People who buy economy cars don’t especially care that lots of other people are driving the same car; if anything, its 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 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. 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 Spider.
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.
A Scorpion Sting stripe/decal package is available for the Abarth version of the Spider.
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 Fiat 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 tune-up.
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.
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.
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 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.
How Fiat 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, a 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-sounding 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 6 ft. 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.
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, Peugeot) conglomerate, just as Pontiac (RIP) was part of GM. And as 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.
*** Photo courtesy of Caricos
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The Eric Peters Car Review is sponsored by the NMA Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting your interests as a motorist and citizen through the multi-faceted approach of research, education, and litigation. The Foundation is able to offer this assistance through tax-deductible contributions.