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2017 FIAT 124 Spider Test Drive Review
The anatomy of this spider is far more interesting—and fun—than anything you dissected in high school biology class.
A subset of the automotive community insists the answer to every type of “what car should I get?” question is “Mazda Miata.” This passionate response stems from the fact that the Miata is reliable, inexpensive, efficient, and one of the best-handling cars on the market. And despite this, its small size and plucky, upbeat looks have unfairly earned the Miata a reputation as soft or “a hairdresser’s car.”
Truth be told, the Miata is a car I've enjoyed driving. Maybe those stigmas nipped at the back of mind. The Miata also feels underpowered at times. If only there was a car that had all the attributes of the Miata but in a package that had more muscular looks and a stronger engine. The answer is so perfect that it is exactly those things, and it is called the Fiat 124 Spider—recalling an iconic sports car model originally sold from 1966 to 1985 that's been brought back to life for the 2017 model year.
Look and Feel
The 124 Spider is the result of a joint venture between Mazda and Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles, and it's based on the same platform as the MX-5 Miata, sharing a chassis and many components. It gets built alongside the Miata at Mazda’s Hiroshima, Japan, assembly plant.
As a result, the traces of the Miata present in this vehicle are not surprising. Its diminutive proportions and entire interior design are nearly identical to the Miata's, save for the Fiat logos that replace Mazda emblems.
What is surprising is how much this vehicle looks like a descendant of the original Fiat 124 Spider. The flowing fender haunches, circular LED headlights, and trapezoidal grille all look like honest efforts to evoke its ancestor. The dual power bulges in the hood allude to the original, which had the same power bulges to celebrate the fact that it had dual overhead cams–a cutting-edge powertrain technology for its time. Put one of the new ones next to an original 124 Spider and you’ll swear they are separated by a few years, not a few decades.
Trims for the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider are Classica, Lusso, and Abarth. The Classica is the base trim and comes with standard features such as halogen headlights, LED taillights, push-button start, 16-inch aluminum wheels, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and of course the cloth convertible top. A technology collection adds a 7-inch color screen, backup camera, and remote keyless entry.
Moving up to the Lusso trim adds the gear from the technology collection as well as automatic climate control, heated leather seats, rain-sensing windshield wipers, and 17-inch aluminum wheels. On the Lusso trim, the windshield frame and roll bars are painted to match the silver wheels. This was the case on our test model and delivered a stunning and timeless look.
The range-topping version is the 124 Abarth. The top performance model of the group features a more aggressive lower front grille, Abarth logos, signature “scorpion” logos on the wheelcaps, and heated leatherette microfiber seats. In addition to these visual and performance upgrades, the Abarth has the strongest version of the engine that's used in the 124 Spider lineup, and Fiat's offering a free day of track instruction to Abarth buyers.
No matter which version of the 124 you select, under the hood sits a 1.4-liter Multi-Air inline 4-cylinder engine. “Multi-Air” is Fiat’s term for turbocharging, and it helps the diminutive engine of the 124 develop 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. That's 5 more horsepower and a full 36 more pound-feet of torque than the Miata offers. The Abarth features the same engine tuned to 164 horsepower.
Power gets sent to the rear wheels through either a 6-speed manual or a 6-speed automatic with manual tap-shift mode. The Abarth features a Sport mode that revises the throttle response, shift points, and traction control for performance driving. The Abarth also adds other performance equipment, such as Bilstein performance shocks, Brembo performance brakes, and a limited-slip differential.
We drove a non-Abarth version and can confirm that the 124 Spider is every bit a performance machine. Acceleration comes on moderately at first, but as the turbo spools up, speed quickly ramps up, too. The automatic transmission is brilliantly programmed to hold shifts longer during hard acceleration, provide quick downshifts when braking, and hold gears through turns like you would if you were shifting a manual on your own.
