There are things you know implicitly and things you know because you’ve read it online. That was a good summary of my thoughts right before testing the new 2017 Fiat 124 Spider. I knew it was a variant of the Mazda Miata MX-5—similar in size, styling, and sportiness. Even though the two companies are as different as night and day, the cars share the same DNA.
On paper (and online), I knew they both use the same chassis and share some of the same parts. They’re priced about the same—around $25,000. That’s an affordable price point, but I’ve driven both cars extensively and they are as different as Hillary and Donald.
Keep in mind that the MX-5 is still a fun and sporty car. It’s meant for taking fast turns but not drag-racing a Fiesta by any means. The Spider is a different story. It has a turbocharged engine running at 160 horsepower (or 164 hp in the Abarth version). You sense the difference right away. The Miata strains through the gears. You can do some knitting while you wait. In the Spider, you feel some pushback. It’s not a Ferrari California T and Fiat would never tell you to compare the sleek styling or engine to that fantastic two-seater but it’s also not a “fake” Ferrari in the sense that it looks sleek but has absolutely no guts whatsoever.
I took one all the way to Duluth and back, picking some winding roads and punching it off the starting block (also known as a stop sign). The handling and suspension match the MX-5, but the speed is much more exciting and rewarding when you want to find out what 75 MPH feels like without having to wait until the little gerbils in the engine get excited enough.
The car weighs only 2,436 pounds—which is a bit heavier than the Miata—but it’s still amazingly agile. In a few cases, I pulled harder on the steering column around corners and the low center of gravity (the car is barely under 50-inches in height) kept the rubber on the road.
I honestly felt like this was a car I would buy for summer driving, and I wanted to find out more about the classic version. I found a couple on Craigslist including a similar 124 (also dark blue) with a busted frame for only $300. I was tempted to buy it but didn’t have the skills to get it up and running. (I may still try to find one.) I noticed both cars have a bit more polish. The front hood on the 124 has an interesting wave pattern that reminded me of the classic. You feel a bit like an Italian businessman driving around, something not that different from a Mercedes-Benz SL Roadster minus the high price but at least with the open view and low profile.
Another cool discovery: The top is easy to grab from behind you and fold up in case of rain, and it takes all of about four seconds. I prefer a manual top anyway because you don’t have to push any buttons, wait for the top to fold up or down, and you can react to sudden changes in the weather, although you do that when the car is at a full stop not while driving.
What else is there to say? Fiat has nailed the styling, for one. I remember the throngs gathered around this vehicle at the auto shows. In many ways, you buy it because it looks sleek and because you can drive with some punch with the top down. There’s very little room in the trunk—I could barely put a cycling bag back there. And, as a two-seater, you have to plan your trips a bit differently. We drove an extra car loaded with bikes to Duluth and people in the other car took turns. But read that sentence again: People took turns riding in the Fiat. That says pretty much everything you need to know.