This has been my Summer of Small Cars. Recent dramatic weight loss has enabled me to drive a whole new category of vehicles that had previously been out of reach for me - small sports cars with aggressive seats. I started with a few kinds of Mazda Miatas, progressed to the Alfa Romeo 4C coupe, the Ford Mustang Shelby GT350R and ended up in this, the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth.
For those not familiar with it, the Fiat 124 Spider is the product of a joint venture between Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Mazda, wherein Fiat took a new "ND" MX-5 Miata and gave it a new body, new powertrain, slightly different interior bits and slapped a historically significant name on the result. Some of us in the journalism world refer to it unflatteringly as the "Fiata."
It's softer than a typical Miata, with a more relaxed suspension, slower steering and more sound insulation. And unlike the Miata, it comes with a turbocharged Used Engine - the 124 Spider Abarth you see here uses Fiat's MultiAir 1.4-liter turbo motor instead of Mazda's 2.0-liter four-cylinder. That gives it a little bit more power but a lot more torque.
I recently spent more than a week and 1,000 miles in a 124 Spider, and had some thoughts on this snarly little Italian-Japanese mini-kaiju.
1. I Don't Care That It's Ugly ... But Yes, It's Ugly
The 124 Spider wasn't good looking before the gaping maw Abarth treatment, and it's not helped by it at all. It also sits oddly high. Thankfully, you don't notice these things while driving it. Yet strangely, it gets a lot of positive attention - people stop and stare admiringly all over town. The Grigio Argento Aluminum paint isn't really my first choice, either. I think I'd have a white pearl one with the red interior and matte-black hood.
2. It Has the Best Powertrain of the Duo
The Miata was fun, but the torque the teeny 1.4-liter delivers is fantastic. It feels considerably quicker than an ND Miata, with tons of midrange punch even with the (very well-matched) automatic transmission that my test car came with. The manual transmission might elicit a different response, but when ticked into Sport mode, which changes the throttle pedal mapping, it feels sprightly and properly responsive.
3. It's All-Day Comfortable
I drove it from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Chicago and back with no problem at all. It's softer than the Miata -- not quite as razor-sharp in handling, but that also means the ride isn't as tiring. I also love how I sit really far back on the chassis; it feels like the rotation point is in front of me.
4. It's Too Quiet
That 1.4-liter Abarth motor roars in the Fiat 500 Abarth, but here, it's just a quiet, muted growl. It desperately needs an aftermarket exhaust system to make it sound like a true Abarth. The 500 Abarth will wake your neighbors; the 124 Spider Abarth doesn't announce your arrival at all.
5. The Interior Is Nicer Than the Miata's
It's the seat pattern - it's Italian in a classical way, the same kind of look you see in classic Ferraris and Alfa Romeos. The Mazda multimedia system, however, is just OK; I wish they could have gone with FCA's Uconnect instead and eliminated the selector knob in the center console.
If I could pick and choose the best from both brands, my own brand-new Fiata would look like this:
- Body by Mazda (it's hard to improve on the Miata's amazing styling)
- Fiat turbo Used Engine
- Manual transmission
- Suspension reworked by Long Road Racing, using their Ultimate MX-5 package (it was so good in the car I drove around a track earlier this summer)
- Aftermarket exhaust to clear the pipes
- Bose sound system to bring the tunes
I'd buy that car.