Fiat’s Miata

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Fiat needs a transfusion, something new. But the pending (2017) Spider 124 strikes me as a graft … a pre-existing thing stitched on to the body.'17 Fiat 124 lead

Will it take?

Time will tell.

The 124 is a rebadged Mazda Miata with a Fiat Abarth 1.4 liter engine in place of the Mazda 2.0 engine. The Fiat engine is turbocharged, the Mazda’s not. 160 hp – vs. 155. That plus the usual “unique” styling differences (much of that being identical, like for instance the “Fiat Connect” 7-inch LCD Touchscreen, which is exactly the same as the 7-inch MazdaConnect touchscreen in the Miata) constitute the, uh, differences between the two cars.

Is it enough?

Or maybe too much?

A five horsepower difference is not much; like the difference between a 13 oz vs. a 14 oz steak (assuming they’re both of the same quality and cooked the same way).

The turbo, on the other hand, may be too much.

Not because it won’t be fun. It will. But for how long? 2017 Fiat 124 side view

Turbos tend to not last for 200,000-plus trouble-free miles, as the Miata’s not-turbo’d engine does routinely. Even when subjected to weekend SCCA club racing, as the Miata’s often is.

The Spider’s – if it’s the same engine as the 160 hp, 1.4 liter four used in the 500 Abarth (and the specs suggest it is) has to hold together under 18 pounds of boost.

Will it?

For 200,000-plus miles?

I am thinking about a hot but high-maintenance goomah, if you know what I mean.

What else does the 124 bring to the table that makes it a compelling buy? That would make a person want to buy it rather than the Miata?

The Fiat name?

That hasn’t done the trick for the Fiats already here, like the 500 (much less the 500L). The car sells the name, not the other way around.

Fiat has been having trouble with this… '17 Miata vs. 124

No doubt, Fiat is counting on historical resonance, the 124 name, to entice potential prospects.

Emotion sells cars, too.

But the ’66-’82 124 Spider was a Fiat, down to the last cross-threaded bolt and prematurely rusting quarter panel.

Not a repackaged Miata.

Now, to be fair – or to look at things a different way – at least the revived 124 is mechanically different. The 1.4 turbo engine’s personality – its sound, its power curve – will be noticeably not-the-same. Trust me. I’ve driven the 500 Abarth, which has the same (I think it is) engine and that thing’s an M80 with a too-short fuse. If Fiat is smart and uses the same exhaust system – which reminded me of a pre-catalytic converter muscle car’s with chambered pipes – snap, crackle pop! – we’ll have a Mr. Hyde counterpoint to the Mazda’s Dr. Jekyll.

This kind of thing can help sell an otherwise very similar (even directly related) car.

I own a ’76 Pontiac Trans-Am. It is cousin to the ’76 Chevy Camaro. It’s fair to say the Trans-Am is a Camaro … with slightly different exterior and interior styling. But – the heart of the matter – it also has a Pontiac-built engine. This was enough to make it credible as a Pontiac rather than a Chevy re-sold under another label. When GM pulled the plug on Pontiac’s V8 engine and began using Chevy engines in Pontiacs, these “Pontiacs”  became that in name only.abarth badge

It’s why there no longer is a Pontiac.

Another example comes to mind. You may remember Rickman Kawasakis.

Kawasaki made one hell of an engine – the DOHC 900 (and later 1000 and 1100 cc) fours of the ’70s. But the frames Kawasaki put them into were unworthy of these engines. The brakes and suspension unspeakably so. Rickman took that magnificent engine – and put it into an equally magnificent frame, with brakes and suspension to match.

Now, you had the whole enchilada.

Of course, the Mazda Miata already has a magnificent suspension, great brakes. It is hard to imagine what could possibly be done by Fiat or anyone else to fix what manifestly isn’t broken.

Well, come to think of it, there is one thing.

Mazda’s reputation.

