by Sebastian Cenizo
If you grew up loving the Golden era of Italian racing, the name Abarth probably holds some meaning for you. If you're old enough to have watched TV in black and white, you may even remember the model we're reviewing here - the 124 Spider. 50 years on from the original, this retro convertible sports car that is based on the absolutely magnificent Mazda MX-5 Miata is a fun, rear-wheel-drive drop-top that adds its own Italian flair to a competent roadster. Whether that's a good or a bad thing is what we're here to find out. A 1.4-liter turbocharged four-pot is paired with a six-speed manual as standard, or a six-speed auto of you're willing to spend a little extra. Output is rated at 160 horsepower with 184 lb-ft of torque, with the Abarth model - reviewed separately - adding four horses to the mix.
The 2020 model of the 124 Spider is completely unchanged from the 2019 year model.
The Fiat 124 Spider is a sharp-looking machine with its own cute type of menace. A pair of halogen headlights adorn the front of the car, while LED taillights that are almost like a scaled-down version of those on the last Dodge Viper, help add some aggression to an otherwise smooth design. As standard, you get 16-inch wheels on the base model, but higher up you get 17s. The Lusso has silver trim on the windscreen surround, while the Urbana mid-range model opts for Piano Black accents.
To maximize the performance of the small engine, the 124 Spider has been kept as light as possible, with curb weight starting at 2,436 pounds. Automatic models are 40 lbs heavier. Width is similarly small, measuring 68.5 inches across, while height measures 48.5 inches. The length is 159.6 inches from end to end, with the wheelbase measuring just 90.9 inches. Compared to the Miata, the 124 is slightly wider and about 100 lbs heavier.
Eight different paint options are available for the 124 Spider, and you can add stripes for more race-inspired style if you so desire. Hypnotique Red, Forte Black, Chiaro Silver, Brillante White, and Mare Blue are available on the base Classica and mid-range Urbana models, while the top Lusso trim also has access to Puro White Tri-Coat Pearl paint. Stripes can be had in Red Rally, Red/Gray Retro, White/Gray Retro, and White Rally styles. Although the paint options do not come at a cost, the stripes add $295 to your bill.
All Fiat 124 models feature a 1.4-liter turbo-four producing hair-ruffling 160 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque. Although that's not a lot, in a body this light it has impressive results, allowing the tiny sports car to accelerate from 0-60 mph in 6.4 seconds in manual form, in our experience. Top speed is a respectable 130 mph, but despite a boost-free engine, the Miata on which the Italian is based, performs considerably better, with 0-60 arriving in under six seconds and top speed just under 140 mph.
Nevertheless, for fun factor without too much seriousness, the 124 Spider is a unique alternative to the naturally-aspirated Mazda. While the MX-5 may be more focused on performance, the Fiat 124 Spider offers a more retro look and a completely different driving experience. It lacks the responsiveness of the Mazda but has a fun, mid-range kick when the boost hits. While this means it's not a great sports car, it's still enjoyable to drive.
All 124 Spiders come with the same power plant - a 1.4-liter turbocharged MultiAir four-banger. The engine produces a moderate amount of power, developing a total of 160 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque. Interestingly, the Miata's larger, free-breathing 2.0-liter NA motor produces more grunt, with 181 horses. Nevertheless, the Spider does at least come with a six-speed manual gearbox as standard, although you can opt for an auto with the same number of ratios if you so desire. Whereas the Miata offers linearity and impressive acceleration, the 124 Spider is, to put it bluntly, utterly disappointing for the enthusiast. Leaving a set of traffic lights with any gusto requires you to bury your right foot, and nothing happens for a while. Once the turbo realizes that it needs to come and help, it provides boost in a big fat lump and then dies, with the upper reaches of the rev range proving to be not much more than wasted space. Some may find the sudden power and the need to carefully time your shifts endearing, but our experience is that the 124 is not a well-developed machine.
Things are improved slightly when you focus on the transmission, as the standard manual is smooth and well-notched. The automatic transmission, on the other hand, has absolutely no desire to stir your soul, and upshifts far too early in an effort to save fuel. This leaves you out of boost and only flat-foot acceleration helps to remedy the situation.
While you may be forgiven for expecting the Fiat to be just as good as the Mazda in terms of chassis tuning and handling, the 124 Spider is markedly softer and less willing to change direction. It's not bad, as it turns in well and has a steering setup that provides good feedback and sharp responses, but compared to the MX-5, it's a disappointment.
The advantage this gives the little Italian is that it's supremely comfy for a sports car, and although body roll is slightly magnified compared to the Japanese car, the drive is far more relaxed and much less frantic than in the more fun-focused Mazda. Small imperfections are well-managed by the suspension, although the car's light weight does make its presence known when you meet up with larger undulations and bumps. Braking is acceptably good too, with the aforementioned low curb weight helping the sports car come to a stop with relative ease.
