The original 124 was Fiat’s best-selling car in America by far, selling 170,000 units in the 16 years it lived on these shores through the mid-1980s. Fiat wants to rekindle that love in the new millennium, and the route it chose was to partner with an expert. The result? The new Fiat 124, built on the same bones—and at the same Hiroshima factory—as the fourth-generation Mazda Miata.
Who could blame them? Mazda’s success was not to ignore things like quality, management, or dealer networks, the things that contributed to the demise of the original 124 and other sports cars of its ilk. In 1989 Mazda struck gold with a reliable little roadster. The Miata became the best-selling two-seat roadster in history and also the most widely road-raced car in the world.
Since the 124 shares much with the Miata, it should feel and behave like one. Base prices are within spitting distance of each other: $25,890 for the 124 and $25,750 for the Miata Sport, with our Classica test model reaching $27,880 with Bluetooth, rear camera, and pearlescent paint as options. (All prices include destination charges.) Despite Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ efforts to position the 124 away from the Miata to avoid those comparisons (and any possible automotive fratricide), it cannot be ignored.
When we first met the 124 at the Los Angeles Auto Show last November, it showed definite design elements bridging the years since the last 124 Spider left us in the 1980s. Now that we’ve lived with it, we’re not convinced. From the front, it ends up being fussy and overwrought; grille openings, headlight shapes, and air intakes fight rather than support one another. Likewise, the new 124’s fenders echo the original, but its trunk lid balloons in the middle, negating the sense of lightness those fender peaks were meant to evoke.
Inside, much is carried over from the Miata, though perhaps with better materials and fewer hard plastics. From behind the wheel you have a forward view very different from in the Miata, with fender peaks at each side framing the view ahead. It gives a greater sense of sculpture, akin to the old 1968-’82 C3 Corvette, the Big Daddy of peaked fenders.
But the interior suffers some practical limitations. Like in the Miata, the sun visors are cardboard-thin and hard: you’ll need Velcro, not clip-on holders. The removable cupholders at the back of the center console make operating the volume and multi-control dial placed well aft of the shifter an exercise in contortion. And when will everyone realize that metal gear levers look cool but can be an actual health-and-safety hazard on a hot, sunny day?
Lastly—and more a curiosity than foible—the gear indicator in the tachometer only updates when you release the clutch.
The 124 uses its own suspension calibration. Unique spring rates, damping, and anti-roll bars impart much less body roll in corners compared to the Miata. Mazda developed the suspension for both cars, and it’s clear it has succeeded in imbuing them with different personalities. Which car’s is better is totally open to interpretation; the Fiat is more sedate and relaxed with slower turn-in and less roll. It grips well but is less frisky than a Miata.
The 1.4L turbocharged four from Fiat’s 500 Abarth—assembled in Italy and shipped to Japan—is modified a trifle for this longitudinal placement and also takes on an additional 4psi of turbo boost. Resulting in 160hp (119kW) at 5,500 rpm and 184lb-ft (250Nm) of torque at 2,500rpm, it bests the Miata’s normally aspirated 2.0L engine by only 5hp (4kW), but a strong 36lb-ft (49kW), and at much lower revs. Though it delivers more low-end torque, it’s a long wait below 2,500rpm until boost arrives.
Overall, the engine’s output is certainly adequate for the 124. Engine speed, in and of itself, is relatively meaningless, but the Fiat’s powerband does nose over at 5,500rpm, where the Miata’s engine is far from finished. The Fiat does its best business by short-shifting.
On the topic of shifting, many assume that the 124 uses the Miata’s manual gearbox; not so. The ratios—including the final drive—are quite different, and the shifter is changed a bit, theoretically to better suit the 1.4L turbo engine. Though the power and torque curves of the two engines are indeed very different, Fiat has made a hash of its ratio selection, specifically at the first upshift where there’s a yawning chasm between first and second.
The racier Abarth version ($29,090) offers 4 additional horsepower (3kW) and recalibrated suspension with larger wheels and tires, Brembo front brake calipers, Bilstein dampers, and a raffishly painted flat black engine cover and decklid, though we did not evaluate one. But judging by the cousin Fiat 500 Abarth exhaust tones and talk amongst colleagues, it raises the exhaust bar well past the dull-sounding base 124 Classica and Lusso models.
The better play for Fiat would have been much greater differentiation between the Miata and the 124 with either vastly higher performance or even more aggressive and different design; let the Italians be Italian, as it were. Either of these prospects would have limited cross-shopping between the two and the inevitable comparisons. And until a highly rumored Honda S2000 roadster re-enters the market, the 124 would have had that segment position essentially to itself.
If you own a restaurant, you can’t borrow a neighbor restaurant’s signature dish, flavor it up with your own stuff and convince the regulars, let alone the experts. For a company very aware of promoting the best of Italian design, vivaciousness, and brio, that’s exactly what Fiat is suggesting with the 124 Spider. At least Fiat is honest about it. But I cannot envision the 124 swaying a slightly older, slightly more affluent, slightly more culturally attentive Miata buyer away from a Miata. In the end, it’s day-old tempura udon. And it doesn’t age well.