2020 Fiat 124 Spider

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People who buy economy cars don’t especially care that lots of other people are driving the same car; if anything, it’s confirmation that they bought the right car.

But people who by sports cars want more than just a great car; they want to be driving a different car.

This is the Mazda Miata’s curse . .  of excellence.

It’s arguably one of the best sports car values ever – and without question one of the best sports cars ever made, period. For the cost of a Porsche 911’s options you get a car that can run with the 911 anywhere there’s a bend in the road. That doesn’t need $5,000 of “scheduled maintenance” every six months – or ever. That as economical to drive every day as a Corolla, just a lot more fun.

But for just those reasons, almost everyone seems to have a Miata. Which detracts  a bit from the excitement of owning one.

If you’d like to have one that almost no one else has, then have a look at this one – the Fiat 124 Spider.

It’s the Miata’s Italian cousin.

What It Is

Mazda doesn’t just sell Miatas to its many customers; it also sells a few of them to Fiat – which re-sells them under its own label, as the 124 Spyder.

The good news is this isn’t a just a re-sell. It’s a different sell.

The 124 is powered by a Fiat-built 1.4 liter turbocharged engine – and has Fiat-specific exterior and interior styling elements as well as some uniquely Fiat personality touches, such as the open-piped Harley exhaust bellow of the high-performance Abarth version.

Everyone will hear you coming.

You’re also much less likely to see one parked in your neighbor’s driveway.

Prices start at $25,390 for the Classica trim with a six-speed manual transmission; a top-of-the-line Abarth (with a slight power bump, the rowdier exhaust system, limited slip differential, upgraded brakes and a firmer-riding suspension) stickers for $29,390.

What’s New

A Scorpion Sting stripe/decal package is available for the Abarth version of the Spider.

What’s Good

A Miata . . . but not another Miata.

Turbocharged engine makes more low-RPM torque than Miata’s not-turbocharged engine.

Abarth exhaust can drown out the sound of a straight-piped Harley.

What’s Not So Good

Miata’s non-turbo’d engine makes more horsepower, revs higher.

Abarth exhaust can drown out the sound of a straight-piped Harley.

Fiat may soon sleep with the fishes.

Under The Hood

A car’s engine is its beating heart – the thing that defines it.

The Miata’s engine is 2.0 liter dual overhead cam (DOHC) four that makes 181 horsepower – and has a 7,500 RPM redline.

The Spider’s engine is a 1.4 liter single overhead cam (SOHC) engine with a turbocharger that makes 160 hp (164 for the Abarth) on 22 pounds of boost – and redlines at 6,250 RPM.

Both do the same job – differently. The Mazda needs to be revved higher while the Fiat doesn’t because of its lower power peak (and higher peak torque, courtesy of the turbo).

If you work the Miata, it gets to 60 a little sooner – in about 5.8 seconds vs. 6.3 for the Italian job. But the Spider gets there without as much apparent work, which is either a pro or a con depending on how you like your acceleration served.

Despite their very different engines – and power curves – the cousins deliver almost identical mileage: 26 city, 35 highway for the Spider (with the manual six speed) vs. 26 city, 35 highway for the manual-equipped Miata.

Both cars need premium to deliver their optimum MPG – and hp – numbers. The Fiat because of all that boost… the Mazda because of all that compression (13.0:1).

The Fiat’s engine, incidentally, is the same engine used to power the Fiat 500 Abarth but this time driving the rear rather than the front wheels. The Mazda, likewise, is the only rear-drive car Mazda sells.

Both engines are paired with a standard six-speed manual transmission, with the option to choose a six-speed automatic.

But they are geared differently.

The Fiat has an off-the-line leverage advantage, with a 3.45 final drive ratio for manual-equipped versions vs. a more “highway” 2.86 ring and pinion in the Miata with the manual. Which brings up an idea for Mazda people. How much quicker would the manual-equipped Miata be with a 3.45 final drive?

The automatic-equipped versions of both get the same 3.58 rear gears.

