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Fiat 124 First Drive: Corner Hugger Supreme (not just a "Fiata")

by Patrick Rall in June 2016 (4.5 stars)

When the news broke that Mazda and FCA were working together on sports cars, many were concerned that the new Fiat 124 Spider would be a rebadged, restyled Mazda Miata. After spending a day driving the new Fiat 124 around Southern California, though, I've found that the 124 isn't a rebadged Miata at all - as it is unique in many ways and better in almost every way.

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First, the new Fiat is longer than the Miata, so in addition to the unique sheet metal, the 124 has unique dimensions. That gives the Fiat a different look, enough so that when the two are parked side by side, most people wouldn't be able to tell that these two cars are related in any way.

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More importantly, the Fiat 124 Spider has its own drivetrain; at its heart is the turbocharged 1.4L engine that motivates a few other cars, including the Dodge Dart and the Fiat 500X. In the 124 Spider, this mill packs the usual 160 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque; in the 124 Abarth, it adds another four horsepower. In comparison, the Mazda Miata's two-liter engine only has 155 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque, giving the Fiat a significant advantage in power.

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The Fiat 124 also has unique suspension and chassis tuning, giving the new Spider a different feel than the Miata - a feel that makes the Fiat far more fun to drive.

Finally, the new Fiat 124 Spider has a unique interior layout with more soft-touch surfaces and, overall, a far higher end look and feel than the Mazda. The Mazda is clearly a Japanese compact, and while it is a pretty good car, the new Fiat is an Italian sports car that is better in every way on paper…but what about out in the real world?

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The Drive: 2017 Fiat 124 Spider on the street and track

My day driving the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider began in a Classica, the entry-level model. While this car had an entry level price and a few less amenities than the premium Lusso, it 124 Spider includes all of the features that make this car so much fun to drive. This car carries a base MSRP of $25,990 with destination.

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The seats of the 124 Classica are cloth rather than leather, but they are still sporty and comfortable, providing great grip during stints of spirited driving. There is plenty of legroom for the driver, even for my 6'3" drive partner; and while the interior is predictably snug, we had no issues getting comfortable. We spent most of the day with the top down, but even with the top up, he had no issues fitting in either of the seats - although the driver's seat does offer a bit more legroom than the passenger's side. There is really no storage space in the cabin, but our large camera bags fit in the trunk with space to spare.

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Our first test car had the 6-speed manual transmission. Having driven the new Fiat 124 Spider with both gearboxes, I would definitely recommend the manual transmission for those who want a more engaging driving experience. There is nothing wrong with the automatic and with the manual shift mode, you have a solid amount of control over the upshifts and downshifts, but the manual transmission adds a bit more punch to this new Fiat droptop.

As I mentioned above, the engine of the 2017 Fiat 124 is used in the Fiat 500 Abarth, the Fiat 500X, and the Dodge Dart. This engine hasn't gotten the greatest reviews in the Dart, but it makes the 500 Abarth one of the most exciting compacts sold in the US; along the same lines, it makes the new 124 a blast to drive.

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Throttle response is sharp, even without Sport Mode (Abarth-only), with enough thrust throughout the power band to break the tires look when accelerating out of a tight turn in second gear. When accelerating from a stop or when pulling through the mid-range, the small turbocharged engine gives the feeling that you would expect from a small Italian sports car, with nary a sign of turbo lag. Of all of the vehicles I have driven with the 1.4L engine, I would say that this is the fastest feeling in every situation; the 124 never feels like it is lacking power. There are no real dead spots in the power band, and that leads to a car that is ready and willing to scoot whether you are cruising around town or blasting down the highway.

