When the Mazda MX-5 took up Italian citizenship.
Never before has a Mazda MX-5 Miata been sold as anything other than an MX-5 Miata. That changed for 2017 when the Fiat 124 Spider went on sale. What’s interesting about Fiat’s reborn roadster, whose namesake comes from the 124 sport Spider built from 1966 to 1982, is that it was originally intended to be an Alfa Romeo. Back in 2012, Mazda and Alfa Romeo which, like Fiat, is part of Fiat Chrysler, announced a joint venture to build a new sports car.
The plan called for “both Mazda and (Alfa) to develop two differentiated, distinctly styled, iconic and brand specific, lightweight roadsters featuring rear wheel drive.” However, each car would offer brand-specific engines. Many assumed at the time this would become a new Alfa Romeo Spider. In theory that worked, but in reality it did not. Why did this Alfa Romeo become a Fiat? Because FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne made a previous commitment for all Alfa Romeo production to happen in Italy. Fiats, on the other hand, are too built in Italy but also globally. And then Alfa Romeo made the decision to develop, from scratch, what became the 4C coupe and spider.
FCA still very much wanted to stick with its previously announced plan to work with Mazda, so the decision to make this roadster a Fiat was a no-brainer. The deal was good for Mazda because FCA would pay for the rights to use its new ND platform. Because Mazda no longer had Ford as a parent company it could rely on for greater financial support if needed, any extra income was very much welcomed. Also, developing a platform for a niche sports car isn’t exactly cheap. Fiat, which was recently re-launched in North America, desperately needed a new model other than the 500 lineup, so this was an ideal match for both automakers.
The Fiat 124 Spider went on sale for the 2017 model year and it was immediately clear it was more than a rebadged Miata. It was designed in the Turin Style Center in Italy with styling inspired directly by the original ’66 Sport Spider. Fortunately, Fiat avoided the retro temptation and instead went with a contemporary theme, though there are references to the original. Specifically, this was done in the upper grille as well as the pattern of the hexagonal front grille. Also notice the classic “humps” along the front hood as well as the taillights that are bold yet more conventional than the Miata’s. There’s also a character line that runs down the 124 Spider’s flanks.
Compare the two roadsters side by side and you’ll also notice the Fiat is a bit longer, specifically 5.5 inches. Overall, the Fiat’s bodywork borrows many design cues from its 124 Sport Spider ancestor, so it definitely has an Italian flavor going on, but we’re still left wondering whether its designers could have gone even further. Then again, they were not given free reign due to the platform’s dimensions and engineering. If Fiat had developed this roadster entirely on its own then we suspect the final result would look different. Fortunately, Fiat did not stop with the 124 Spider; it also launched the performance-oriented Spider Abarth at the same time as the base version.
Aside from having a slightly more powerful version of the 1.4-liter MultiAir turbo engine (164 instead of 160 hp), the 124 Abarth has, shall we say, more swagger. We dig it, and it’s definitely our preferred choice over the base version. The darker-colored lower front grille opening as well as the gunmetal finish on the roll bar and side mirrors make a difference. If you’re willing to pony up a bit more cash, $1,995 to be exact, you can get a hand-painted matte black hood and trunk lid. Without question the 124 Abarth’s styling is a direct throwback to the old 124 Spider Abarth Rally, which raced from 1972 to 1975. For 2018, Fiat introduced yet another 124 variant, the GT Abarth, which features a carbon fiber hardtop.
Amazingly, this removable top is the only one currently on the market made from that lightweight weave. It also has optional carbon fiber mirror caps. The 124 Spider’s interior, regardless of trim level, is literally identical to the MX-5 Miata’s. The most distinguishable difference is the Fiat emblem on the steering wheel in place of Mazda’s. Another difference between the 124 Spider and MX-5 Miata are different six-speed manual transmissions. The Fiat requires the manual from the previous generation Miata in order to handle its 184 lb-ft of torque, whereas the new MX-5 has just 148 lb-ft. Fiat buyers can also spend a bit more for the optional six-speed slushbox.
Although it drives and handles very much like a Mazda M-5 Miata, the Fiat 124 Spider lineup has managed to create its own personality by simply receiving redesigned front and rear ends. It’s kind of amazing how much of a difference minor plastic surgery can make when done right.