First Drive: Fiat 124 Spider

Tom
By Tom Suddard
Jun 10, 2016 | Abarth, Fiat | Posted in Features | Never miss an article

Nearly 50 years after the original Fiat 124 Spider was introduced to America, Fiat is back with an all-new 124 Spider. This rear-wheel-drive roadster gives the Mazda Miata its first real competition in years, costing just $80 more at its $24,995 base price.

Funny thing about that: Fiat’s new Spider is based on a Miata chassis, and we don’t mean it shares a few bolt sizes. Underneath, the two cars are almost identical, but the Fiat sports new bodywork and the turbocharged 1.4-liter engine from the 500 Abarth.

Want to see more photos? Check out our full gallery

The Perfect Marriage?

Say "platform sharing" to any enthusiast, and you'll get an eye-roll at best. Good things rarely happen when two companies use the same chassis–we're looking at you, Honda Passport and Toyota Cavalier.

Fortunately, Fiat seems to have better taste than '90s-era Honda. Rather than pick something lame, they picked one of the best sports cars ever made: the Mazda MX-5. We're not sure how they did it, but somehow the company convinced Mazda to share their crown jewel, culminating in the 124 Spider.

Each car starts as a turbocharged drivetrain, made from the 500 Abarth's 1.4-liter, 160-horsepower engine and the transmission from an NC-chassis MX-5. That's shipped to Hiroshima, Japan, where an assembly line puts it into a MX-5 chassis and wraps it in Italian-designed Fiat bodywork. The result, in our opinion, is the best of both worlds: Italian design and Japanese build quality.

How Does it Drive?

We set off in a base-model Spider with a manual transmission, the "masculine, aggressive" nose pointed at Southern California's famous canyon roads. Yeah, this was going to be a fun day at the office.

It was even better than we expected. The little 1.4-liter makes peak torque (184 lb.-ft.) at only 2500 rpm, so the character we've come to expect from a small roadster's drivetrain was entirely changed. Gone is the sensation of being tugged along by a determined gerbil sprinting on a wheel, replaced instead by what feels like half of a Mustang shoved under the hood, grunting along.

Well, maybe "grunting" is a little optimistic. Still, though, the Fiat doesn't beg to be wound out to the rev limiter. It simply surges along, the little turbo occasionally making itself known through a cool noise (WRX, bro!) or an annoying bit of lag if you're in the wrong gear. Forget to upshift, though, and you'll be sorry–the rev limiter hits at just 6500 rpm.

What transmission did Fiat use to turn their front-wheel-drive power plant into a rear-wheel-drive one? Oddly enough, they picked the same transmission used in the NC-chassis Mazda Miata, and changed a few pieces to make it all work. We actually prefer the 124 Spider's gear shift to the ND Miata's; the throws felt shorter and more precise.

Now, the biggie: How does it handle? Fiat says they spent three years and visited locations around the world to tune the Spider's suspension, and the North American cars have the same tuning as those found overseas.

Honestly, without instruments or back-to-back tests with both cars, we couldn't find any real difference between the base Fiat we drove and a base MX-5. They're both a tad floaty in stock form, but ultimately lean over and act surprisingly neutral. The Fiat's limits were fairly low, but it also sported tires better suited to highway cruising than track days. We were regretting leaving our R-comps at home. The steering was precise and communicative, even though its assist is electric, not hydraulic.

Brakes? Yes, it had them. We weren't about to find the limit in a borrowed car on public roads. Sorry, internet, but you'll have to wait for an instrumented test in Grassroots Motorsports magazine.

Weight a minute: You're wondering how heavy this thing is, right? With a manual transmission, the curb weight is 2436 pounds.

Does It Have Bluetooth?

Yes, it has bluetooth. In fact, it has everything a Mazda MX-5 has, because the interior is basically the same. Mazda's touchscreen infotainment system is present in the higher trims (with "MX-5" cleverly changed to "124 Spider" wherever it appears in menus), while the base model gets an old-school display that's about as complicated as a bar of soap. Yes–it has bluetooth, too.

Fiat does seem to have put a fair bit of effort into quieting the interior down. Compared to a MX-5, it was noticeably quieter on the highway. Fiat showed us a diagram with eight different points of sound deadening improvement, and it worked.

The fancier trim (called Lusso) sports soft-touch materials sprinkled throughout. We think this means Fiat had an intern glue some brown leather over a few plastic places on the dash, but it actually makes a big difference. Getting out of the Classica and into the Lusso was like walking across the street from a Holiday Inn to a Hilton.

