Fiat 124 Spider: It’s Hot but Is It a Fiat or a Mazda?
The Fiat 124 Spider was an inexpensive way to enjoy top-down sports car performance, and fans flocked to the car from 1966 to 1985.
The car was smart looking and fun to drive, but like all European roadsters of the time, rife with maintenance problems. Spending the winter months tracking down loose electrical connections, undetectable oil leaks or rattles that are impossible to replicate unless the car is traveling at 60 mph, occupied the time of most roadster owners of the era.
And then along came the Mazda Miata. Its performance and quality build stuck a stake in the heart of the sports car competition. The Miata has remained the only real game in town for the small, affordable roadster market until now.
They say imitation is the most sincere expression of flattery. That may be true, but in the case of the new Fiat 124 Spider the Italians have gone way beyond mere imitation. They are having Mazda build the 124s for them, on the Miata platform, at the plant that builds Miata in Hiroshima, Japan.
Past Meets Present
The joining of forces actually makes great marketing sense for both Fiat and Miata. The Spider has a great legacy. Back in the day when it was competing against MGBs, TR 3s and the like, the Fiat 124 Spider stood out as a sporty competitor with distinctive styling, great top down handling and an affordable price tag. Over 200,000 units were sold.
Take that legacy, update the appearance, marry it to one of the most successful sports car platforms ever, and you have the makings for a spectacular success. So will the Spider steal some Miata sales? Of course it will, but Mazda will make up for it billing for parts and production.
Miata DNA But Spider Flair
When you look at these roadsters side by side you’ll see some similarities, but they certainly aren’t twins. Most of what Miata has shared with Spider is out of sight.
It’s easier to list what isn’t different between the two, but here is a stab to recount the major shared parts:
- The Spider is built on the Miata chassis. Both share the same 90.9 inch wheelbase.
- Electrical system
- Dashboard (mostly)
- Six speed transmission
So What’s the Difference?
The price for starters. The Spider will run two grand more than the Miata on average. What does that buy? The answer is mostly engine. The big difference between the Miata and the Spider lies beneath the hood.
If Miata has had one consistent slam against it, it’s been a complaint about being underpowered. Mazda has always used the 155 hp 4 banger that generates 148 lb-ft of torque. It’s not going to win any drag races but when you drop it into second and carve up a corner you really don’t care. Straight away speed takes second place to maneuverability in a roadster.
Fiat dipped into its corporate gene pool and pulled out the turbocharged 1.4-liter MultiAir four, which makes 164 horses and 184 lb-ft of torque for Jeep. So the Italian has a bit more oomph off the line than the Japanese competitor.
But there are other, less obvious differences as well. The design calls for a body that is 3 inches longer in the front to accommodate the engine and 2 in the back resulting in a slightly larger trunk. The cabin is almost identical, but it has an upgraded feel about it. The body-colored plastic that adorns the top of the Miata’s doors has been replaced by soft-touch plastic. Cabin fabric and leather seem to be better quality than the Mazda.
The Spider uses sound deadening material extensively, which makes the cabin significantly quieter than the Miata. The suspension has a different tune resulting in a ride that is more akin to a sedan than the stiffness associated with a sports car.
Distinction Between Driver and Machine
Overall you walk away with a feeling that the Fiat is more substantial than the Mazda, but that may not be a good thing. The Miata feels like you are part of the car. It feels like the car is an extension of your arms and legs as you slide through twists and turns. The Spider makes a distinction between driver and machine. It feels more formal. It looks sporty enough, but it feels more like a “responsible mode of transportation” than the Miata roadster.
So what’s the better deal? Who knows, it all depends on your preferences. They are both hot little roadsters, and unless the Toyota 84 (formerly Scion) adds a convertible to its line there really isn’t any other competition.
This one may come down to who gives you the best deal on your trade.