The 124 Spider corners like few cars I’ve ever driven. It doesn't have the bone-shakingly firm suspension of a track-day toy, but it is an incredible blend of performance and comfort. It suffers minimal body roll through turns—less than the Miata. When you transition from a hard left turn to a hard right turn, or vice versa, it exposes the shortcomings of a lesser car’s cornering abilities. But the 124 Spider stays perfectly flat through these types of maneuvers, and yet it will also soak up bumps in the road.
Form and Function
Mastering roadster design is all about making the most of the space you have. Luckily for the 124, it has more space than the Miata. The Spider is 5 inches longer than its Mazda stablemate, and this added length can be found in the more aggressive front end and a trunk that grows to 4.9 cubic feet—enough for a pair of weekend bags.
The cabin is nearly identical to that of the Miata, which is tight, but not so tight that my 6-foot, 3-inch frame feels uncomfortable sitting behind the wheel. The glovebox is not where a glovebox usually can be found, but a lockable cubby between the seats at shoulder level. Two modular cupholders can be moved among three possible spaces—two right in front of the glovebox between the seats and one space along the passenger side of the center console. This ingenious setup helps you manage what little space you have in the 124.
The “Spider” in the 124's name refers to its convertible top, and this one owes its beautifully simple setup to the Miata. It's not a power hardtop or even a power soft top like too many modern convertibles, but it is a completely manual, non-powered setup. This might sound like a pain, but it's actually one of the best tops out there and completely easy to operate. Simply press the large button above the between-the-seats glovebox to raise the top, and it springs up a few inches from the deck. You simply grab the top and pull it over your head with one hand. Once the top is in place, a single clamp cinches it down tight. Dropping the top is just as simple, and the whole process takes just a few seconds.
The base Classica trim comes with a 3-inch digital screen that controls a 4-speaker stereo with Bluetooth hands-free calling, audio streaming, and USB-port connectivity.
The Connect 7.0 screen is available on the Classica and standard on the Lusso, and it includes a 7-inch screen that can be touch-controlled when the vehicle is in Park, but can be operated via a rotary dial at any time. It adds HD Radio, 2 more speakers, and apps like Pandora, Aha, and Stitcher. If you don’t feel like futzing with either the touch screen or the rotary dial, using voice-control to change the channel or place a call is pretty seamless.
The available backup camera is a helpful feature, as the rear of the 124 Spider is your only true blind spot with the top down. With the top up, the blind-spot monitor is pretty helpful, though it is set up for what may be a larger or slower vehicle. It still issues alerts when you are well past a vehicle in the next lane.
Perhaps the biggest design flaw for taller drivers is the seat and mirror placement. In the Miata, seat cushions are replaced with a mesh that makes the seats thinner, so you sit closer to the floor of the car. The comfy seats of the 124 Spider are thicker and thus push you closer to the windshield. When combined with the large auto-dimming front mirror, this actually creates a rare frontal blind spot, where the mirror actually obscures a portion of the frontal view for taller drivers.
In addition to its visibility issue, the Fiat has some unavoidable shortcomings. When the top is up, things get a little tighter—I can’t sit in the car with a hat on. But you adjust the seat and make do, because it's so damned fun to drive. That’s the beauty of the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider—you just look over the little things that might be hang-ups on any other car, because you get so much fun at such a competitive price.
The base Classica trim starts at $24,995, the Lusso starts at $27,495, and the Abarth starts at $28,195. That pricing is almost right in line with the Miata's, but from where I’m sitting, you get so much more with the 124 Spider. You get (a bit) more horsepower, more torque, more muscular styling, and design cues that will age a lot better than the Miata. I had never considered buying a Mazda Miata, despite all its handling attributes. And yet if I were in the market for a new car, I’d go out and buy a Fiat 124 Spider today.
From open-wheel racecars to specialty off-road vehicles, George Kennedy has driven it all. A career automotive journalist, George has been a contributor, editor, and/or producer at some of the most respected publications and outlets, including Consumer Reports, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, Autoblog.com, Hemmings Classic Wheels, BoldRide.com, the Providence Journal, and WheelsTV.
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