Overall, the 124 Spider is not a focused sports car like the MX-5 - a car that you can have real fun with on the track. If you're considering the Fiat over the Mazda, it may be because of its styling and its Italian heritage, and the 124 does help itself fit in with what less performance-oriented buyers will be looking for. From a driving perspective, it will impress most who have never explored the limits of their cars, but for the enthusiast, the firmer Mazda will be a better fit.
With such different characteristics between the manual and automatic variants of the 124 Spider, it's no surprise that their fuel economy figures differ. Those models equipped with the standard six-speed manual have returned EPA results of 26/35/30 mpg on the city/highway/combined cycles. For a sports car, even one with a low capacity engine, this is impressive. If you opt for the automatic transmission with your Fiat instead, you'll find that the figures improve on the highway, with results of 25/36/29 mpg on the same cycles. Whichever model you opt for, mixed range is estimated to be around at least 345 miles between fillups. It's worth noting, however, that the MX-5 returns similar figures of 26/34/29 mpg and has the same 11.9-gallon gas tank.
The 124 Spider is marketed by Fiat as the most affordable roadster in its class, yet it looks and feels sufficiently upscale and premium, particularly next to the MX-5. This, in part, contributes to the slightly lardier curb weight; but it seems to be worth it, as the Fiat's interior feel is one of quality and solid construction. That said, the similarities in design are fairly obvious, and although you won't be able to boast about owning a completely different car, the look and feel are impressive. While all variants benefit from a leather-wrapped steering wheel, the seats in the base model are trimmed in fabric, with leather being added to the other two trims. Manual climate control is standard, but an automatic system is available.
The 124 Spider, much like its Japanese sibling, is a strict two-seater. Thanks to its low-slung height and buried seats, getting in and out can be a challenge, particularly for taller individuals. If you want to keep the top down, headroom is obviously limitless, but the soft-top will get in the way of taller drivers who don't set the seats all the way back and down. Fortunately, the seating position is naturally low, and you'd be surprised to find that a six-footer can sit there in relative comfort. However, space for legroom is narrow and you can't help but think that if your passenger has a cold, you're definitely going to catch it. Turning to look at your partner almost puts you in danger of brushing his or her hair with your nose, but at least this means you don't have to shout too much with the roof lowered. Visibility, however, is impaired with the roof in its raised position, and you'll want to opt for the available blind-spot monitors.
As standard, all models come with a leather-clad steering wheel, but the base model gets black fabric seats while the Urbana is treated to leather with microfiber faux-suede inserts also in black. The Lusso range-topper gets full leather seats in either black or a Saddle brown tan shade. The rest of the interior is highlighted by plastic in a brushed aluminum finish, textured black plastic on the dash and, in the case of the top trim, contrasting stitching on the handbrake lever and the gear-lever.
The Fiat 124 Spider comes with a very small trunk, with just 4.9 cubic feet of volume. However, buyers will be pleased to know that this is marginally larger than the 4.6 cubic-foot trunk in the Miata. Sadly, the trunk lid is tiny, so some creative cargo management is required when loading. Nevertheless, you can fit an overnight bag or two in the back, allowing you to make a weekend getaway possible.
In the cabin, looking for spots to keep your stuff is all but fruitless. The door panels have narrow sleeves that can fit the smallest of wallets and phones while the central glovebox is where a pair of removable cupholders can reside. Further than that, your options are severely limited.
As standard, or even fully loaded, the 124 is no tech giant, but this helps keep it affordable. Even so, Fiat has equipped every model with a rearview camera, cruise control, manual climate control, and a multi-function height-adjustable steering wheel. Keyless entry is available too. Options, all of which come in packages, include adaptive LED headlights with washers, auto-dimming heated wing mirrors, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, rear parking sensors, and an auto-dimming interior rearview mirror. A universal garage door opener can also be specced as part of a package. All of these features, however, are only available on the top trim, which features heated seats as standard.
All 124 Spiders come with the same seven-inch touchscreen infotainment display. Coupled with this are controls on the steering wheel and a rotary knob that can also control input to the system. As standard, the system features four speakers and allows for aux input, Bluetooth audio streaming, and the regular AM/FM radio tuning. SiriusXM can also be added to the base model, while the top trim has access to the option of navigation and a nine-speaker Bose sound system upgrade with a subwoofer. Although not the worst we've dealt with, the system is not particularly user-friendly, and even in 2020, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity have been excluded from the setup.
Thus far, the 2020 Fiat 124 Spider's time on sale has been completely recall-free - a good thing for a brand often plagued by reliability issues. However, some older models had issues with incorrectly programmed transmission control modules.
Despite coming in at a lower price, the Fiat 124 has a more comprehensive warranty coverage than the MX-5, offering a limited and powertrain warranty for the first four years or 50,000 miles of ownership. However, no complimentary scheduled maintenance or roadside assistance is offered.
Neither the IIHS nor the NHTSA has rated the Fiat 124 Spider in crash testing, throughout all its time on sale. The Mazda MX-5 Miata, similarly, has shied away from crash tests.
As standard, the 124 Spider comes with the usual safety features that are fitted to most modern cars, including anti-lock brakes, stability and traction control systems, a rearview camera, and frontal and side-impact airbags. It also gets auto headlights on all but the base trim, and features roll hoops. Optionally available are features like blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, a post-collision response system, adaptive LED headlights, and rear parking sensors.
