where Mazda’s naturally aspirated 4-cylinder has been jettisoned for the same 1.4-liter turbocharged Multiir engine that propels the angry little Fiat 500 Abarth. Making 5 more horsepower than Mazda’s mill, the 160-horsepower Multiir also produces a maximum 184 pound-feet of torque, a major advantage over the Miata’s comparatively puny 148 pound-feet figure.

Then again, your ability to utilize that torque depends on your choice of transmission. The standard 6-speed manual included on all Spider trims demands some extra revs and clutch slip to get the 124 Spider off the line quickly. From there the turbo stays on boost and acceleration continues assertively. With the optional 6-speed automatic, standing-start acceleration begins with a deep lull as the turbo and engine each spin up. Both transmissions have their place but for best results stick with the manual.  

Likely the biggest question is whether the Fiat 124 Spider’s extra 100 pounds makes it inherently less fun than a Mazda Miata. Short answer, no. Our drive route included some remarkably curvy tarmac and the 124 was a playfully competent joy to drive. We also had the opportunity to thread the racy Abarth trim through a parking lot cone course. When driven at the limit the Abarth was quick, controllable, and just plain fun. Yes, the Abarth has a sport suspension, limited slip differential, and a whopping 4 horsepower advantage over the basic Classica and more-luxurious Lusso trims, but aside from slightly different lap times the entire range is a blast to drive.

The problem with buying an Italian roadster is that it’s just not practical…right? That’s where things get interesting. The 124 Spider’s fuel economy figures are decent and roughly in line with the Miata (manual 26 city / 35 highway) (automatic 25 city / 36 highway). And Spider trunk space is actually marginally larger than the Miata at 4.9 cubic feet. In addition to niceties like heated leather seats and a 7-inch infotainment system, you can outfit your Spider with handy safety features like blind spot warning, rear cross path detection and a backup camera.

Then there’s the price. Select a Spider Classica with a manual transmission and the price tag slides in just south of $26,000 including destination, placing it in line with the base Miata Sport. $28,490 moves you into the fancier, leather-clad Lusso trim while the sporty Abarth starts at $29,190. I fully expected premium pricing for the Fiat but nope, it’s totally competitive.

Despite their similar underpinnings a rich day spent blissfully baking in the Spider’s cabin revealed a personality distinct from the Miata’s. For some drivers the utterly undiluted handling and sharp style of Mazda’s roadster make it the superior choice. But for others the slightly softer, light-hearted spirit of the Fiat better align with their top-down fantasies. In the world of roadsters emotion trumps all. The 2017 Fiat 124 Spider hits the right emotional notes with just enough rationality to justify the fun.

 

Build and price your own 2017 Fiat 124 Spider or see more of the new and redesigned cars heading our way for 2017.

 

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