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While the turbocharged engine makes the Fiat 124 Spider quicker than the similar Mazda, this is clearly not a car built for drag racing; like all Italian sports cars, the new 124 is designed to conquer the corners. Our route took us through a hundred miles of tight, twisting roads that would push most cars beyond their handling limits, but the 124 Spider took even the tightest turns with ease. The steering system is responsive, allowing you to cut hard through the switchbacks, and the suspension system provides an impressive level of stiffness, keeping body roll to an minimum even in the toughest turns. When you get out of those tight turns, the turbocharged torque gets the 124 right back up to speed with a great deal of urgency. This car is remarkably nimble and the handling capabilities during the on-road driving route far exceeded my expectations.

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What was more of a surprise to me was the ride quality. Whether we were on the tight, twisty roads or cruising along the California highways, the new Fiat has ride quality unlike many small sports cars. These small cars are generally designed to handle well, at the expense of ride quality. In the case of the new Fiat 124 Spider, these driving dynamics don't come with a compromise.

While you can feel the road through the sporty suspension, the Fiat 124 isn't as stiff and rigid as other small sports cars, so it doesn't beat you up. Little things like inconsistencies in the road surface or smaller bumps don't echo into the cabin, and as a result, the new Spider is a great car for cruising. This is a car that I could see myself driving across the country in comfort, and I would enjoy every second of that drive. As much as I was impressed by the handling and acceleration capacities, the ride quality combined with those other attributes is what makes this little Italian roadster so impressive and so much fun to drive.

Finally, we arrived at Qualcomm Stadium, where we would experience the 124 Abarth on an autocross track. The Abarth package adds more aggressive front and rear fascias, different suspension tuning, Brembo brakes, stickier tires and a throaty exhaust system, along with those extra four horses. The extra power doesn't much difference, but the Abarth comes with a sport mode that sharpens up the throttle response and that makes a big difference.

The 124 Abarth feels quicker across the entire engine range, and the combination of the unique suspension tuning with the stickier tires makes the Abarth model more agile on the tight autocross course. The tires are better than the standard 124, but the entire range could do with stickier rubber.

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The autocross testing also gave me a chance to experience the manual and automatic transmissions head to head. Unlike the Classica and Lusso, the Abarth automatic comes with paddle shifters that add a little extra driving excitement to the package while also providing slightly more control of gear changes while speeding around the track. The 124 Abarth with the third pedal felt a little peppier coming out of the turns; that was the only key difference between the two different transmissions, so while I would recommend the manual first, the automatic models don't come with a whole lot of compromise (especially if you aren't comfortable with a manual transmission).

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One of the Fiat 124 Spider Abarth models at the autocross track was fitted up with a collection of Mopar Performance goodies - a strut tower brace, a chassis brace, Mopar bypass valve, and Mopar Record Monza exhaust system. This roadster was the most fun to drive on the track, as the chassis enhancements gave it a noticeable advantage over the fully stock Abarth. The addition of the bypass valve (blow-off valve) and the exhaust system probably don't add to the performance, but the loud "hisssssss" of the bypass valve and the sweet, sweet roar of the Mopar exhaust adds to the performance feel of the car. For anyone buying an Abarth, I would strongly recommend the Mopar goodies.

The video below shows the Moparized Abarth in action, with yours truly behind the wheel.

To summarize, it is unfair to accuse Fiat of simply rebadging a Mazda Miata and calling it the new 124 Spider. The Spider has a little more horsepower, a ton more torque, more interior space, a more luxurious cabin, and more premium amenities. Best of all, while the Mazda has a slightly lower entry price, the 124 Spider Abarth has a base price below that of the smaller, less powerful Miata Grand Touring.

Fiat hasn't rebadged a Miata - they have improved on the Miata in every way and while doing so, they managed to keep the price very low.

The 2017 Fiat 124 Spider, whether in Classica, Lusso, or Abarth form, is fun to drive on any road, with a surprisingly smooth ride, a beautiful cabin, fine handling, and a responsive engine, all for under $30,000. The new 124 is the best bargain performance roadster on the market; when it hits the market with full force later this year, I expect that it will arrive with a high level of deserving fanfare. I love the new Fiat 124 Spider, and I believe that a great many other people will as well.

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