Words: Kevin C. Limjoco
Photos: Isabel N. Delos Reyes
After so much hype and fanfare, we finally got to test FIAT’s resurrected 124 Spider model. We all know by now that the celebrated Pininfarina design house may have been a clear inspiration but it had no actual participation with the all-new 124 Spider, which is based on the Mazda ND platform and completely built alongside the MX-5 Miata at Mazda’s plant in Hiroshima, Japan. The 124 model was one of the most successful and endearing products to ever come from FIAT for almost two decades before it was replaced by the now defunct Barchetta, so it makes sense to have it back. And after enjoying a weeklong immersion with the lovely 2017 FIAT 124 Spider Lusso, I can also say that it did make perfect sense to have fast-tracked the development process with one of the most dynamic brands in the industry.
Naturally, when it comes to the aesthetics of the FIAT Spider, there will be subjective opinions comparing it to the Mazda. So, given that most of the exterior skin, instruments, interior materials, lighting assemblies, and badging are uniquely FIAT, I personally prefer its overall design to the Mazda. The extra 5.5-inch body length creates a more substantial presence and allows a bit more design real estate not to mention an extra 11 liters of valuable trunk space. The steering wheel is shared with the Mazda, which feels and functions a bit better in this application because of the redefined focus on luxury and comfort though I wish FIAT used its own design. Most MX-5 fanatics would obviously prefer the more communicative steering of the Mazda, so we are splitting hairs, which is all good. I am just happy that both cars are still offered in times where the direction of most car manufactures are pointed toward more pedestrian appliances.
Even if both entertaining roadsters are mostly related from birth (same chassis, fuel tank, brakes, basic suspension but with different damping, springs, anti-roll bars and geometry, electrics/safety equipment, infotainment system that includes the 231-watt 9-speaker Bose® audio and central monitor but with a standard rear camera), there are still some tangible mechanical and passive differences. Our Grigio Moda Meteor Grey colored test unit with its upscale Italian-handcrafted double-stitched saddle leather interior uses a slightly livelier version of the Italian-built MultiAir® 1.4-liter sohc turbo engine shared with the 500-series and Jeep Renegade which generates significantly more everyday usable power over the Mazda 2.0-liter though it uses the same Aisin 6-speed automatic transmission to deliver it. It needs that extra force-fed torque as well since the 124 is over 160 pounds heavier than the equivalent Mazda. The extra weight essentially comes from the larger body, heavier powerplant, thicker acoustic windshield with an aluminum roof header, thicker rear window, abundant additional sound insulation along the firewall, door panels, floor, thicker carpets, and the more padded fabric roof.
Oddly, when specified with the 6-speed manual, the 124 Spider uses the old transmission of the previous generation MX-5 apparently to be able to properly harness the meatier torque load. The limited-slip differential with taller final drive, bigger front Brembo® brakes, Recaro® seats, noisier sport exhaust, additional 4 bhp, paddleshifts for the automatic, and more aggressive Bilstein® lowered dampers with a front strut tower brace are found only with the marginally sportier Abarth variant, which is only a tenth of a second quicker from 0-100 km/h. I honestly missed none of it. Even with all that extra kit, the Abarth Spider is not much faster nor handles any better than a cheaper standard SkyActiv Miata with 155 bhp and 148 lb-ft of torque anyhow. So, I would prefer the alternative direction of the Lusso variant, which is far more refined and relaxed without giving up too much verve.
If it were not for all the talk and press about the fraternal twins and how they are tethered, the FIAT sincerely drives and performs like a very different and appropriately more mature small sports car. Similarly, do you remember when the Aston Martin DB7 received a lot of criticism for being too closely related to the Jaguar XK8 when both brands were still owned by Ford? Anyhow, on its own laurels, the more mature all-new 124 is the most powerful, most dynamic, and most equipped FIAT roadster ever! In fact, only the Chris Bangle-designed 217 bhp FIAT Coupé 20v Turbo Plus, which was laid to rest in 2000, was faster.
Yet the 124 Spider is not about outright speed; it is about character which it has an abundance of from literally its own exhaust note, to how it looks at rest with its signature lighting. I like the balanced blend of premium materials and equipment, and how all of it communicates with the driver even before you press the ignition button. It was very friendly to drive in congested traffic and tail-happy when you wanted to have some juvenile fun. It was just as easy to drop or raise the roof like the Mazda, but it felt classier. Ultimately, if you must compare it to the Mazda, the FIAT 124 Spider Lusso is the debonair, slightly older, quirky yet more cultured brother that is still convincingly athletic.
Specification – 2017 FIAT 124 Spider Lusso
Engine: Inline-4, 1368 cc, sohc 16V, Port Injection Twin-Intercooled Turbo, 6-Speed AT
Max power: 160 bhp @ 5500 rpm
Max torque: 184 lb-ft @ 3200 rpm
0-100 km/h (0-62mph): 6.9 seconds
Top speed: 228 km/h (142 mph)
Fuel Mileage: 25 mpg City / 36 mpg Highway
Price as tested: US$ 33,635.00
C! RATING: 9.5/10
+Preferable to the Mazda MX-5 if you want more comfort and luxury to accompany the fun.
-Could use a lot more power still, turbo lag.