NEWS

2017 Fiat 124 Spider and 2016 Mazda Miata: Head-to-Head

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CARS.COM — Ever since we heard that Fiat was going to bring back the 124 Spider nameplate and that it would be based on the redesigned 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata, we’ve been chomping at the bit to put them up against each other.

Editor Joe Wiesenfelder said in his review of the 2016 MX-5 Miata that it is “unquestionably the best Miata yet,” and is a very impressive building block that gave Fiat a head start in its development of the 124 Spider.

Related: 2017 Fiat 124 Spider: First Look

This head-to-head represents a twist on the long-brewing battle of nature versus nurture. These two roadsters share a majority of the same DNA — riding on the same platform and using many of the same interior parts (watch our video). They also have similar pricing and even use the exact same key fob (with logos swapped out). 

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However, as Fiat emphasized repeatedly during its presentation, the nurture part of the equation is different for each car. It gave the 124 Spider unique tuning for the suspension, steering and transmission, as well as a completely different engine. The two cars share no exterior body panels, and the 124 Spider is 5 inches longer overall, adding 3 inches to the front overhang and 2 inches to the rear, and making it about 100 pounds heavier.

I took the 124 Spider on a winding drive through canyons and on highways outside of San Diego then repeated the same route in a 2016 Miata the next morning. What I discovered is that while there is much that these two siblings have in common, enough has changed to give each a feel all its own.

To keep things even, both cars ran on the recommended 91-octane fuel, though they also can take 87 octane.

Styling

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Winner: Miata

These two might ride on familiar underpinnings but they’ll never be confused for each other. I prefer the Miata’s angular body to the more conventional appearance of the 124 Spider. The Mazda’s dramatic front, with a sharp grille/air intake, fits its character perfectly and I enjoy the distinctiveness of its look, especially on a sports car. The 124’s added length gives it a longer nose and deck lid, which reduces some of the stubbiness in the Miata’s design, but it may blend in too much on the road for my tastes.

Engine

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Winner: 124 Spider

The 124 Spider shares an engine with the 500 Abarth: a turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder that makes 160 horsepower and 184 pounds-feet of torque. That gives it a 5-hp edge over the Miata, which is slight, but a much larger advantage of 36 pounds-feet of torque that is hard to ignore, especially because of substantially different torque curves.

The Fiat feels like it pulls on the Miata, even with the added weight. Our drive route was pretty hilly and the extra torque offered immediate dividends on uphill climbs. Peak torque in the 124 Spider also comes at just 2,500 rpm. In the Miata, that doesn’t happen until 4,600 rpm, which makes keeping the Miata in the power band much more work. My hands and feet were constantly working to get to the power and, for the type of driving I was doing, it actually made the experience more fun. But in the day-to-day, that would get tiring quickly, giving the edge to the 124 Spider.

Handling

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Winner: Miata

This section and the next one are where I found the greatest difference between the roadsters: They seem built to serve different purposes, and it’s reflected in how they drive and ride.

There’s no question that if you want a more finely tuned instrument, the Miata takes the cake. It eats up corners like Pac-Man, chomping its way giddily from turn to turn, staying flat and giving superb feedback. The 124 Spider’s turn-in isn’t quite as sharp and it seems more at home on long, sweeping turns than tighter ones that require quick changes of direction.

Driving on a good road with the top down, both will put a smile on your face. But the Miata made me smile wider.

Ride and Comfort

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Winner: 124 Spider

The 124 Spider is the more comfortable of the two. It has more body roll and is much more compliant over broken pavement. I didn’t really mind the added softness; it matched the steering. It’s as if a subtle comfort setting had been installed in a Miata, which is something I’d found myself wishing for at times.

Driving down from my home in Los Angeles to San Diego for a few hours in the Miata was enough to give me some back stiffness. The next day, however, I spent about six hours in the 124 Spider, including several rounds of autocross in an Abarth version in the afternoon, and I felt fine physically afterward. The final day meant another six hours in the Miata (the second roadster-intensive day in a row) and the drive itself was great, but by the end I was ready for an appointment with a masseuse.

I preferred the seats in the 124 Spider as well. I never felt like I really sank into the Miata’s seats.

Interior Quality

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Winner: Tie

The 124 Spider I drove was a Classica, the base trim level, but it was equipped with the Technology Collection, which gave it the same 7-inch screen and multimedia system found in the Grand Touring edition of the Miata that I drove.

Inside is where the two cars are the least differentiated. The biggest change is that the body-colored plastic part of the door is gone in the 124 Spider, replaced by soft-touch black plastic. Otherwise, it’s basically the same, save for a big Fiat badge on the wheel instead of a Mazda logo.

The similarity has good and bad elements; both cars I drove were manuals, and the stick shift placement is excellent. However, the position of the knob to control the multimedia system is not; it sits right underneath where your arm goes when changing gears, so it’s easy to bump the controller and click whatever is selected on the screen.

Speaking of which, the multimedia system is essentially unchanged in the 124, apart from the startup screen that shows the company’s logo. This would be a positive if I liked the setup, but Mazda’s system is not a favorite of mine. I find it to be cumbersome and counterintuitive in both cars. 

Fiat says that it added extra noise reduction to the 124 Spider, but I didn’t notice any functional difference; both are plenty loud, as you’d expect from a soft-top.

Conclusion

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In the end, the 2017 124 Spider and the 2016 Miata split the categories, taking home two apiece and tying on interior quality.

To me, this feels like a fitting result. The 124 Spider stands on its own legs and seems to be different enough to appeal to its own set of car shoppers, while keeping enough of that Miata DNA to be both fun and satisfying.

If I’m looking for a car for the weekend, the Miata has the edge. It’s sharper, more fun in the bends and a more precise instrument. But if I’m driving a car every day, put me in the 124 Spider. Extra comfort is worth the small trade-off in performance.

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The ideal choice for me is somewhere in the middle, a Frankensteined version of these two: the Fiat engine with the Miata styling, handling and transmission. And Fiat might have an ace in the hole in that regard: the 124 Spider Abarth that I drove only on an autocross course. Between the cones, the Abarth felt like the best of both worlds: more torque than the Miata, with better handling than the regular version of the Spider, and gunmetal matte on the hood and deck lid for a distinct look. 

The Abarth (starting at $29,190 with destination) compares favorably to the Miata’s Club trim ($29,435). Both have upgraded suspensions with rear limited-slip differentials, sportier suspension tuning and optional Brembo brakes. But only the Abarth comes with that signature growly exhaust note, which can be further augmented by a Mopar exhaust and blow-off valve (pricing details to be determined) for even more auditory high jinks. I can’t wait to get one on the street to see if it’s the right mix.

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