Fiat’s isn’t so hot.'17 124 rear view

You know what “Fiat” stands for, right? Fix It Again, Tony. Fiats are – or at least, were – the four-wheeled versions of AMF-era Harley Davidsons. In case you hadn’t heard, this isn’t good. They were pretty little cars that you wanted to love but which worked hard to earn your hate. Fiat was practically run out of the country and it took 30 years before things cooled down enough for them to even think about trying again.

So maybe this is the smart move. People love the Miata.

Maybe they will like Fiat’s version, too.

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28 COMMENTS

  1. Dear Eric,

    “You know what “Fiat” stands for, right? Fix It Again, Tony. ”

    I remember that one! Another variant was “Fix it alla time”.

    By the way, I just stumbled across this page, which has disparaging acronym for every make.

    Under FIAT it lists:

    Fiat: F**king Italian Attempt (at) Transportation.
    Fiat: Failure in Automotive Technology
    Fiat: Feeble Italian Attempt at Transportation
    Fiat: Fix It Again Tony?
    Fiat: Fix It All the Time
    Fiat: F*ck in a Taxi.

    http://www.dkgoodman.com/carinitl.html

  2. What Fiat needs to do is reintroduce the 127 using the Miata chassis. The 127 was a hatchback. With a rear wheel drive hatch, they could offer the market something that hasn’t been there in nearly 40 years. I have wanted a small rwd hatch with a manual transmission forever. It would be nice to have something like this before the super slow self driving future arrives.

      • eric, if hatchbacks existed solely for utility, it makes sense to revive it but with so many new vehicles having what amounts to an afterthought for a rear window I wonder how many people view the large window part of the hatchback. Is the window part of the appeal?

        I never cared to own one for the fact that in Tx. they really add heat and degradation of the interior and seals/gaskets. I’ve been waiting for self-opening doors to take over the market here……open just far enough to get your hand inside. There’s probably some safety issue with doors that open completely. It would be a safety issue most days in west Tx. since the wind would probably open it back up against the fender without a second latch. Then you’d need a motion detector to not get the door smashed. I’d better shut up or it will be a universal option of $500 and barely be able to find a model without it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone with a hooey on the door and fender where a wind gust or sometimes just plain hard wind blew the door out of somebody’s hand and smashed it against the fender. Week before last we had power outages that lasted a week due to heavy ice on power lines and 60 mph wind. Older lines had snapped poles, broken cross-arms, etc. while new lines were pushed over due to such a deep soaking of the ground and so much ice weight with that wind. It wasn’t much fun with no power and temps in the 20’s with 40-60mph winds blowing. We used our kerosene lamps and I brought the fish cooker in and boiled water for heat.

  3. I owned a 74 X-1/9 and it was a blast…however, since I knew nothing at the time about working on cars and I treated it like my 69 Bug, it was a money pit. Well, a rusty money pit after about 18 months. When i got rid of it in early 77 you could check the tread depth of the tires by looking through the tops of the fenders.

    Since ’02 I’ve had Miatas. It started with a Crystal Blue L and has expanded to a 90 beater daily driver and my 91 chassis ITA race car. There is no comparison when it comes to durability and drive-ability. Miata wins hands down. However, since the NB the cars haven’t been much to look at. The ND is much better than the NC but, just look at your comparison pic, blue Fiat is a winner in spades. Mazda doesn’t offer any decent colors for this fun car, let’s see, black, light black, gray, silver and one dark red metallic(at an upcharge), you can have any color interior you want as long as it’s black and the same goes for those blah wheels. If Fiat goes with their Italian styling senses for color combos and the car holds together they’ll eventually beat the Miata at its own game.

    • Hi Brent,

      I’m sure that’s true – but when it comes to cars, I have a “Soviet” rather than “German” mindset. Think T34 vs. Tiger. More complexity (German) means more that can go wrong, which often means more that will go wrong.

      We know the Miata is almost indestructible. But what’s the track record of the 1.4 Abarth engine?

