Driving Impressions: 2018 Fiat Spider AbarthBy: Mark Moskowitz
Did you know that MG is being revived in India? In an old GM plant? And that they are producing SUVs? That might be easier to believe than the fact that Fiat, Italy's mega-manufacturer and owner of the Ferrari brand, has turned to the Japanese to rebirth the 124 sports car.
No myths here. For two years the Fiat 124 has been produced alongside the Miata in Hiroshima, Japan. Exterior sheet metal, powertrain and suspension tuning differ but the Mazda genes (good ones to have) and their expression are unmistakable.
The Miata or MX-5 is arguably an American icon. Japan wisely chose to offer the first of the breed in the United States. It was a zippy, light weight, high revving two-seater and a hit. More than a million have been sold worldwide. Changes have been evolutionary not revolutionary and there's no question of each latest model's resemblance to its 1989 forbearer.
One can only speculate:
Why would Mazda do it? For the five years prior to the 124's introduction, US Miata sales averaged less than 25% of the sales during the model's first five years. That's a lot of unused assembly line capacity!
Why would Fiat do it? The Miata was the sole surviving two seat low budget sports car in the US. There was room for another and subsidiary Alfa Romeo's dealers needed a high volume entry level car. (Their 4C is expensive and leaves showrooms at a snail's pace*.)
And Fiat has fared well. From 2016 until present, they have sold over 5500 124s in the US, a number equal to more than 39% of Miata's US sales for the same period.
I spent a week with the top of the line Fiat Abarth Spider, a portion around town and on interstates and the rest with a group of enthusiasts exploring the backroads of western North Carolina. Though surrounded by Porsches, late model Jags, Vettes, Mercedes, Mustangs and all manner of BMWs, the 124 stood out and generated the most roadside queries. Its tall rear haunches, side spoilers, and sculpted brake ducts dominated the lateral view and set it apart from its 5.6 inch less lengthy Asian cousin. As did the split blacked out front grills and the distinct rear tail lights. The quadruple exhausts lent an exotic flair.
Experience with multiple Miatas over the years served as a basis for comparison. Both the Fiat and the Mazda remind us of classic early British roadsters** and a period when small, light and spartan meant fun and not economy. Both offer a great driving experience though the Mazda tilts towards boy racer and the Fiat offers a bit more of a luxurious or grand touring experience. While both hold the road well and engender confidence, the Fiat seems built to enjoy the curves but not to test them. Even with traction control switched off, the car was not 'tossable'.
Though multiple enthusiast magazines peg the Mazda with its 2.0 liter direct injected powerplant as being a shade quicker, I found consistent speed easier to achieve with the smaller displacement Fiat. The 124's turbocharger works well and its impressive torque does not require the operator to 'stay on the cam' to achieve results.
The Abarth is the only 124 equipped with a sport mode; I suspect its contribution is more impressive in the automatic than in my six-speed. I was able to notice a slight increase in steering precision with the mode engaged. In either case the artificial feedback provided by modern electronically facilitated systems fails to inspire.
I found the sport seat comfortable and its bolsters not so big as to squeeze the typical American butt or flank. Entry was easy even with the top in place, and driving position appropriate for distance and performance driving. The steering wheel could be adjusted up and down approximately one and one-half inches. Pedal placement facilitated heel toe maneuvers. The 4 ½ inch tachometer (accented in red in the Abarth) dominates the center cluster. Devoting its 3-6 quartile to a gear indicator is a nice touch.
One might decry the manual top and manual seat adjustments. Those of us favoring lightness and easy (read relatively inexpensive) repair favor them. The top lowers and raises from the driver's seat with one hand. It's quick and easy. No complaints here.
A tall windscreen and windblockers behind leave all but the occupants' hair unruffled. Even at highway speed I enjoyed the Bose sound and easy phone conversation. The infotainment is easily accessed but offers few features other than audio and navigation. Apple CarPlay and Android auto are not available. Despite a relative lack of sophistication, what the Fiat has works well. The 7-inch touch screen (3 inch on the base model) is high on the dash and easily viewed. Controls on the steering wheel and on the console are easily used. A separate center mounted knob for volume is appreciated.
Picking Nits: The satin sheen overlying the gauge cluster reflects as a large U on the windshield – occasionally annoying at certain angles of the sun. And an arm resting on the console between shifts often activates the large round scroll knob switching screens and losing navigation at inappropriate times.
Small sometimes means compromise. Don't expect much storage. Cup holders are behind the shoulders and require a bit of athleticism to access. When running solo the cup holder can be moved to right of the console. Closed space in the center measures 6' x2' x 2 ½ 'at its max and while a forward cubby admits the larger cell phones, they do not lay flat and can be lost during cornering. There's a larger lockable space between and behind the seats but it's a bit difficult to access while underway.
Fiat and Mazda combine their option packages differently but similarly equipped versions typically vary in price by less than four figures. Mazda has a performance heritage and perhaps engages more amateur circuit racers than any other brand. The MX-5 embraces the image. The Fiat offers performance but leans a bit more toward a 'luxo' experience and may be a better choice for a day to day driver. Both fill an important niche and encourage a joie de vivre driving experience. I embrace both. Add 40 more horsepower to them and I'd gush.
*663 units sold in 2015 was the zenith for US annual sales. (This and other sales figures from http://carsalesbase.com.)
Many thanks to Stateline Alfa Romeo of Fort Mill, South Carolina.
** and, of course, the original Fiat 124 Spider which was in production from 1966-1982 and later marketed as the Pininfarina Spider