Don’t call it a Fiata.
We realize the temptation to do so is great given its origins and the platform it’s based on but to simply call the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider a clone of the Mazda MX-5 (aka Miata) would be a mistake.
There’s enough here that is unique to Fiat, including major things such as the engine and the exterior styling, that the 124 Spider can truly stand apart as a separate vehicle.
But before we dive headlong into that, there are a few things that need to be dealt with up front.
Firstly, the car gets its name from the 124 Sport Spider, a roadster built by Fiat and Pininfarina between 1966 and 1985 that was sold worldwide, with the majority (about 75 percent) ending up in the U.S.
Secondly, the 124 Spider is a product of a partnership between Fiat-Chrysler and Mazda and is based on the rear-wheel drive architecture of the current fourth-gen Mazda MX-5. It shares the same chassis, is built in the same Hiroshima plant and uses a six-speed manual transmission sourced from Mazda.
Finally, other aspects of the car will seem familiar to just about anyone who has driven the current gen MX-5.
The 124 Spider shares similar dimensions, and sliding behind the steering wheel does reveal some styling touches and materials that are borrowed from Mazda. The user interface for the multimedia system is lifted right out of the MX-5, as is the dash-mounted touchscreen although it does have a 124 Spider animation at start up.
Other trim panel bits appear familiar to us and the steering wheel is right out of the MX-5, save for the Fiat badge in the hub.
The windshield and roof are also Mazda-sourced, and the latter employs the same simple and straightforward up / down procedure as it does in the MX-5. It also has the same trunk, and it is as tiny here as it is in the Mazda.
That’s where the similarities end (more or less), as the 124 Spider is powered a different engine and wears different sheetmetal.
Under the hood, the 124 Spider is powered by the same 1.4-litre MultiAir turbocharged engine found in the Fiat 500 Abarth. It produces the same peak horsepower (160), but torque is up significantly to 184 lb-ft. over the 170 figure from the 500.
Two transmissions are available, a six-speed manual sourced from Mazda and used in the third gen MX-5 and an Aisin-built six-speed automatic. The older Mazda manual gearbox was chosen due to its ability to handle the greater torque output coming from the 124 Spider (184 lb. ft. versus 148).
Similar to the MX-5, the 124 Spider rides on a double wishbone front suspension with a multi-link set-up in the rear. Due to being a bit longer, the Fiat has a bit more cargo space (140 litres versus 130) and is slightly heavier (47 kg).
With all of that taken into consideration, however, the two cars feel quite similar overall.
We drove a 2016 Mazda MX-5 back in the summer and came away quite impressed with its nimble handling, its responsive acceleration and overall fun-to-drive quotient.
It is very close to our vision of the perfect summer car – light and sporty, easy and fun to drive with iconic looks that feel as fresh as the 1989 original.
Given the DNA it shares with the MX-5, the 124 Spider feels a lot like its Mazda platform-mate. It’s quick and nimble, responsive and quite fun to drive.
The character of the Fiat does feel a bit different, however. To us, it didn’t feel quite as sporty as the Mazda – the acceleration was quick, but not quite as hair-trigger. Same goes for the steering and suspension tuning, which feels a bit more calibrated for comfort as opposed to flat out handling prowess.
Inside, the 124 Spider feels differentiated enough from the MX-5, yet still retains a great deal of the Mazda’s efficient ergonomics and driver-friendly design.
The user interface for the multimedia system is a good example of not fixing what isn’t broken, and the same can be said for much of the controls which retain a dominant Mazda flavour. Fiat has added its own unique trim details and swapped out Mazda’s seats in favour of its own, and it works in adding a unique Italian flair to the car’s character.
The other thing Fiat borrowed from Mazda is its pricing structure. The mid-range Lusso model we drove is comparable to a MX-5 GS (about $1,200 more), while the base car and the range-topping Abarth are also similar in price to the base MX-5 and GT respectively.
While it may not be a true-blue Fiat to the core, the 124 Spider is much more than a simple clone of the Mazda MX-5. And quite a worthy one at that.
Next week: 2016 Dodge Challenger R/T
SPECIFICATIONS – 2017 Fiat 124 Spider
BASE PRICE / AS TESTED: $36,495 / $43,585 (incl. $1,795 destination)
ENGINE: 1.4L MultiAir turbocharged 4-cylinder
HORSEPOWER: 160 hp @ 5,500 rpm
TORQUE: 184 lb-ft. @ 2,500 rpm
CURB WEIGHT: 1,105 kg
CONFIGURATION: front engine, rear-wheel drive
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual
FUEL ECONOMY RATINGS (CITY / HWY. / COMB.): 9.0 / 6.7 / 7.9
WARRANTY (MOS. / KM): 60 / 100,000
ALTERNATIVES: Mazda MX-5
Photography by Lee Bailie