Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Lusso

AutoTrader SCORE
This score is awarded by our team of expert reviewers after extensive testing of the car

Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat. The 2017 Fiat 124 Spider is not a Mazda MX-5 Miata. Well, it is. But it really isn’t.

If you need a compact roadster, and you need it now, go to the mother lode.

Glad we got that cleared up. Any questions?

Why did Fiat bring this car to market?

That’s an easy one. FCA needs more product to prop up the Fiat brand in North America, so what would be better than doing a redux of the beloved 124 Spider that was sold here from 1966 to 1982? The 124 is probably the most well known Fiat vehicle this side of the pond, and it’s not like our market is saturated with nimble, low-priced two-seat roadsters. It’s a cute halo car to share showroom space with the Fiat 500, whose sales have dropped precipitously.

Why did Fiat go to Mazda?

This question answers itself. If you need a compact roadster, and you need it now, go to the mother lode. The gen-four Mazda MX-5 Miata, introduced as a 2016 model, is a perfect realization of that little roadster’s original intent – unfiltered sports car fun. It is arguably the best one yet, and it fits the Fiat mandate to a tee. This benefits Mazda too. As a relatively small, independent automaker, the influx of FCA cash can only be a good thing for Mazda.

Where is the Fiat 124 Spider built?

It comes from the Mazda Miata plant in Hiroshima, Japan.

We see the retro squared-off body that echoes that of the original Pininfarina design. Are there any other differences between the Miata and the 124?

Many. The biggest one lies under the hood. In place of the Miata’s naturally aspirated 2.0L four (155 hp, 148 lb-ft), Fiat drops in its own Italian designed-and-built 1.4L turbo four that makes 160 horsepower and a robust 184 lb-ft of torque from 2,500 rpm. It’s the same engine that’s in the Fiat 500 Abarth, only engineered for longitudinal orientation and sporting more turbo boost pressure.

By the Numbers: 2017 Fiat 124 Spider

Fiat has also retuned the suspension to its own specifications. They’ve engineered in more compliance and less body roll in the corners, which is a feat in itself.

The base transmission is a six-speed manual, although this tranny is actually from the previous-generation Miata as the new, lighter unit couldn’t handle the little turbo’s torque. A six-speed auto is optional.

What about the interior?

This tester is the Lusso model that starts at $36,495, and it gets a cabin swathed in leather, a back-up camera, rain-sensing wipers, auto headlights, 7.0-inch touchscreen, and heated seats along with 17-inch wheels (over the base 16-inchers), silver windshield surround, fog lamps, and dual chrome exhaust. Still, sliding into the Fiat’s seat is déjà vu. Save for the ritzier trim and a more cushy chair, this interior is all Mazda – which is all good. It is built to a high standard, the rotary HVAC controls work with expensive precision, and the 7.0-inch Mazda interface with its Germanic rotary controller adds a touch of upscale flair – if not a touch of frustration when it comes to messing with radio functions.

Is there anything else we should know?

Fiat seems to have tailored this car for those who love little roadsters, but perhaps find the Miata too focused and edgy. Along with aforementioned smoother ride and more comfortable seats, the Fiat 124 gets added sound insulation, a thicker top and an acoustic windshield. This all adds up to a more pleasant experience on the highway where conversation is now possible without losing your voice. Also, with the turbo engine spinning in the meat of its torque, brisk highway acceleration in top gear is just a toe tap away. In the Miata you’re dropping down a couple of gears to find enough juice for overtaking.

Yeah, yeah. Highway, shmi-way. What’s the Fiat 124 Spider like on a twisty back road?

Very nice. As with the Miata, the brilliant fabric top is a toss-over-the-shoulder affair, giving instant access to the roadster experience. I headed to my trusty back road loop to see if there was some Italian brio in this kissing cousin to the Miata.

The short-throw shifter delightfully snicks between gears, playing along beautifully with the quick clutch and pedals that are perfectly placed for heel-and-toe rev-matching. The driving position is spot-on too.

Steering is quick, but less edgy than the Miata’s. You can say that about the handling too. The Fiat’s turbo engine is a tad heavier than the Mazda’s atmo unit, and the car weights at least 70 kg more, so yes, you’re not quite so much at the pointy end of the driving experience. But damn, this is a fun car to drive, and I do like the Fiat’s flatter cornering demeanour. It seems a little quicker to wag its tail, too. As with the Miata, economy of motion is the key. Your body soon adjusts to the minimal inputs this car wants – a nudge of the wheel, a flick of the wrist and a tip of the toe.

What about the engine? More power and more torque = more better. Right?

Yes and no. First off, I was expecting a bit more aural stimulation in the exhaust department. After all, this 1.4L turbo engine in the Fiat 500 Abarth makes spectacularly rude noises. In the 124 Spider Lusso, it’s toned down to the point of non-descript. Apparently the edgier $37,995 124 Spider Abarth gets a noisier exhaust along with sportier suspension tuning, limited slip differential, sport seats, an extra four horses and unique wheels and body bits.

Indeed, this wee four-pot pulls hard when the boost comes on, but the window of opportunity is relatively narrow when compared to the linear and rev-hungry delivery of the Miata’s 2.0L naturally aspirated unit. Drop below 1,700 rpm and it closes up shop and all semblance of forward thrust vaporizes. Turbo lag, I know thy name. And once you’ve crested 5,500 rpm, the party is pretty much over.

So you drive the Fiat in the midrange, and here it hauls some decent arse. The 124 Spider really is a delightful little roadster that is nothing but a whole heap of fun.

If I buy the Fiat over the Mazda, will people think I’m an old fuddy-duddy?

If they do it’s their problem. Yes, I know, the elemental and purely genius Mazda Miata MX-5 is the very definition of a modern lightweight roadster, and it blends its modest power and brilliant (and again modest) handling into some otherworldly concoction greater than the sum of its parts. But I think Fiat was smart in going their own route here by not just bringing us a rebadged Mazda. The 2017 Fiat 124 Spider is a different and totally viable take on this wonderful chassis, and it opens up the world of the compact roadster to a demographic who might not go for the Mazda.

3 years/60,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 3 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 5 years/100,000 km roadside assistance
Model Tested 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Lusso
Base Price $36,495
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,795
Price as Tested $42,590
Optional Equipment
Premium Collection $4,200 – auto dimming rearview mirror, auto dimming and heated exterior mirrors, headlamp washer, adaptive LED headlamps, navigation, LED daytime running lamps, alarm, Bose audio, SiriusXM, rear park assist, blind spot and cross traffic detection, universal garage door opener