Google’s dictionary defines reincarnated as “cause to undergo rebirth in another body.” Accordingly, the new 2017 FIAT 124 Spider is based on the latest generation of Mazda’s MX-5 Miata, but with a different body. Both are ‘born’ in Japan, but each sibling goes its own way.
Inside, while the Mazda-sourced controls are essentially the same in both cars, the surrounding materials are softer and seem to be of higher quality in the FIAT. In addition to its unique body, the FIAT 124 Spider also has its own four cylinder engine – a turbocharged Italian heart that pumps out a healthy 160 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque (164 hp in the Abarth performance model). For its added fun factor consider the whooshy, boy racer hiss of the FIAT’s optional Mopar Performance Parts bypass air valve. The Mazda goes a different route with a larger displacement, 155 hp, 148 lb-ft of torque, naturally aspirated engine.
A big advantage of the FIAT for weekend getaways is its larger trunk, made possible by that car’s unique body. A sportscar should focus the sport of driving. For comparison we drove non-Abarth, manual and automatic transmission versions of the FIAT, as well as an MX-5, on a driving loop that consisted of city streets and a freeway. These are all lightweight, nimble, fun to drive cars. Their steering is effortless. The ability to shift gears for yourself is also an important part of the driving experience. The automatic does enable us to shift for ourselves, with paddles or simply by moving the shift lever forwards and back to upshift and downshift. However a true manual transmission (an excellent Mazda gearbox is in both cars) does a much better job of communicating important information, like engine RPM and when to shift, by feel. Shifting with the automatic we found ourselves distracted by a need to look at the tach to judge when best to shift. It was too easy to forget that the manually shifted automatic, when using its tunnel-mounted gearshift knob instead of its paddle shifters, was an automatic. That resulted in a missed shift when we tried to move the shift lever over to the right and then up – not recommended! Other times we made the mistake of accidentally flicking the shifters too many times. Thankfully the computerized nannies that control the auto box prevented inadvertent downshifts. On the one hand that is a good thing, because it prevents the engine from over-revving, but it can take away a degree of intentional control that we prefer to have the option to exercise. When we choose to downshift, we want to know that the car will do so – and precisely when (as in right now), instead of ignoring or delaying our commands because it supposedly knows better. The choice of transmission is a matter of personal preference. There can be no denying that the automatic is easier to use when left to shift for itself, and it still provides an option to exercise some degree of control. The deciding factor might be the fact that the auto is a $1,350 extra cost option.
There is something wonderful about lowering the top and driving along the coast or a winding country road. You do not get the same sensation of being one with the elements in a car with a top. This car’s soft-top makes that a quick and easy decision. It is a breeze to lower and raise, easily accomplished while sitting in the driver’s seat, and there is no boot cover to have to deal with to keep the car looking sharp.
At an autocross FIAT thoughtfully provided us with a fully loaded ($39,325!) 124 Abarth model with Genuine Mopar Performance Parts, including the aforementioned bypass air valve, as well as a strut tower brace, lower arm bar, tunnel bracing kit and something they call a “Record Monza Dual Mode Performance Exhaust.” Aggressive driving demonstrated that the suspension bits really do make the car handle better. Since the standard cars are kind of quiet, in addition to the bypass air valve we’d opt for the performance exhaust.
Unlike with small sportscars of yesteryear, a full array of high tech safety goodies is available, in addition to a significant upgrade to the audio system. To find out more about these, and the various models, go to www.fiatusa.com/en/spider/ to build and price your own virtual 2017 FIAT 124 Spider.
Copyright © 2016 by Jan Wagner – AutoMatters & More #441