The Lusso also comes standard with every other feature you'd expect on a modern car–-automatic lights and wipers, blind spot nannies, leather, backup camera, etc. Oh, and every 124 Spider has a larger trunk than the MX-5 it's based on: 10 liters larger, to be exact. Finally, you can carry an extra day's worth of water on those long trips.

What's This I Hear About an Abarth?

Awwwwwwwwww yessssss. The Abarth. Abarth is to Fiat as AMG is to Mercedes, and we were able to sample the Fiat 124 Abarth on a long, open autocross course.

First up: price. The Abarth starts at $28,195, which makes it just over $400 cheaper than a Mazda MX-5 Club.

So, how much more power does the mighty Abarth make? Uh, uhm, 4. Four horsepower, zero lb.-ft. That's all it gains, so you probably don't want to start your cars & coffee conversation with dyno charts. Buying an Abarth also gets you a sport suspension, a mechanical limited-slip differential, a Sport button, different wheels, four chrome exhaust tips, and a few accents/stripes/badges that actually look damn good. If, for some reason, you buy an Abarth with the automatic transmission, you'll also get paddle shifters on the steering wheel. Feeling spendy? You can add Brembo brakes and Recaro seats, "for added sportiness." Those are Fiat's words, not ours.

How's it drive? Just like the MX-5 Club it competes against, it drives like a slightly stiffer version of the standard Spider that puts its power down much better thanks to a real differential. We were huge fans of the Sport button, though, which sharpens the drivetrain up significantly. It probably just shortens the delay between hitting the throttle and receiving torque, but it made a huge difference on track. By far the highlight of the day, though, was driving an Abarth with a Mopar exhaust system. Wow: Such noise, much loud, very turbo, many want. We had to get out before we had any more thoughts of going into debt.

Will the Fiat 124 Spider Abarth Beat a Mazda MX-5 Club?

Good question! We're cooking up a full, instrumented test of both cars. Want to read it? You'll have to subscribe to Grassroots Motorsports magazine.

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Comments
revrico
revrico GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
6/10/16 1:19 a.m.

Ok, this actually was worth staying up late to read. It sounds even better than had been hinted at, and looks absolutely gorgeous in that blue.

Did the non hp related changes to the Abarth model make much difference in feel and driveability on course and on highway?

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard GRM+ Memberand Associate Editor, Grassroots Motorsports & Classic Motorsports
6/10/16 1:21 a.m.

Yes, they did, and I would absolutely spring for the Abarth as soon as a clever salesman said "It's only an extra $XX per month!"

Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to drive it on the street. Only a few exist at this point, and they were stuck at the autocross course.

Mark_Booth
Mark_Booth New Reader
6/10/16 1:34 a.m.

Thanks, Tom! Great review (the best I've read so far).

Mark

Mitchell
Mitchell UberDork
6/10/16 2:06 a.m.

Shame that the blue is a limited edition. It is beautiful.

Jerry
Jerry UltraDork
6/10/16 6:36 a.m.

I'm not a convertible fan, but damn this other Abarth sounds tempting.

alfadriver
alfadriver MegaDork
6/10/16 6:59 a.m.

Nice- and thanks for the comparisons.

I still find it interesting how focused we are as enthusiasts that we want ultra flat cornering. Back when the original 124 was out, cars like it and the Alfas handled really well, but had pretty soft set ups. My Alfa leans a lot in corners.

Having a soft/"leany" car corner so well is a very good thing.

A few years ago, when that car was supposed to have a different badge, it was #1 on my future buy list. At least with this review, it's gone back up some.

mazdeuce
mazdeuce UltimaDork
6/10/16 7:05 a.m.

This is an exciting car.

IndyJoe
IndyJoe Dork
6/10/16 7:15 a.m.

The want it Strong for this one. What a good looking car. I'm glad to hear they're using the NC transmission, instead of the (apparently weaker) ND Miata unit. Very well written article Tom. Thanks.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director, Grassroots Motorsports & Classic Motorsports
6/10/16 7:51 a.m.

I'm a sucker for a flat black hood, so you know which way I'm leaning.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director, Grassroots Motorsports & Classic Motorsports
6/10/16 8:42 a.m.
mazdeuce wrote: This is an exciting car.

Very much so. Plus it gives our world another real sports car. In a day of self-driving cars and SUVs and automatic gearboxes, this is big, big news.

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