I said in my mind that I wouldn’t do this, but it’s hard not to draw comparisons between the Italian inspired Fiat 124 Spider and its fraternal twin, the Mazda MX-5, especially after spending a week with the RF version of the MX-5 just a short time ago.
Given that a portion of prospective buyers of either car may be interested in the differences between them, other than the obvious which is stamped in metal, I’ll offer a few insights.
I mention “stamped metal” in reference to the body-styling of these two roadsters. There’s a significant difference, with the Fiat being longer and more conventional in its appearance, which frankly I prefer over the somewhat cartoonish-looking MX-5. My observation may run against the grain, but that’s the way I see it.
I appreciate the stylistic nod that today’s 124 makes to 124s which came before it – long before it. The iconic soft-top Italian sports car was originally in production from 1966 to 1980. Despite the extensive gap in production, today’s 124 exhibits design cues drawn directly from its forbearers.
Getting back to the comparison with the MX-5 leads me to the topic of ride-quality, and again I give the checkered flag to Fiat. One of my MX-5 criticisms pertained to the firmness of its ride, which I found to be excessive. Not so with the 124 though.
The Italian’ized MX-5 delivers a ride of greater suppleness without being mushy or too soft for its intended purpose, which is to transmit the spirit of a sports car to its driver. The engine must also partake in the effort, and here’s where I have an issue with the Fiat.
Despite the presence of a 1.4L turbocharged 4-cylinder engine producing 160 horsepower and 184 ft-lb of torque, the little mill lacks potency when operating below 3,000 RPM. The shortage of low-end grunt reveals itself when pulling away from a stop or shifting from 1st to 2nd with insufficient revs.
When driving with a manual gearbox, I’ll often pull away in second gear if the vehicle is rolling, albeit slowly, rather than shifting down into first. This technique leaves the 124 struggling to gain momentum until the tach pushes past 2,000 RPM and is well on its way to 3,000 RPM.
After 2,500 RPM, or so, the engine comes into its own, steadily developing power as the turbo spools-up, delivering forced induction. From that point until its redline, the diminutive MultiAir mill makes up for lost time.
While aggressive driving will keep the engine in its powerband, typical city driving finds me preferring the more linear and fluid performance dynamics of the MX-5’s naturally-aspirated engine, manufactured by Mazda. While this power plant isn’t turbocharged, and produces less overall output, it’s far more pliable underfoot and easier to live with in the city.
Outside of its low RPM deficiency, the Fiat 124 Spider Lusso is a delightful soft-top convertible available with either a 6-speed manual gearbox or a 6-speed automatic transmission. It’s hand-operated roof is the best non-powered lid I’ve ever had the pleasure of dropping; it’s a one-hand operation that takes nano-seconds to complete.
The Italian interpretation of the quintessential Mazda roadster is full of hidden charm. I love looking out over its long, textured bonnet, which imparts a bit of retro’ness to the motoring experience. Most hoodlines these days drop off so sharply that little is visible to the driver, but not here.
I also enjoyed the 124’s nicely calibrated steering response and its strong, predictable brake performance. These factors coalesce in a sporty yet refined manner that may be better appreciated by drivers whose overarching roadster preference is not that of track-searing performance and handling.
In an ethereal sense, the Fiat 124 Spider Lusso feels more grown up in contrast to the Mazda MX-5, though the inclusion of the Mazda engine over that of Fiat’s MultiAir turbocharged affair would, in my mind, be the perfect pairing of Japanese engine-uity with Italian flair.
The Lusso is the mid trim-level bookended by the entry-level Classico and the more aggressive Abarth. Starting prices are: $30,995, $33,995, $35,495 respectively.
2017 Fiat 124 Spider Lusso
Price as tested (before taxes): $33,995.00
Configuration: front engine, rear-wheel drive
Engine/transmission: 1.4L I-4 / 6-speed manual
Power/torque: 164 hp / 184 lb-ft
Fuel-economy ratings (L/100 km): city 9.3, highway 6.5
Observed fuel-economy (L/100 km): 11.2
Warranty (basic): 3 years / 60,000 km
Competitors: Mazda MX-5
Car and Driver