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With a brilliant chassis and charming dynamics, the Mazda MX-5 Miata easily won my heart when I reviewed it last year. Now, Fiat's version of the venerable sports car is here to prove that there's another way.
Especially in Lusso trim, the Fiat 124 Spider is a more adult, refined Miata ideally suited for those who want a pleasant cruiser that can provide a healthy dollop of fun when the moment is right.
The Fiat 124 is built along the same lines as the Mazda MX-5 Miata in Japan. It has the same underpinnings, but with a few tweaks like a Fiat engine and a larger trunk.
That's a far cry from the original Fiat 124 Spider from which this car gets its name, which was built in Italy by Pininfarina. Still, if you're going to borrow, borrow from the best.
A lot of what makes the Miata great still shines through in the 124 Spider, as the Fiat is still a brilliant little thing to drive. The Spider's steering feels notably less direct than the Miata, but it still provides plenty of feedback and feel.
Unlike the Miata, the Fiat 124 Spider has a 1.4-liter turbocharged Fiat engine that puts out 160 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. Mated to an automatic transmission — as was the case in my $32,435 tester — this engine's character entirely changes the core competency of the car. While the high-revving naturally-aspirated motor of the Miata always wants to scream through its gears, the 124's low-end torque is better suited to cruising around town.
Lusso models also receive extra sound insulation, cutting down on the highway noise that bugged me in the Miata. It's still a loud car, but much more manageable than its Japanese twin.
I'm also a large fan of the exterior. While the Miata looks like an angry child with it's little scowl, the 124 features a long hood and a wider mouth that helps disguise the pipsqueak proportions of the platform. I love the looks of the Miata, too, but the 124 simply looks more grown up.
Finally, the pleasant and simple interior design is largely unchanged. Swap a Mazda badge for a Fiat badge and you're most of the way there, a fine choice given how pleasant the roadster's interior was already. The best part is the top, a manual convertible roof that can be opened or closed with one hand in less than 5 seconds. It's brilliant, it's simple, and it won't break like a complex power-folding unit.
The 124 Spider Lusso doesn't quite set your hair on fire the way the Miata does. It's still a fun car by any conventional yardstick, but the 124's extra weight and luxury focus strains out some of the driving prowess. An automatic transmission further dulls the sensations, though a manual is on offer for those who want it.
If you opt for the Lusso model, and value the luxurious aspirations of the 124, you'll be disappointed in the highway noise. As mentioned, it's better-insulated than the car on which it's based, but there's a notable and unavoidable din on the highway. Every time I got up to speed, I had to turn up the volume of the radio or raise my voice in conversation.
The interior of the car is tiny. I'm 5' 6 " and fit just fine, but anyone over 6' 2" isn't going to have a fun time. You also don't get a glove box or any door pockets, so your storage cubbies consist of a credit-card sized center console and a bigger, lockable compartment between the seats.
But the worst part is still the cup holders, two movable plastic baskets barely capable of restraining a soda can. In fact, after driving with an open Coke I later found brown splatter speckling the dash above the cup holder.
The Lusso model I tested starts at $28,390.
Unless you live in a spot with severe traffic or you can't drive stick, I'd pass on spending $1,350 for an automatic. It's a decent enough automatic, but the manual will help you get the most out of the motor in any spirited driving.
You can skip the Comfort and Convenience group because the car is so small that you don't really need blind-spot monitoring. An additional $1,295 gets you navigation and a premium Bose stereo, which are both must-haves.
All in, that'll cost you $29,685.
If you're a track rat looking for a car to abuse on a road course, I'd direct you toward the Miata. It's still sharper and the naturally-aspirated engine is more appropriate for sustained abuse. But chances are, you're not.
For most of us, sacrificing a bit of driving sharpness to make the car quieter and more usable around town is a worthy trade off. The Fiat 124 Spider delivers that, along with a mature exterior design and none of the boy-racer baggage that comes with the Miata name.
Perhaps more importantly, Fiat is much more aggressive in offering incentives and lease deals to help cut the cost of the car. So while it might not be the better-driving twin, it's still a great-looking and great-driving car at a reasonable price.
Exterior: 4 stars
Interior: 3 stars
Driving Experience: 4 stars
Value: 5 stars
Overall: 4 stars
Price as tested: $32,435