      Who’s gonna go first?

      • The quality of turbo’s are all over the place. And like anything else, how hard they’re worked is a factor you can’t ignore.

        Having the correct gauges can help a person avoid a blown turbo. I’ve seen turbos on various diesels disintegrate and it just boiled down to enough hot and cold cycles every metal is finally going to fatigue to that point.

        Brent’s right about quality oil and of course, not getting an engine overhot.

        I know it would add to the cost but if companies really wanted people to be able to see a problem in the making they’d add such gauges as fuel pressure, boost pressure and pyrometer. You become accustomed to seeing the relationship between the numbers and will knock off a hot pyrometer reading quickly as well as a low boost or fuel pressure number. Those 3 gauges should be mandatory. The chapter that explained them and the relationship of the 3 could/would extend the life of the entire engine.

        The makers rightly figure their turbo engines will last through the warranty without the user knowing anything specific and they almost always make that mileage.

        That temp gauge on the transmission is a good one too, esp. on such as the Duramax since it’s auto only and the first in a pickup I ever saw.

        Gail Banks systems have these gauges and the engines always last longer than factory systems since the turbo is physically larger as is the intercooler. I’ve known people to change their diesels over to Banks when they were brand new because they knew the engine would always be under a heavy load. They also get better fuel mileage.

        • Gauges.

          As though the current crop of drivers understand what the most basic set of gauges may represent and present to the operator. The previous generator, temperature and oil pressure idiot lights have been replaced by a single Check Engine light. Who bothers looking at gauges when they’ve got an infotainment system instead, it is the ultimate in dumbed down.

          Besides, the lease expires right before the warranty.

          • Oil pressure, temp, and voltage are standalone gauges or idiot lights. The MIL (check engine light) is for things cars never had before the first generation OBD systems.

            For some cars that infotainment system can be configured to display virtual gauges giving the read outs from the various sensors reporting to the engine management system.

          • I plead guilty to being a gauge fanatic. I’ll cut out those unused parts of the dash where optional gauges might go or they just put the dummies throughout the dash without holes so they’re hidden behind the panel and install extra gauges. I especially like temp gauges on transmissions. I’ve threatened other gear boxes but never installed one on a car or pickup such as transfer case or differential.

            Of course it’s been a while now that you could alter the inside dash panel. Then again you can simply put gauges on top of the dash and they’ll disguise the radar detector.

            • Ditto, Eight!

              I must have oil pressure, volts and temperature, minimally. If the car has an automatic, a temp gauge for the fluid is vital.

              The thing that’s always baffled me is why no one (that I am aware of) ever combines idiot lights with the gauge. A red light – ideally, one that flashes – within the oil gauge, for instance. Justin case you didn’t notice that the pressure has dropped to nil.

              • eric, one of my oldest tools is the special wrench to fit the idiot light sensor on oil. I remove it, install a T and reinstall it with a manual oil pressure gauge. If I could have easily found a buzzer I would have used that too. You must have all 3 in a big rig and I got used to buzzers, lights and a bad reading on the gauge to be simultaneously. With a great many gauges you really need that light and buzzer. That reminds me, I need to fix the power divider lock on a truck I sometimes drive since it’s leaking air like crazy and if I have it on it bleeds down to the point of having the light and buzzer come on for air pressure.

                You probably don’t think about big rigs being eaten up with idiot lights but they are and even have some warning lights behind a panel that barely shows them. Trucks used to have big lights that sat outside on the dash beside things like PDL, Fifth wheel slide and other manual switches. Now none of them do it that way, preferring to save weight and wiring and an actual by-god light with those tiny little bulbs in the dash. I want that big red light right beside that switch but I’d have to wire one in myself and that’s not easy since the dashes have those pc boards for indicator lights.

              • Subaru and Toyota seem to be doing something right with the FR-S and BRZ…let’s hope Mazda and Fiat do the same here.

