Small, affordable, rear-wheel-drive roadsters are an endangered species; the Mazda MX-5 Miata has been the only remaining candidate for the past several years. So Fiat’s betting there’s room for one more contender, resurrecting the 124 Spider nameplate that hasn’t been seen in the United States since the 1980s.
Interestingly the 124 Spider is very much based on the Miata. It uses the same chassis, many of the same interior parts and even the same key fob as the Mazda. As Fiat loves to point out, though, there are a few differences that make driving each one a unique experience. It gave the 124 Spider different tuning for its steering and suspension, and there’s a different engine under the hood: a turbocharged, 1.4-liter four-cylinder borrowed from the 500 Abarth. Compare the two convertibles here.
The 124 Spider is offered in three trim levels: Classica, Lusso and the performance-oriented Abarth. I drove a Classica with Fiat’s Technology Package on the road and an Abarth in its natural setting: an autocross course.
Exterior and Styling
Put the two competitors side by side and the differences are obvious. The 124 Spider is longer and leaner than the Mazda, with 3 inches added to the front overhang and 2 inches to the rear. This gives the Spider more classic styling than the Miata, which has a more modern, angular look.
Ringed daytime running lights and LED taillights are standard on the Fiat. Classica models have 16-inch alloy wheels, while the Lusso and Abarth get 17-inch alloys. Lusso and Abarth models also add fog lights and automatic headlights. At launch, a manually operated soft-top was the only roof available for all three trims.
The Abarth is a different beast entirely. It’s distinguished from the other two trim levels by a gunmetal matte hood and deck lid, as well as large scorpion Abarth badges both fore and aft.
How It Drives
Under the hood is an engine that will be familiar to Fiat fans. The 1.4-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder is taken from the 500 Abarth and makes 160 horsepower and (more importantly) 184 pounds-feet of torque. Transmission options include a standard six-speed manual or an available six-speed automatic, a $1,350 option.
The Classica model I tested had the manual and it’s a good one, with short throws and a clutch that skews a bit more to the forgiving side than the Miata. I didn’t have a chance to drive the automatic.
Fiat gave the 124 Spider unique suspension and steering tuning, and the setup aims more for comfort, with a bit more body roll and slightly less feedback from the wheel. This removes a lot of the harshness of the Miata’s setup and makes the 124 Spider more livable as an everyday driver. The difference gives the Miata an advantage in the twists but, on any other type of road, I’d prefer the Spider. That’s not to say that the 124 Spider is a slouch when the road gets bendy; it’s still a very good car with great balance.
For me, the highlight of the driving experience was found under the hood. The Spider’s engine fits it like a glove, with the turbocharger giving it a big torque advantage over the Miata (enough to offset the added 100 or so pounds of curb weight). Peak torque happens earlier, at only 2,500 rpm versus 4,600 rpm in the Miata, so it’s much easier to keep the 124 Spider in its power band. And when the road got hilly, the 124 Spider pulled hard even on an incline.
While I didn’t drive it on the street, I did get to sling a 124 Spider Abarth around an autocross course, where it exceled. It has numerous mechanical upgrades, including a rear limited-slip differential, upgraded shocks and sharper tuning for the steering and suspension. Its engine also makes four more horsepower. Brembo brakes are available, as is a Mopar exhaust system with a blow-off valve that makes the exhaust sound even gruffer.
On the autocross course, climbing into the Abarth made me feel a bit like Goldilocks: I found the best of both worlds inside. The Abarth has the more robust engine of the 124 Spider along with the sharpness of the Miata’s handling and suspension. I can’t wait to get one out on the street for a longer drive.
The 124 Spider will run on regular fuel, but premium is recommended. The EPA estimates it will get 26/35/30 mpg city/highway/combined with a manual transmission and 25/36/29 mpg with an automatic.
Inside, the 124 Spider’s interior is essentially identical to the Miata’s, which means it inherits many of the same quirks. The biggest difference is that the plastic, body-colored trim piece atop both doors in the Miata has been replaced in the Fiat with a black trim piece that matches the rest of the cabin.
Ergonomically, there are some issues. For models equipped with the touch-screen and multimedia system, the controller knob sits directly in the path of your arm when shifting, so you can bump it pretty easily when moving between gears. There’s not a lot of room with the top up, so taller drivers and passengers may find the space pretty cramped.
This being a soft-top convertible, road and wind noise are ever-present in the cabin. Rear visibility is slightly compromised with the top up but (predictably) excellent with the top down.
Ergonomics and Electronics
Classica models come with standard Bluetooth connectivity and a 3-inch display, but our test vehicle had an optional technology package, which adds a 7-inch touch-screen, backup camera and remote proximity keyless entry for $1,295 (all those features are standard on the Lusso and Abarth).
The 124 Spider uses the same multimedia system as the Mazda; just the splash screen showing the company logo has changed. Most inputs are made using a circular control knob between the two seats. The touch-screen won’t allow inputs while the car is in motion, as a safety precaution.
The system isn’t one of my preferred setups; the menus aren’t very intuitive, and even when you learn the location of different functions, it takes many button presses to perform simple tasks. If Fiat had been able to put in the Uconnect system that’s found in many Fiat Chrysler Automobiles products, it would have been a large improvement. Neither Apple CarPlay nor Android Auto is offered on the 124 Spider.
Cargo and Storage
Fiat likes to claim the 124 Spider has “class-leading” cargo room because it has 4.9 cubic feet and the Miata has 4.6 cubic feet. Practically, there’s not much difference between the two. You won’t fit much beyond a small suitcase or some groceries in the trunk of either one.
There isn’t much storage to be found inside the cabin, either. There is no glove box, just a small compartment between the two seats that also stores the removable cupholders. There’s another small compartment in the center tunnel, beneath the arm rest, and a small tray in front of the shift knob that can fit half a smartphone.
The Classica model I tested came with a backup camera as part of the technology package, but otherwise there aren’t many safety features to speak of. Blind spot monitoring with rear-cross path detection is available on Lusso and Abarth models. The 124 Spider doesn’t offer a forward collision warning system or automatic braking.
See a full list of the 124 Spider’s safety features here. Crash-test results for the 124 Spider weren’t available as of this writing.
Value in Its Class
When the model was announced, many worried the 124 Spider would be more expensive than its rival, but the two have very similar price structures.
The Classica model starts at $25,990, including a $995 destination charge. Lusso models add heated leather seats, rain-sensing wipers and a dual-tip chrome exhaust for $28,490. Rounding things out is the Abarth, which gets numerous styling and mechanical upgrades and goes for $29,190.
For comparison, the Miata starts at slightly less: $25,570 for a Sport model. The Club, which is comparable to the Abarth, goes for $29,435. Topping things off is the Grand Touring at $31,200, which gets a few more standard features, including navigation, blind spot warning and a Bose audio system (all of which are optional on the Lusso).
With the two cars so near each other in price, the deciding factor really becomes what driving experience you prefer. The Miata is the sharper of the two, but that sharpness might be too much to live with on a daily commute. The 124 Spider is a bit softer in the bends, but its engine, more-comfortable suspension and easier clutch action will appeal to many. You can’t go wrong with either roadster; both are stylish and great to drive. It’s nice to finally have choices in this segment again.
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