2017 FIAT 124 Spider
Italian-styled, Japanese-built rear-wheel-drive roadster
Sports car performance, fresh-air driving, stylish
Pricey with options, could just buy the Miata
Value for money
Who cares? It’s a convertible
What would I change?
Add another 15 or so horsepower and a little more rasp from the exhaust
How I would spec it?
Keep the car simple — no options
From a culinary standpoint, the pairing of a pasta dish with sushi doesn’t, gastroenteritis-ly speaking, appear all that appetizing. And, from an automotive standpoint, an Italian/Japanese mash-up has the potential to go sideways very quickly.
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Occasionally, however, such a seemingly disparate coupling ends well, as is the case with the Fiat 124 Spider. Though some wags have labelled the two-seat roadster with the “Fiata” moniker, such condescension is too harsh by half. Yes, there is much fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 throughout the 124, but Fiat certainly contributed more to the sports car than the badges — the turbocharged engine primarily, but also some suspension bits. Plus the styling, which pays homage to the original Pininfarina-designed 124 Sport Spider — produced from 1966 to 1985 — while also providing the car with a little more length and cargo room than its Mazda sibling.
And, oh joy, oh bliss, what a lovely stretch of weather in which to test the droptop, as fall takes over from summer; ball cap, sunglasses and sunscreen a must. Furthermore, the roadster is the Abarth edition ($37,995 to start), a performance-oriented version that purports to continue the legacy of Carlo Abarth — the Austrian/Italian version of Carroll Shelby — who steroided Fiats with all sorts of go-fast bits, giving them giant-killer status on race tracks and hillclimbs during the 1950s and 1960s. His company was sold to Fiat in 1971.
At first blush, the Abarth version appears to be a lot of hype with little reward. The MultiAir 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, residing under the hood of all 124s, sees a mere four horsepower increase to 164, thanks to the Abarth’s freer-flowing sport exhaust. It matters not a whit; the 124, like the Miata on which it’s based, is about intimate driver/car interaction, the kind only a lightweight (1,124 kilograms, in the case of the Abarth) sports car provides.
Though the regular 124 is slightly more relaxed than the MX-5, the Abarth’s performance suspension — with sport mode selector — evens things out. So this car knows how to rock and roll — zippy rather than fast, yet cornering with gleeful abandon thanks to the front strut tower bar and Bilstein shocks keeping body roll under control. It’s also an absolute joy to shift, the 124 using the six-speed manual not from the current MX-5, but from its predecessor, the third-generation NC. Apparently, the NC’s box is more robust and better suited to handle the extra torque supplied by the turbocharged engine – 184 lb.-ft. for the 124, versus the Miata skinny 148 lb.-ft. As an owner of an NC Miata, I can say the manual is simply one of the best in the business, maybe second-only to that of the late and lamented Honda S2000.
More importantly, since I lack much objectivity when it comes to the Miata, the 124 Abarth is a better driving sports car. The turbo-four is the answer to what the MX-5 faithful have been clamouring for years since the demise of the NB-series Mazdaspeed Miata — more power courtesy of a turbocharged engine. Sure, the 1.4 could use a little more displacement — with a consequent bump in ponies to, say, around 180 horsepower. Maybe the MX-5 would prove superior on a racetrack, but on the road, the Abarth is so damned easy to drive smoothly. Power comes on much quicker — credit the turbo four reaching peak torque at 3,200 rpm versus 4,600 rpm for the Miata’s naturally aspirated 2.0-litre engine. The sport-tuned exhaust system has a rich tonal quality to it, though I’d prefer a little more rasp; a ballsier auditory accompaniment to enhance the visceral driving experience.
Despite the firmer suspension (double-wishbone layout in front and a multi-link in the rear), the Abarth’s ride seems to be little easier on the spine as well, though neither it nor the Miata provide anything approaching pillowy. Grip from the speed-rated Bridgestone Potenzas is quite good, especially considering the P205/45VR17 rubber would be considered under-tired by the more hardcore sporty types out there. The standard limited slip differential also helps in getting power to the pavement.
The Abarth’s cabin reflects form following sports car fashion. There is the black leather-wrapped steering wheel, wrapped instrument cluster hood, lower instrument panel and parking brake —all with contrasting red stitiching. A matte black instrument panel bezel, unique gauges, aluminum-accented sport pedals and a unique shift knob help to differentiate the Abarth model. Unique leather/microfibre seats are standard; as someone who is 6-foot-2, I fit comfortably behind the steering wheel — just! Another inch longer in leg and it would be a different proposition. Also, legroom is considerably less generous for the passenger due to transmission tunnel intrusion into the footwell.
My biggest complaint with the tester was the number of options that jacked the price to $47,585, almost all of them superfluous and adding nothing to driving enjoyment. The most egregious example is the $2,995 wanted for the “hand-painted” matte-black, heritage racing stripe — a nod to the Abarth 124 Rally of the early 1970s — that covers the hood and rear decklid. Cool as it is, you could probably get a body shop to paint the hood and lid for far less. Then there’s the $5,000 Luxury Collection that upgrades the interior with sport bucket seats, GPS navigation, a better audio system, rear park assist, blind-spot monitoring and a bunch of other stuff. Fine if you want it, but I’d give it a pass.
Ultimately, there are two questions at play here. The first is whether the 124 is just an MX-5 in a classier, low-slung body. The second is whether there’s enough to the Abarth to justify a price $4,500 more than the regular 124.
The first is easy. The Abarth was the recipient of more positive reactions from passersby, whether thumbs up or shout outs, than any other car I’ve driven all year. Simply, it is one good-looking convertible, a unique presence on the streets.
The second is tougher. If you are big on a car’s heritage, then the added cachet of the Abarth’s scorpion badges might be worth the extra coin. If not, there’s little wrong with the regular 124. Both are toys — as is the Miata — that do one thing best; make you feel as though there’s not a care in the world. And you can’t put a price on that.
Type of vehicle
Turbocharged DOHC 1.4L inline-four
164 horsepower @ 5,500 rpm; 184 lb.-ft. of torque @ 3,200 rpm
Four-wheel disc with ABS
P205/45VR17 summer performance
Price: Base / As Tested
Natural Resources Canada Fuel Economy
(L/100km) 9.0 city, 6.7 highway
Performance suspension, limited-slip differential, sport mode selector, rear backup camera, push-button start, keyless entry, automatic headlamps, air conditioning, leather bucket seats, heated seats, 7.0-inch touchscreen with Bluetooth streaming, sport steering wheel with mounted audio controls, sport leather-wrapped shift knob, power windows, 3.5-inch vehicle information centre, and more
Bianca Perla pearl mica paint ($995), hand-painted heritage racing stripe ($2,995), Luxury Collection ($5,500, incl. Sirius satellite radio, sport leather-faced bucket seats, auto-dimming rear-view mirror and exterior mirrors, headlight washer, automatic headlight levelling system, navigation system, heated exterior mirrors, adaptive headlights, LED headlights and running lights, nine Bose speakers including subwoofer, Park-Sense rear park assist system, blind-sport monitoring and rear cross-path detection, universal garage door opener)