2017 Fiat 124 Spider first drive: More than a Miata with an Italian accent

2017 Fiat 124 Spider and 124 Spider Abarth first drive review Photo 1

It’ll feel familiar, sure, but Fiat’s roadster is far from a badge engineering job

When Fiat unveiled the original 124 Spider half a century ago, it wasn’t exactly a revolution in motoring. There were plenty of other attainable roadsters on the market, back then, from England, Germany and the good ol’ USA. Yet the Fiat executed the front-engine/rear-drive/drop-top formula with suitable Italian flair and classic Pininfarina style; its $3,256 price tag only added to the allure.

We ate it up: According to Fiat, over 170,000 were sold in here between 1968, when it reached our shores, and 1985, when production ended. Not bad for a plucky little import in the land of V8s.

Duplicating that success with the all-new 2017 Fiat 124 Spider won’t be easy, but Fiat has done everything it could to stack the deck in the car’s favor: The two-seater looks to the past for inspiration, borrowing the original’s side character lines, recessed headlights and cheerful face. The overall effect is, sadly, less delicate, but advancements in modern manufacturing mean it probably won’t rust to pieces the first time relative humidity tops 70 percent. It can’t quite match its namesake’s sub-2,100-lb curb weight, either, but hey, 2,436 lbs isn’t bad for 2016. It’s still fairly affordable, too, with a $25,990 base price — about $3,500 more than its predecessor, inflation-adjusted.

And as with the first 124 Spider, it focuses on the fundamentals rather than trying to break new ground. It hews to the proven front-engine/rear-drive formula, and it’s built around an existing, proven and highly acclaimed architecture.

This is a polite way of saying that it shares its bones with the current Mazda MX-5.

At this point, this shouldn’t come as a shock. But even if you’ve been hunkered down in your garage tinkering with your old 124 Spider for the past year (we’d believe it), you’ll notice the the little placard on the driver’s side door the first time you go to hop in the new one. It reads, “MFD. BY MAZDA MOTOR CORPORATION FOR FCA ITALY S.P.A.” and, right below all the recommended tire pressures, “MADE IN JAPAN.”

Of course, it’s not all made in Japan. Each of the 124 Spider’s three trims — base Classico, luxury-oriented Lusso and sport-minded Abarth — get the Italian-born 1.4-liter turbocharged MultiAir inline-four. We hope you’ve encountered this engine before in the rambunctious 500 Abarth, but this is its first longitudinal/rear-wheel drive application.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider and Spider Abarth first drive review new old

In the first two trims, it’s good for 160 hp at 5,500 rpm; thanks to its quad-tipped exhaust system, the Abarth gets an extra 4 hp to go along with its Bilstein shocks and mechanical limited-slip differential. Torque is 184 lb-ft at 2,500 rpm across the board, and redline is at an electronically limited 6,250 rpm. It’s paired with either a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic, which on the Abarth version gets paddle shifters.

Though the interior, instrumentation and infotainment systems are going to seem awfully familiar to anyone who’s sat in a new Miata, the car’s sheet metal is totally unique. It’s grown five inches in length compared to the MX-5 — some in the nose, but also some in the tail, leading to a slightly larger trunk. In keeping with this nod to practicality, Fiat worked to make the car better-insulated and more refined on-road than its somewhat noisy, rolly Mazda cousin.

Pricing starts at $25,990 for the basic Classico, which gets you fabric seats and 16-inch wheels; $28,490 nets you the Lusso, which gets heated leather seats, 17-inch wheels and a silver-painted windshield surround; and $29,190 for the Abarth trim. You could add an automatic transmission to any of those for $1,350, or do the smart thing and put that money toward an upgraded exhaust system (more on that later).

2017 Fiat 124 Spider and Spider Abarth first drive review interior

What’s it like to drive?

If you’re used to the linear windup of a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter (like, for example, the one on the MX-5), the 1.4-liter turbo is the single biggest difference you’ll notice from behind the very familiar steering wheel. It’ll take a minute to adjust; with peak torque available from 2,500 rpm, you don’t have to thrash it to get it moving. But it really starts to scoot at around 3,200 rpm, and after that, it’s not long until you hit redline and run out of steam.

So, you can drive the car sedately without rowing hard through the gears, or keep its teeny little turbo spooled up while working your way quickly through the six-speed, in which case you’ll be especially glad that the floppy 500 Abarth-spec manual has been replaced with a crisp short-throw gearbox. Even if you drive it like you mean it, you’ll never be stung by a tail-dislocating surge of power; wherever you’re at in the power band, handling remains as predictable and progressive as ever.

