First drive: 2017 Fiat 124 Spider

The Spider is back. Was it worth the wait?

When Fiat announced it was officially returning to the United States, enthusiasts' imaginations were allowed to run wild with images of petite roadsters and funky, obscure coupes from decades when concepts like crash testing and aerodynamics were still in their automotive infancy.

What we got instead was more 500 variants than anyone could have possibly hoped for (and, indeed, at least one more than they should have given us). Where were the curves? Where were the cars that implied a mandatory pair of sunglasses or a silk scarf? Where was the sex?

Then, there was hope. In early 2013, Mazda and FCA announced a joint venture to build a new Miata-based roadster under the Alfa Romeo banner. We allowed ourselves to be cautiously optimistic. What sort of car could we expect? What sort of premium could we expect? It was exciting--promising, even--but we hadn't seen a car yet.

And then it fell apart.

FCA's leadership ran afoul of its standing promise to build Alfa-branded vehicles exclusively in Italy. The agreement with Mazda stipulated that the cars would be built in Japan. Alfa backed out, but FCA had a contract with Mazda that would be quite costly to vacate.

Enter FiatWithin weeks of the Alfa deal's dissolution, FCA's trademark application for the 124 Spider name had already gone through. It didn't take an expert analyst to make the connection. The Mazda-based roadster would come to life under FCA's Fiat nameplate.

This put Fiat's product developers in an interesting position. Alfa Romeo had been working on preliminary design for a year, which meant Fiat essentially inherited the premium brand's half-finished homework (and its corresponding due dates). It was then up to this team (in cooperation with Mazda's engineers, mind you) to ace the assignment without shortchanging the heritage and brand identity of Fiat's iconic roadster.

No pressure, right?

What it isWe're not going to dance around this; the Fiat 124 Spider is a Miata, and not in the way that many modern vehicles share components on a modular platform. The relationship between the Japanese and Italian roadsters is most akin to that of the Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300. They may be visually distinct both inside and out, but under the skin they are the same car. They're not cousins, but identical twins whose parents have gone to great lengths to dress them differently.

Where it isn'tFortunately, the Italians know a thing or two about distinctive tailoring. Look at the 124 and the MX-5 from the outside and you won't immediately see the shared DNA. Sure, there are some telltales. The windshield surround, for instance, is shared, as is the soft top itself (right down to the dead-simple operation of the mechanism to raise and lower it, thankfully), but those commonalities aren't so obvious as to draw the eye.

Inside, it's a different story. Staring you in the face upon entry is one of Mazda's now-ubiquitous infotainment control screens. No attempt was made to re-skin this as any sort of FCA entertainment system, either. Everything from the basic graphical interface down to the input knob and buttons on the center console is a direct lift.

Focusing on that is really ignoring the broader point, though. The interior is Miata, top (literally) to bottom. The only noteworthy departure is the seating. Fiat offers a leather upgrade on Lusso models and Alcantara-wrapped Recaro seats in the Abarth model. They'll also throw some pleather on the dash in the Lusso just to make things a little more pleasing to the eye, but that's about it. It's the same tight-fitting, frills-and-storage-free environment you find in Mazda's roadster.

A deeper diveWhen we said before that the 124 and MX-5 are identical under the skin, we left out one caveat: the engine. Fiat replaced the naturally aspirated 2.0L SkyActiv four-cylinder with its 1.4L turbocharged MultiAir four-cylinder. Yes, that's correct; this is the turbocharged Miata that Mazda won't build.

Sort of.

Mazda's 2.0L makes 155 horsepower and a little less torque. Fiat's Classica and Lusso models are rated at 160 horsepower. The Abarth bumps that up to 164. Maximum torque is rated at 184lb-ft, which is a healthy increase from the Miata's 148. On paper, at least, the Fiat 124 should be quite a bit gruntier than the MX-5.

But there are some catches. The 124, while still light, is roughly 100lbs heavier than the Miata trim-for-trim. There are two reasons for that. The first is that Fiat added quite a bit of sound insulation to the body for a quieter, more comfortable ride. The second is that Fiat was slightly less zealous about saving weight wherever possible. The standard LED headlamps in the MX-5, for example, make for a shorter front overhang in the Mazda compared to the halogen-equipped Fiat. That extra sheetmetal adds up.

Does that all matter?We were surprised to find that it really doesn't. From behind the wheel, the differences between the MX-5 and 124 are just noise.

Let's start with the literal implications of that sentence. Fiat's 1.4L MultiAir engine has often been paired to sporty, burbling exhausts. While that is true of the Abarth model here, we have to say we were disappointed by the note coming from the pipes on the Classica and Lusso models. With the top down, you can barely hear the exhaust over the wind noise. Top-up, well, let's just say we weren't thrilled with the sounds coming through the cabin.

But if we're comparing this experience to that of driving the Mazda (let's face it: that is impossible to avoid), we'd have to call it a wash. Mazda's four-cylinder engines have always lacked character. They're not bad; they're just not all that charismatic (The word "unlovable" has been thrown around on more than one occasion.).

The Abarth, fortunately, is a bit more boisterous. If you've heard the 500 Abarth in the wild, then you have the general idea. Given the platform and engine layout, it's no surprise that the 124's sound is distinct from its front-wheel-drive stablemate's, but the character is similar. That's the one you want to listen to.

It's also the one you want to drive. And with that, we move on from the literal noise to the figurative. We're not going to mince words here: If you're eager to find out what the new 124 is like to drive, go to your local Mazda dealer and ask for the keys to an MX-5.

"But, but, but; the torque!" No. Sure, the Fiat has more low-end on paper, but the two are geared differently. The 1.4L needs to be on the boil just as much as Mazda's turbo-free SkyActiv if you want any kind of hustle. We didn't have the opportunity to do any side-by-side instrumented testing, but we'll go on record right now saying that we'd be genuinely shocked if the Fiat has any sort of acceleration advantage over the Mazda, in-gear or not. Driving them back-to-back, the 124 did not feel appreciably punchier.

Otherwise, there's really no difference. Like the MX-5, the 124 is fairly soft and roll-prone. You won't feel it if you're not pushing, but once you do, it comes out. Fiat gave us the chance to take Abarth models out on an autocross course set up at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium. From the first hard cut of the wheel, the MX-5's distinct handling nature came screaming to the surface--the predictable body motions, the direct steering feel, all of it. It's a wonderful package, no matter how it's wrapped.

So, why bother?That's a fair question. For starters, there are the looks. As we said before, there's very little outward similarity in the two cars' appearances and chances are you'll prefer one over the other. With the cars so similar in feel and performance, it would be virtually impossible to make the wrong decision.

Depending on your intentions, however, there's an important differentiation point here that can't be ignored. If you're planning to modify your purchase for more power, the Fiat may have a distinct advantage. The 1.4L MultiAir is not only a better candidate for tuning just by virtue of being turbocharged, but it is also a platform with which shops already have some experience thanks to its use in the 500 Abarth.

Since the Fiat shares its suspension architecture with the Mazda, it's not like it will be particularly difficult to get ahold of upgrades in that department, either. Want to ice that cake? The Abarth, even with the Brembo brake package (and Recaro seats, which Mazda doesn't yet offer), is cheaper than the MX-5 Club when equipped the same way.

Leftlane's bottom lineThe 124 may be a re-skinned Miata, but we can't use the word "just" in that description. The Abarth makes a compelling case as an alternative to Mazda's Club model, and for less money.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider base price, $25,990. As-tested, $25,990-$33,230

Photos by Byron Hurd.

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