The 124 Spider will always live in the shadow of the faster, tauter, more enjoyable MX-5. It's not a particularly fast car and has a very small powerband, plus the automatic transmission is a shocker for a sports car. The trunk is bigger than the one in its Japanese rival, but the rest of the car is no more impressive than the MX-5. That said, for those who enjoy top-down motoring and want to save some cash, the 124 Spider is still the most affordable roadster in its class, and the engine's quirky characteristics could prove to be a fun novelty for those who are new to performance cars. The ride is also very good, and although this impacts handling, the car is nevertheless more agile than things like a BMW Z4, thanks to its lightweight construction and low center of gravity. Being the gearheads and fanboys that we are, we want you to choose a Miata. That doesn't make the 124 a terrible car, and it is ideal for those who just want a fun, open-top sportscar with a bit of zing.
The base 124 Spider starts at $25,390 before a $1,495 destination charge and any other fees, taxes, and incentives. The mid-range model has a base price of $26,385 before fees, and the top-trim starts at $28,145. The automatic transmission adds $1,450 to the price of any model, and a fully loaded, top-trim Lusso will cost just under $35,000 will all the options.
The 2020 Fiat 124 Spider is available in three variants, namely Classica, Urbana, and Lusso. The Abarth version is considered separately. The base model Classica is the cheapest roadster in its class. It is equipped with 16-inch wheels, a fabric interior and a seven-inch touchscreen infotainment system. A 1.4-liter turbocharged four-pot is fitted to all models, with output rated at 160 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque. Manual air-conditioning and a four-speaker sound system are also included.
The Urbana gains fog lights and a number of Piano Black accents, as well as a leather and faux-suede interior. It also gets a set of 17-inch wheels in a fresh design. SiriusXM satellite radio is also added to this model, an option that you pay extra for on the base trim.
The Lusso is the top trim in the range and sports a silver windscreen surround, as well as unique wheels. In addition, the interior is treated to a full leather upholstery finish, and you get automatic climate control. Heated seats are also included, and you have access to options like navigation, adaptive LED headlights, and more safety tech. A Bose sound system upgrade can also be had.
The base model comes without SiriusXM satellite radio and keyless entry in its standard form, but you can opt for these features by splashing out a little more and spending 395 bucks. After that, you have to step up to the top Lusso trim to add any features of real value. Here, you can spec the Visibility Group package for $995, adding adaptive LED headlights with auto-leveling and washers. Alternatively, you can opt to tick the box marked "Navigation & Sound Group", adding a nine-speaker Bose sound system with subwoofer and GPS navigation. This will cost $1,295. Finally, the Convenience Group package costs $1,495 and adds auto-dimming mirrors with heated wing mirrors, rear parking sensors, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, and a universal garage door opener.
Since the 124 Spider is so affordable and since the experience in this car is about maximizing comfort and style, we'd opt for the top Lusso trim. We'd avoid the over-eager automatic transmission and rather spend that money on the safety features contained in the Convenience Group package. We'd also add the enhanced adaptive headlights in the Visibility Group package and splash out a little more on the final package, thus upgrading the sound system and gifting the infotainment system with navigation. While this may seem a little excessive, all these add-ons make the 124 Spider far more usable and comfortable to live with, and the total cost still comes in below $35,000.
If you didn't know, now you know: the answer is always Miata. Even when compared with a more comfortable, more accommodating, and, arguably, more stylish Italian roadster that costs less, we feel that the driving experience in a Miata is worth every penny. It handles like a dream, and despite not being as plush as a Fiat 124 and featuring stiffer suspension, the experience is still comfortable when you want to relax. Combined with the fact that the Miata has a linear power curve that peaks higher than the Fiat's, the Mazda is by far the more engaging, fun-to-drive, and sporty sports car. Furthermore, you only lose out on $340 in base form, and the cargo space in the trunk is only reduced by 0.3 cubic feet versus the 124. Even if you're not a serious driver, give the Miata a go and see why we rate it with a Buzz score of 8.4 versus the 124 Spider's 7.4.
So you want a drop-top with a lot of quality bits and style? Maybe BMW can convince you to double the budget on your roadster and buy a Z4 sDrive30i for $49,700. Equipped with a 2.0-liter turbo-four, the rear-wheel-drive BMW produces 255 horses and 295 lb-ft of torque. Along with a 9.9 cubic-foot trunk and an impressively spacious cabin that is upholstered in faux leather, the Bimmer also boasts standard features like adaptive LED taillights, LED headlights, push-button start, 14-way power seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, and forward-collision warning. You also get a 10.25-inch touchscreen that boasts Apple CarPlay, HD Radio, and navigation, as well as a large digital driver display. It may be double the price of the base 124 at a starting price just shy of $50,000, but it more than makes up for that with power, quality, style, and numerous standard features. We'd opt for the Z4 if the budget allows.
Check out some informative Fiat 124 Spider video reviews below.