One thing – a good thing – that both have in common is that neither engine is direct-injected. The Fiata and Miata are two of very few 2020 model cars that haven’t gone over to DI – which they can “get away” with because both are very fuel-efficient without having to resort to DI. It is also why the Mazda’s engine is among the most bulletproof and lowest-maintenance new car engines on the road.

No carbon fouling worries (due to the DI) especially if you spin up the engine to 7,500 often and perform an Italian tuneup.

The Spider’s engine should be similarly carbon-immune.

On The Road

If you like a more easygoing sports car, you may prefer the Italian take on things.

The Fiat’s torque-rich (and lower RPM) turbocharged engine and lower gearing allows shorter shifting and less revving. You can even skip-shift from second to fourth without lugging it.

The boosted engine also works better with the optional automatic than the Mazda’s not-turbocharged (and not-as-much-torque) engine. It does a better burnout, too.

Which – put another way- means the Fiat is the better street car while the Mazda is the better track-day car.

Both, however, are practical as commuter cars. Re-read the mileage you’ll get from either. It’s only about 3 MPGs off the pace of economy cars that aren’t nearly as fun to drive.

Especially in the bends – where the equally precise steering and tail-out oversteer if you really get into it will put a grin on your face faster than getting paid in cash under the table for a job and knowing you get to keep it all for once.

There’s nothing that can touch either car in this respect  . . . without touching your wallet more firmly. The Soobie BRZ/Toyota 86 (a hardtop-only) ride firmer and don’t corner better. Those two have much worse visibility, too.

And they have the same engines.

A BMW Z4 will give you a similar experience – for twice the price. I’m telling you – both of these cars are equally too-good-to-be true.

Probably the most noticeable difference between them is how they sound. Especially the Spider Abarth vs. every version of the Miata – which doesn’t offer a factory straight-pipe option. Well, that’s what the Abarth’s “Record Monza” pipes sound like. When you turn this thing over, your neighbors will think you bought a Hog – which for the record comes with a much larger (1800 cc – or 1.8 liter) engine with just two tailpipes.

The Abarth has four.

A concussion of combustion erupts at start-up and only gets better as you go faster. And it’s legal. Built that way. There’s nothing Officer Unfriendly can do about it except hassle you a little. He might even give you a ticket out of sheer vengefulness – but it’ll get tossed in court because the system is stock and DOT approved.

Saluta il Duce! 

How Fiat – bless them – got this thing past the fun censors is hard to grok. But be grateful they did.

At The Curb

Though clearly related to the Miata, the Spider is just as clearly not a Miata.

The Fiat’s longer overall – by about five inches – and strikes a more relaxed pose than the tightly coiled, cat-slit-eyes Miata. The shorter overhangs give you a bit more wiggle room when it’s time to park, too.

Inside, they’re nearly the same – and this is good.

Both are the essence of elementalism. Big, centrally mounted tachometer – no-nonsense analog. Speedo off to the right; the essential peripheral info in smaller gauges off to the left. Three large rotary knobs you can grab by hand, mid-corner – without looking (or pinching and swiping). Grabs rails on either side of the center console. And a pull-it-up manual emergency brake lever. This being as necessary to the sporting driver’s happiness as a sweet-wounding exhaust and shift-action that feels better than the custom hair-trigger of a $2,000 Kimber 1911.

This is a car that doesn’t need apps to keep you entertained.

Lowering the top is as easy as rolling down the side windows and just as easy to put it back up. The optional hardtop is just like the Miata’s – and just as easy to put on – and off. The one thing the Fiat hasn’t got is a targa top – which you can get in the Miata RF.

But the Fiat draws envious looks because it looks like  . . . an Italian job.

Though the Spider and Miata are two-seaters, there is a surprising amount of room for the two lucky occupants. Each has the same 43.1 inches of legroom and enough headroom to clear the heads of people as tall as 6ft 3 without having to lower the top.

The absence of useless back seats (as in the BRZ/86) is no loss – except insofar as having a place to toss your gym bag. And the BRZ/86 are not available without  a roof. Or at least, one you can lower.

Or roll back.

