“Well, some people call it a Fiata,” I said.
My wife Mary, puzzled by the car, had raised an eyebrow and some questions over vague familiarities restyled to an alternative theme.
“Sort of Fiat’s take on Mazda’s MX-5,” I explained further. “You know, the Miata.“
This latest Fiat 124 Spider, inspired by the 50th anniversary of the original 124 Spider, takes Mazda MX-5 DNA in a different direction, with unique exterior and interior styling, echoing traditional Spider cues with novel Italian design.
“Performance is nothing without style,” FCA execs declared haughtily when debuting their new version a few years ago. We can quibble over design language semantics and eye-of-the-beholder beauty comparisons of Miata versus Fiata. But I prefer to celebrate choices rather than eliminate them by picking favourites.
And, regardless of style and personal preferences, the Euro-designed but Mazda-sourced Fiat 124 Spider builds on the good bones of the MX-5 and its classic sports car formula of balanced rear-wheel drive performance, the satisfying handling of a near perfect power-to-weight ratio, and the sheer joy of nimble agility built into a wind-in-your-air two-seater roadster.
Fiat’s 124 Spider dimensions are almost identical to the MX-5’s except for slightly longer overhangs in front and rear, along with a corresponding bump up (+10 litres) in trunk space (140 litres).
The 124 Spider harnesses Fiat’s 1.4-litre MultiAir Turbo four-cylinder (160 hp, 184 lb/ft) in its first rear-wheel-drive application.
Yes, there’s more power in this package than in Mazda’s mill (155 hp, 148 lb/ft) but the Spider is also heavier. So, it’s a bit of a tradeoff really.
And the Spider’s horsepower and torque advantage is probably a point made moot anyway by the upcoming 2019 Mazda MX-5’s increased power rating (181 hp, 151 lb/ft).
The Fiat’s fuel economy rating of 9.0/6.7L/100 km (city/hwy) yielded real world results averaging a disappointingly respectable 7.5L/100km (comb). But I’ll try to do worse in future.
And the motor’s muscle is deliciously put to the pavement through a short-throw six-speed manual or, if you have no soul, through a six-speed Aisin automatic with paddle shifters ($1,495).
The 2018 Fiat 124 Spider comes in three trim choices - Classica ($33,495), Lusso ($36,495) or Abarth ($37,995).
In only its second year of production, changes for 2018 are limited to three new paint choices and some content adjustments within those trim levels.
Tested here, we have an Abarth model from Fiat’s performance-tuning specialists. They managed to stroke the power level up to 164 hp (+4 hp). Not exactly a noticeable difference but Sport mode selection also drops the torque peak from 3,200 rpm to 2,500 rpm.
Abarth handling benefits from front and rear Bilstein sport suspension systems, an added front strut tower bar and a limited-slip differential. And Abarth performance cues continue with unique blacked-out front and rear lower fascias, 17-inch Gun Metal aluminum wheels and Gun Metal exterior accents.
The sport-tuned chrome quad-tip exhaust system sings stronger in this model and the Abarth can be pimped further, as it was here, to the tune of an almost $50K final price. It was fitted with available Recaro seats, Brembo performance braking and with a hand-painted heritage stripe, more than just a stripe really - a fully blacked-out hood and trunk lid. The two-tone treatment sets this car apart, garnering thumbs-up responses and a lot of lingering looks.
Modern driver-assist techs and a full suite of amenities are crammed into the snug confines of the cabin. Yes, tall drivers like me might have to pull wallets out of our back pockets to fit in but what’s the problem with that?
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It always seems to me that two-seater sports cars are not as limited as are people’s perceptions of them. Rear rows in bigger commuter cars are too often empty. Customers too often settle for mundane practicality over spirited performance.
And even a minuscule 140-litre trunk offers enough room for grocery-getting and weekend getaways.
Any minor concerns get blown-away with a simple one-handed reach, toss and tuck of the soft-top, a stab of the start button, accelerating away while working the shifter through the cogs and just enjoying the sheer exhilaration of a sports car romance.
We can only hope the romance lasts despite customers’ continued flights from cars to crossovers.
The sports car segment is tiny.
So far this year, Honda’s Civic has sold more vehicles weekly than Mazda’s MX-5 manages in a year. And the Fiat 124 Spider itself sells only a quarter of the MX-5’s numbers.
But, if Fiat itself can survive the next few years in North America with its limited lineup, we should see a 124 Spider Coupe follow-up (similar to the MX-5 RF
) within a year or two, maybe a fully revised 124 Spider by 2023.
2018 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth
Two-door, two-seater roadster sports car.
1.4-litre MultiAir turbo four-cylinder (164 hp, 184 lb/ft)
6MT 9.0/6.7L/100km (city/hwy); as tested 7.5L/100km (comb)
$37,995. As tested $48,890 included leather sport seats ($1,295), Preferred Package Convenience Group ($1,500), Nav and BOSE audio ($1,600), Visibility Group ($1,500), Brembo brakes ($1,995), Heritage Racing Stripe ($2,995). Destination and fees ($1,985) not included