What the Fiat 124 is really about is the driving experience, and engine options differentiate it.
The Mazda MX-5 has been the entry level roadster of choice for decades now, and it’s almost impossible to talk to any group of enthusiasts without someone insisting that you purchase one. The folks at Fiat took that advice to heart, and did buy an MX-5. Except that they’ve fitted it with a new curvaceous body and their own powerplant to give new life to the 124 Spider nameplate. The original 124 Spider debuted in 1966, with classic body styling designed by Pininfarina. The 124 reached North American shores for 1968 and achieved relative success over its long run, ending in 1982. Today, the original 124 Spiders have earned a dedicated following of enthusiasts as affordable classic roadsters with a coveted Italian flare.
The new 124 Spider follows a similar formula as a simple, light, sharp-handling roadster built with the sole purpose of delivering fun. The car’s styling picks up a few key cues from the original, with its long hood, bulbous headlamps, ragtop and truncated rear end. If the 1960s and 70s were the golden era for the roadster, the new 124 definitely looks like the modern iteration, whereas its blood brother the Mazda MX-5 (reviewed here) looks more revolutionary. As a classic car enthusiast, the Fiat’s styling is a winner for me.
The test car here is a 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth trim level, which comes with its own unique set of looks including a more aggressive front fascia, 17” gloss black wheels, quad exhaust tips and some extra flaring and skirting on the lower portion of the car. This particular car also came optioned with a hand-painted heritage style black racing stripe which really pops against the Crystal White Pearl paint and earned the car a ton of looks. The stripe however, is a simple stripe that costs a few dollars shy of $3000; money that can certainly be better spent elsewhere.
The interior of the 124 Spider is straight out of the Mazda MX-5, and Fiat makes very little effort to hide that. Of course, you’d need to be familiar with the interior of an MX-5 to notice, but given that we’ve had an MX-5 in our long-term garage here for months now, the gauge cluster, shift knob and Fiat emblem on the steering wheel are the only discernable differences that I could spot. That’s a bit of a shame too, because the Fiat/Chrysler infotainment system is far superior to the Mazda system, so it would have been a nice differentiator here. The positive is that the Mazda interior is actually a great one, and it should be after nearly three decades of learning on Mazda’s part.
Controls are simple and intuitive, so the driver can really focus on the driving experience. The heated leather seats are well bolstered and comfortable for short periods, but longer drives did have my back wishing for more support. There is adequate storage up front for daily carry items, but it’s largely limited to the lockable bin between the seats. There is no glove box or door pockets, and shallow centre console storage. Trunk space is on the tight side, but it’s enough for a weekend getaway, and the space is not impacted by the roof when folded.
What the Fiat 124 is really all about though is the driving experience, and this is where the Fiat’s engine options differentiate it from the Mazda. The standard Spider comes with the 1.4L MultiAir Turbo four-cylinder that makes 160 horsepower and 184 lb-ft. of torque at 2,500RPM. The Abarth gets a small horsepower boost to 164 horsepower. This in itself is a bit of a letdown since the Abarth branding has always been associated with really aggressively tuned cars. The Fiat’s small displacement turbocharged engine delivers more power than the 155 horsepower from the four in the MX-5, but the biggest difference is how it delivers that power. The MX-5’s power delivery is very linear with crisp throttle response.
The 124 Abarth, pulls hard and fast from 2,500RPM and above. This means low-speed driving in the city can be frustrating, especially when you call on the power to make a quick maneuver only to spend the next three seconds anxiously waiting for the big turbo to spool up. On the open road, or on the track, the 124 Abarth is the quicker car, but since one of the biggest joys of having a small roadster in the city is the ability to quickly dart around, that’s where the Fiat falls short.
The Abarth does come with a great looking quad tip exhaust, which has a nice bark on start-up, but quiets down out on the road. It also doesn’t help that the interior is filled with plenty of road noise while on the highway, making it even more difficult to enjoy the burbles of the little turbocharged engine.
Power aside, the chassis, suspension and steering are very similar to the MX-5. Simply put, they’re great. The Abarth also gets a true limited-slip differential, a strut tower brace, sport mode and firmer springs complimented with Bilstein shocks. The car handles like its on rails, and there are few greater joys than tossing one of these cars through some twisty corners at speed. There is notably less body roll when pushed thanks to the firmer suspension on the Abarth, and there is still just enough give in the suspension to feel the limits, but the car remains composed and controlled.
The electric power steering is the only weak point; it needs just a bit more weight and road feel to be perfect. The clutch feels great, with a sharp grab point up relatively high in pedal travel. Oddly the short shift gearbox is borrowed from the previous generation (NC) MX-5, but it still feels just as sharp and rewarding to use as anything else on the market today.
Fuel economy is surprisingly good in the 124 Abarth. Despite the fact that high strung turbo motors get thirsty, the Fiat ended its week of rush hour commutin, and a bit of back road play, reading 7.4L/100km. That’s right in line with the manufacturer ratings, and it’s also worth noting that while Fiat recommends premium fuel for maximum performance, it is not required. We ran premium all week regardless, and with this kind of economy I am not sure why you wouldn’t.
The other little issue with the 124 is that is does get expensive quickly if you start adding options. A base Classica trim level car can be had for $30,995, the mid-range Lusso trim is an extra $3,000, and $35,495 gets you into the Abarth like the test car. On the basis of the added performance goodies alone, the Abarth is a relative bargain at its starting price. That’s all great, but if you want to add the Luxury Package to have some modern gadgets like LED headlamps, navigation, Sirius XM, full leather seating, blind spot monitoring, the package will run you an extra $5,500. That package, plus the $3,000 stripe, and $1,000 paint option put the as tested price on this car at $47,485. If so inclined, you could also add a Brembo brake package for $1,900.
That would put the price of a loaded 124 Abarth right near the $50,000 mark, that’s generally a few thousand more than a comparably equipped MX-5; but more importantly it opens up a really long list of possibilities on the used roadster market that may be worth considering. $50,000 would buy you a really nice used previous generation MX-5, Honda S2000 or even a Porsche Boxster, and a good winter beater. Alternatively, $50,000 will buy you a proper classic roadster, like an Austin Healey 3000, that exudes a character that no modern roadster will ever lay claim too. A classic, will also hold its value, unlike a modern 124 which will depreciate just like anything else.
It’s an interesting proposition, this car. The 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth delivers on its promise of open air excitement and world-class driving fun, while drawing on its Italian heritage. If the Abarth trim was more wild, more aggressive, more in-your-face, like the 500 Abarth (reviewed here), it really could have been the edge that the 124 Spider needs. That said, it’s great to see the renewed interest in the segment as with all the talk of increased economy and emissions regulations, these small-displacement sports cars are due for a renaissance.