The Rest

Interestingly, the most expensive version of the Spider – the $29,390 Abarth – costs less than the most expensive version of the Miata – the $31,855 GT – despite the Fiat’s more exotic Italian pedigree.

This is probably a function of Fiat’s troubles.

While Mazda  has a lineup of cars that sell better than the Miata – including the Mazda3 and Mazda6 sedans as well as the popular CX3, CX5 and CX9 crossovers – Fiat just cancelled the 500 micro-car and the future doesn’t look bright for the 500L and 500x.

They’re not bad cars; they’re just too-small cars for the American market.

That leaves the Spider, which has appeal. But how to get Americans into a Fiat store?

Well, offer them a better deal.

This may be the only instance of the better value being the more exclusive. The catch, however, is that if Fiat folds its tent, the Spider will be orphaned – like the Pontiac Solstice, if you remember that one.

But – like the Solstice – the disappearance of the brand – and the dealerships – doesn’t mean the disappearance of parts or service. Fiat is part of the FiatChrysler (and soon, Peugot) conglomerate, just as Pontiac (RIP) was part of GM. And so long as the parent company remains on its feet, you will not have trouble getting necessary service parts – or service.

And the disappearance of Fiat would increase the cachet of the Spider vs. the everyone-has-one (and everyone can still buy one) Miata.

The Bottom Line

The 124 is much more than the same thing wrapped differently. But it’s also very much alike where it counts.

. . .

Got a question about cars, Libertarian politics – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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27 COMMENTS

  1. Eric, I have a stupid fast Factory Five ’65 Cobra. It is a PITA because it is too much for my skill. I wanted a two seat ragtop but this more than I can chew. The FIAT is somewhat ok what with an unwanted turbo small displacement engine. It’s too bad that the Guineas cant develop a compact three liter aluminum V8. Sixty five years ago Guzzi had a half liter V8.
    This one looks more natural than a Miata, but I’d rather have a 1963 Datsun 1800 that was slow and a great deal of fun on the crappy tires. I have price feelers out on the new 124.

    • The original tires lost a lot when I turned sixteen. I had to wait until June to get my driving license. When off of work I racked up 20k miles until I had to go back to military school. Just after my minor wreck from an overturned tank truck of diesel fuel running down the hill in heavy rain where I tapped some real nob in a Volvo ny old man replaced the tires with Goodyear seconds. That only made me push the corners harder.
      I got my certificate in that car. On the driving test there was a plug wire loos and I did not turn it off. An embarrassing moment followed with the tester in the right seat. Luckily enough it was a very pleasant day with the top down. I fixed the plug wire seating and passed the test easily. I could tell from the dour tester that he was glad to not ride in a stuffy station wagon and my quickly sorting out the running on three cylinders. How many times had he been with a rotten kid that nearly gets electrocuted while rushing to fix the problem?
      I parked close enough to the curb, but not so close that he could not fit his foot on the street, rather than having to step so much farther to the sidewalk. I mentioned to the guy that I could have been closer but I was trying to be considerate. I didn’t hold the door for him but always do it for women.

    • Hi Erie,

      I once drove an original Cobra – and it made me respect Carroll Shelby even more! I’m only 6 ft 3 and I barely squeezed myself in the thing and could barely drive the thing – let alone drive it fast. My Frankenstein feet kept pushing the wrong pedal; it went sideways when I wanted it to go slow. I greased the asphalt with rubber and diarrhea (mine) and after 10 minutes of near death and embarrassment managed to get it to stop, killed the engine and got the Hell away from the thing!

      Now, my high school buddy’s dad had a Sunbeam Alpine Tiger… and that car was groovy!

  2. Miatas, Corvettes and Mustangs are the “safe” choice when it comes to buying a sports car. Just like Harleys are the “safe” choice when it comes to buying a motorcycle. They used to say “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.” But what everyone forgets is that System 360 was a pretty good product too. Even if it wasn’t as sexy as the DEC 10 or cost more than Honeywell’s knockoff. You date a Fiat, you marry a Mazda.

    Anyone have a few more cliché phrases?

    • If everyone liked the same things, they wouldn’t need menus at restaurants.
      Given the choice between A and B I usually pick C just to be a PITA.

