I once owned a base 1990 Mazda Miata with manual steering and crank windows, but I still have fond memories of how light, nimble and fun it was to drive. When I drove the new 2016 Miata, I immediately fell in love with its driving dynamics and excellent manual convertible top system.
When Fiat announced details of the 124 Spider, which is based off the Miata, I wondered why anyone would buy a Japanese roadster in an Italian suit. After spending a week with a 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Lusso, I’ll admit I was wrong.
Platform and interior layout aside, the Miata and 124 Spider drive like two completely different vehicles. I preferred the Miata at first, but after a couple of days, my driving preferences leaned towards the 124 Spider.
Fiat engineers did a tremendous job tuning the 124 Spider suspension. The car simply grips without sacrificing ride quality.
In my younger days when I was able to quote Vin Diesel lines in The Fast and The Furious, I would have preferred the Miata, especially because it’s extremely easy to break loose the rear-end in a controllable manner. While the Miata provides plenty of smiles-per-gallon with its go-kart like handling, the 124 Spider feels more laid back but confident through the turns.
A Turbo makes everything better
Pop open the hood and you’ll find the major difference between the Miata and 124 Spider. Mazda chose a 2.0-liter four cylinder that revs up to 6,800 RPM whereas Fiat uses a 1.4-liter turbocharged four cylinder shared with the 500 and early Dodge Darts.
On paper, the 124 Spider only makes 5 more horsepower than the Miata, but also offers 36 more pound-feet of torque at much lower RPMs. To verify Fiat’s power claims and demonstrate the benefits of a smaller turbocharged motor, I took the 124 Spider to my friends at Drift-Office in Auburn, Wash.
Drift-Office is a tuning shop that specializes in ECU tuning for tuner cars like the Subaru BRZ, WRX, Scion FR-S, Nissan 350/370Z and many others. It also has a vehicle dyno that I was able put the Fiat 124 Spider on.
The dyno result shows the 124 Spider has a fairly flat torque curve with plenty of low-end grunt. The trade-off is power starts to fizzle off before redline.
Nevertheless, the 124 Spider’s power curve suits my driving style better, now that I’m 30 years old with kids.
When I drive a Miata, I feel an eagerness to return to my boy-racer ways of yesteryear and wring out the gearbox to eek out every ounce of power from the high-revving SkyActiv 2.0-liter motor.
I was a different driver behind the wheel of the 124 Spider. I found myself more relaxed and laid back and enjoying the drive, even during traffic.
The motor was always ready with plenty of low-end torque, so I didn’t have to drive-it-like-I-stole-it. It could just be in my head, but the 124 Spider brought out a completely different driving personality that was more care-free than eager.
Kids love it
Despite being a two-seater, the Fiat 124 Spider can fit a car seat. I was able to install my Diono Radian RXT convertible child seat in the passenger seat. The car’s weight sensor did its job and disabled the passenger-side airbag when my child was in the seat.
It does not have lower or upper LATCH anchors for car seats, understandably, so I had to use the seat belt. Like every other modern car, the seat belt locks when it’s pulled out all the way to secure the child seat in place.
I wasn’t too worried about the lack of a top anchor either, because the Diono car seats I have passed European crash tests without the top tether installed. I wouldn’t recommend using a Fiat 124 as your sole means of transporting your child, but it can do it for in-a-pinch situations.
My three year old daughter absolutely loved riding in it, too.
If I had to pick which to buy, my money’s on the Fiat 124 Spider. I prefer the styling, driving dynamics and motor over the Miata.
If I wanted a dedicated track or autocross vehicle, the Miata would have my vote, but for a daily, the Fiat 124 Spider takes the cake. That’s not to say the Miata isn’t an excellent choice, I simply prefer the 1.4-liter turbo motor’s low-end grunt and suspension tuning at this point in my life.
I can never keep a car stock, so I’m more interested in how much more power I can get out of the tiny turbocharged motor when someone finally cracks the ECU and reflash it.
Also, it can fit a trunk full of groceries from Costco, which makes it practically a family car.