And it’s quiet. A little too quiet, in our opinion, at least in the Classico and Lusso trims. Top up or down, there’s not much of an engine note to enjoy, even if you really step into it. This makes it even easier to justify the jump up into the Abarth version.

The 124 Spider Abarth gets a mere 4 hp more than other trims, but it’s the more aggressive (if still fairly friendly) fascias, unique 17-inch wheels, sport suspension and a selectable sport mode that give a good helping more personality than its siblings — with or without the throwback matte black-painted hood and red deck lid. The exhaust actually has an Abarth-y voice, though we couldn’t help but wish it was just a little more anti-social.

It's got that gnarly #Abarth sound the kids crave! #fiat124spider #fiat

A video posted by Graham Kozak (@grahamkozak) on

Fortunately, one of the Abarth cars was equipped with an armload of Mopar goodies, including a strut tower brace and an insane-sounding “Record Monza” dual-mode performance exhaust which snarled, whooshed and pshhhhhhhted theatrically and easily added 100 hp to the car’s perceived output. (The exhaust system is made by Magneti Marelli and will be offered through Mopar; pricing will be announced this fall.) As far as we’re concerned, this is how an Abarth is a supposed to sound.

While we drove the other Fiats on public roads, we only sampled the Abarth cars on a decently sized autocross course. We were happy to learn the course in an automatic-equipped car, selecting gears with the Abarth-only paddle shifters. After that, the manual cars were — as is usually the case — our choice, especially since the 1.4-liter’s power band means you can basically set it and forget it in second gear. We were hardly exploring the car’s limits, but we got a little faster with each turn; this platform’s wonderfully predictable balance makes it hard not to learn and gain confidence with each lap.

When we weren’t driving, we were happy to watch others navigate the short circuit. The cars bounded and tail-wagged through the cones with puppylike eagerness, looking as happy as cars can look. We were happy. Everybody was happy. How could you be anything but?

Still, we couldn’t shake the feeling that this was all very Miata-like, so we took a new MX-5 that Fiat had on hand for a quick spin. The seats didn’t feel as grippy or bolstered as even those in the base Classico 124 Spider, which strikes us as odd considering that the MX-5 is willing to roll a little more in corners. And yep, that 2.0-liter sure has a different, higher-strung character. It’s a little noisier in the cabin, too, but the rasp isn’t exactly a sweet Skyactiv tune; we prefer the quiet of the Classico or Lusso or, ideally, the Abarth’s outsized roar.

This was hardly a comprehensive back-to-back test. But it did confirm that, while the fundamentals are the same in both cars, you’re not going to confuse a 124 Spider for a MX-5 or vice versa even if you somehow never see the bodywork. Then we hopped back into a 124 Spider Abarth and whipped through the cones until it was time to go home.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider and Spider Abarth first drive review convertible top up

Do I want it?

Yeah! Hell yeah! You want the Abarth version, and you want it with that fancy Record Monza exhaust. Or at least we do. But then, we’re a sucker for Italian accents, which might be why this piece of Torino-via-Hiroshima appeals to us in a way that, inexplicably, the MX-5 never quite has (excellent though it may be).

Truth is, it would have been hard to screw up a car with these underpinnings, and we’d hate to meet the grouch who is incapable of enjoying a turn at the wheel. The bigger risk was that Fiat could have built a car that failed to set itself apart from its much-praised cousin, even as it succeeded dynamically.

Worry not. Whether or not it’s to your style, the Fiat 124 Spider looks different, it drives different, it sounds different. Thanks to its looks and Euro-marque badging, we could see this being more appealing to a would-be Mini or VW Beetle convertible buyer than its platform-mate, but the lack of rear seats narrows its audience from the get-go. At the same time, the range of hop-up parts in the expanding Mopar catalog makes it easy to tailor it to your taste, and that’s before third-party suppliers get in on the action. We’re curious about how many MX-5 aftermarket parts will work here, too.

Either way, we think the world’s a better, happier place with another earnest and affordable convertible in it. Rather than trying to do a point-by-point 124 Spider/MX-5 analysis here — that’s another take for another time — we’d advise you to try it out, see if it fits your personality and then go with your gut.

If you’re not willing to let emotion guide you here, at least a little bit, you really have no business buying a two-seat roadster. Italo-Japanese or otherwise.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider and Spider Abarth first drive review profile

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