  3. Eric, I’m a Miata guy; having owned three, an NA, NB, and NC. The NA was a “Spec” Miata, the NB (Hard-S, a hard-dog roll bar equipped track day and autocross car, the NC my daily driver.

    Your review is “spot on”. And this, “The boosted engine also works better with the optional automatic than the Mazda’s not-turbocharged (and not-as-much-torque) engine.” is thoroughly accurate. That fact truly makes the Fiat a “chick” car.

    BTW, one of my neighbors, a good looking and personable lady, recently bought a new Miata retractable hard top. The first time I saw her pull the car from their garage (yes, she’s married) I listened for the sound of an automatic tranny shifting. Much to my surprise, IT’S A SIX SPEED!

    • Excellent, Clay – and, thanks!

      It’d be interesting to see what another few pounds of boost could do to the Fiat’s engine. But it’s still not the breather (SOHC) that the Miata’s engine (DOHC) is.

      I personally prefer the looks of the Fiat. But would rather have the Mazda’s drivetrain.

  4. Congrats on having a Harley that’s not loud, it’s a rare thing in my neck of the woods. Maybe I’m getting old but the whole loud exhaust thing grates my nerves (and loud radios and lights that can be seen from orbit).

    • Yeah, I’m with you. As a (bi)cyclist, riding on the Blue Ridge Parkway, waves of leather clad doctors, lawyers and CEO’s riding their open pipe hogs can really wreck my day.

      • As a driver, bicyclists wreck my day whenever they show up (and often when they don’t too), but apparently that’s just evidence of selfishness… on a CAR FORUM…

  5. “…26 city, 35 highway for the Spider (with the manual six speed) vs. 26 city, 35 highway for the manual-equipped Miata.” Almost identical mileage?

  6. Let’s see…garish, “go fast” decals. And that high decibel, “lookit me” exhaust, that appeals mostly to harley monkeys….. Actually slower than it’s Japanese cousin, too.

    Congratulations Fiat. It’s almost impossible to do, but you have managed to build a car that makes me say, “I’d rather have a Miata!” 😉

    • I have a 18 Harley RK which is quieter than a my Kawasaki 1000 police with stock pipes,,, quieter than my lawn mower,,, quieter than my generator,,, quieter then my Chainsaw,,, quieter than morons with “lookat me” radios turned up ,,,and quieter than most cars and trucks with those “lookat me” freak mufflers that sound like a sewing machine about to go critical.
      As for speed, I don’t need it. I like to see the scenery walking around and most of them prefer the Harley as it actually looks like a motorcycle and has a real comfortable seat for the passenger unlike those Japanese pieces of plastic with a motor screaming at 15,000.

      • “As for speed, I don’t need it.”
        Keep chanting that mantra Harley fag. If the Jap bike competition had not forced HD off their lazy complacent wide butts your ’18 HD would still have a shovel head engine. And fast is fun. So is handling. Blatting down the highway at 60 mph, I don’t get it.

        • Hey, Eric, Dagos should stick to what they know: Spaghetti and organized crime! (Well, I guess Fiat wiring is close enough to spaghetti, and Chrysler is close enough to being organized crime… Stop me! I can’t help it! 🙂 )

          • Hi Nunz,

            Italians make beautiful things… that don’t work! Wait. I take that back. The Romans made some damned impressive (and beautiful) things that worked pretty damned well!

            It’s us krauts that make ugly, complicated stuff!

            • Hey Eric!
              Eye-talians and the Heinies both used to make great stuff that was beautiful, worked well, and so durable it could be passed down through generations…..then after both countries went uber-collectivist/authoritarian, they started making things that only look good…but did little else.

              At least in Deutschland, some of the old-world quality lingered for decades after the political changes- I mean, look at BMW and Mercedes who were still making some good stuff into the early 90’s, which lasted and held their value…compared to the over-priced plastic-laden disposable crap they make now. (Germans are smart. It-lee is like the Mexico of Europe!)

              Imagine if BMW, Fiat and Chrysler collaborated? It could be the most aptly-named car company: “Biatch”?!

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