Test Drive: 2018 Fiat 124 Spider
Sports car fans, rejoice — by an amazing coincidence, there are now two pairs of closely related affordable sports cars on the market. All four are back-to-basic performers that value simplicity over advanced technologies. But only one — the Fiat 124 — offers the widest range of performance and driver-friendly options.
Two of sports cars are nearly identical twins. The Subaru BRZ and the Toyota 86 are hardtop coupes that share virtually everything, including a Subaru flat four engine, manual and automatic transmissions, and sheet metal. Only the grills and interior trim vary slightly, but not enough that most drivers would notice.
The other two are the Mazda MX-5 Miata and the Fiat 124 Spider. Although the Fiat is based on the Miata, it has a different engine, different suspension, different sheet metal, and more interior trim levles. There's also a sportier Arbath version with slightly more power and a stiffer suspension.
Both the Miata and Fiat 124 are convertibles. The Mazda is also available with a retractable hard top that automatically folds into a space above the trunk at the touch of a button. The Fiat comes with a manually operated top that lowers and raises easily with just one hand.
Unlike the Subaru and Toyota clones, even the base versions of the Mazda and Fiat sports cars offer completely different driving experiences. The Miata has been lauded for its high-revving 2.0-liter normally aspirated engine and firm suspension. In contrast, the Fiat 124 has a turbocharged 1.4-liter engine that produces slightly more power and a more compliant suspension.
The Fiat is also slightly larger, which makes it drive more like a more refined GT car than a nuts-and-bolts sport car, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The 124 smooths out rough roads better than the Mazda, an advantage during day-to-day communting.
Both can be ordered with either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission.
I tested a 2018 Miata with the manual a few months ago and found it a lot of fun to drive. But, truth be told, although the transmission shifted smoothly, it was a lot of work to keep it in the best part of the power band, especially during the kind of day-to-day driving we actually do most of the time.
In contrast, my test Fiat 124 came with the automatic. Although not quite as much fun, it was a lot easier to drive throughout the day — and was still very responsive, thanks to the ample 184 foot-pounds of torque pumped out by the small turbo four. And purists can still order it with the manual.
As usual for me, I had the Fiat 124 during the rainy season, which meant I didn't spent a lot of time with the top down. On the other hand, after driving it through several heavy downpours, I can testify that the interior stayed dry and warm, a welcome improvement over early convertible sports cars.
Unlike the Subaru BRZ, Toyota 86 and Mazda MX-5 Miata, the Fiat 124 can be ordered with several upgraded interior trim levels, all the better to establish its Italian heritage. My test version had four option packages, including one with the automatic, that pushed the price up to nearly $34,000. Although that might seem high for an affordable two-seater, it's just a little more than the base version of the Miata with the retractable hardtop. And the advanced safety system are important because rear visibility is limited with the top up.
This is a new Golden Age for no-fuss affordable sports cars. The 2018 Fiat 124 Spider offers the most options while still remaining a fun-to-drive performer that reimagines the best of the foreign two-seats and GT cars from 1950s and 1960s.
2018 Fiat 124 Spider
Base price: $27,495
Price as tested: $33,725
Type: Two-seat sports car
Engine: 1.4-liter turbocharged inline 4 (160 hp, 184 lbs-ft)
Transmissions: 6-speed manual; 6 speed automatic
EPA estimated mileage: 25/36
Overall length: 159.6 inches
Curb weight: 2,436 to 2,516 pounds
Final assembly: Hiroshima, Japan