                You’re sooooo spot on about badge engineering killing Pontiac (along with Oldsmobile, Mercury and Plymouth). With exceptions like the Solstice and G8, there was so little difference between Chevys and Pontiacs that people quipped that “Pontiac” stood for “People On Narcotics Think It’s A Chevy.”

                If Pontiac had been allowed to keep its unique engines, and dial in distinctly feelable “sportiness” into all of its Chevy-based platforms, or better yet, do a better job of positioning and building the Firebird as a car that gives you a step above the Camaro that’s close to Corvette-like performance without the high cost and impracticality of 2 seats only, Pontiac may still be around.

                • FYI, the 1969-75 Chrysler Imperials featured gauges combined with warning lights. The 1969-73 Imperials featured a “Check Gauges” light called the “Sentry Signal” that lit up if any of the gauge readings ventured into the trouble zone. In 1974, they switched to little red LEDs in the gauges that lit up when the coolant was overheating/battery draining/oil pressure low/fuel running out.

              • Yep. The same thing crossed my mind too at times. There should be a red light to say ‘look at this gauge, something’s wrong’. It’s got to be cost for a reason though. Some cars have a light on the fuel gauge when the fuel gets low so it’s not like we’re the only two in the world with the idea.

                I think the lack of gauge plus light should change here shortly. LEDs and virtual gauges make it nearly free or free. On Mustangs for the last few years the tach goes red at the redline. Just software I suspect since the backlight LEDs can do various colors. Virtual gauges could easily incorporate color changing.

          • There are some exceptions to this. For example, the new Hellcat has readouts for almost everything, including air-fuel ratio and cylinder head temperature.

  4. This is not like a return of the VW Beetle brand of 15 years ago. Those of us who remember the 124 of yore are captivated by it’s return. Fiat has yet to take notice of their well deserved reputation and distance themself from that memory. Think Chevy Vega as it morphed into the Monza line and succeeded. They should have adopted the Mopar branding, perhaps as the new Plymouth, and moved ahead with American product names.

    Fiat is stuck in a rut and needs a better ad agency. They need proof for robust engines, drivelines, electrical components, and body integrity. Think of the last Fiat to be imported, Yugo.

    • Hi CC,

      It’s interesting in re the Beetle – old vs. new – because even though the modern car has almost nothing in common with the original except the general shape and the name, people love it. Why?

      Effective marketing.

      VW was able to create an emotional association and use that to get people excited.

      Fiat may be able to do the same thing.

      • I think that’s how Fiat is going to be able to sell the 124, is by the visual appeal and the emotional aspects of the poppin’ exhaust note. In other words, based on the creative right-brain and not the logical left-brain responses.

        The interesting thing is how they got the Abarth engine to fit in there – the 500 is a FWD car and the Miata chassis is RWD.

      • Nostalgia, the original Beetle evokes fond memories from a bygone era for untold millions of people. Few have harsh comments for the Beetle.

        The same untold millions don’t have that nostalgia of Fiat, instead they recall sad sack stories from hapless owners. Thus Fiat evokes memories that are, more often than not, un-fond. Fix It Again Tony; satire, metaphor, simile, and stereotype must have factual components or it would never become a common expression. This is the problem Fiat must surmount.

  5. Fiat faces a real uphill battle, no question about that.

    There is a reason why Honda and Toyota sell lots of cars, and those buyers don’t (and often won’t) buy Chrysler’s and Fiats. Honda and Toyota are a safe choice.

    I don’t see many people bypassing the Mazda dealer to the few Fiat dealers there are if in the market for such a car. Sort of the other problem for Fiat, they are going to have to allow the Chrysler dealers to have the Fiat models so people even have access to them.

    Buying the Miata is the safe choice.

  6. My first car was a 1959 Fiat Spyder. I never got it running. Much later on I had a Fiat 128. It was fun to drive but it rusted away from road salt.

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