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Review of the 2017 Fiat 124: A Car We Already Loved

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On: Tue, Aug 9, 2016 at 5:51PM | By: Lou Ruggieri

Review of the 2017 Fiat 124:  A Car We Already Loved

In the automotive industry, we’ve see quite a few types of philosophies when it comes to building cars. There is the exclusive, hand-built, limited production track, a la Ferrari (no pun intended); then there is the mass-production, cheapest parts we can use to make an affordable car and still make a profit, which brings several companies to mind (we’re looking at you Scion and Kia). Sometimes carmakers want to build something completely of their own design, with no help from anyone anywhere. Take for example the Lexus LF-A:  Here was a car that took Toyota a decade to build. Granted, it was a great car, but it took so long that by the time it hit the market, some of the tech they used to make it was already outdated. No bueno. So what is a company to do when they want to build a car, yet may not have the necessary capital, research and design know-how, or simply don’t want to wait out the process and need to get a car with their name out there as soon as possible? Simple, use someone else’s car with your name on it.

Confused yet? Let us explain a bit. Car companies can work together in various ways, issuing different licensing and essentially making deals with one another to benefit both parties involved. We have seen this plenty over the past few decades. Cars like the Scion FRS and the Subaru BRZ are the same car, with just minor character changes to make them seem more brand-specific. But the underlying structure and basic design are almost identical. Going back further, there were cars like the once mega-popular Chrysler LeBaron GTC that had a twin-brother in the Chrysler TC by Maserati (that was the full name of the car). Same basic look, yet some tweaking and some Italian flair, and suddenly a cheap Chrysler was turned into an expensive pseudo-Italian convertible. In a slightly different way, Carroll Shelby decided to use a tiny little English sports car called the A/C Ace and then stuff the biggest, baddest motor he could use from Ford into it, and thus created one of the most wicked cars the world has ever seen: The A/C Cobra. Under the hood, the monster 427-cubic-inch engine had valve covers that proudly said, “Powered By Ford”, just to remind you in case you forgot where that power was coming from. This all leads us to the most recent example of one company “borrowing” from another one: The 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Classica.

This “new” Fiat is a very good looking, well behaved sports car with wonderful road manners and great driving character that is eerily reminiscent of another small sports car that we’ve come to know and love from Japan. In fact, for all intents and purposes, it damn near is a Mazda Miata, but somehow, it isn’t too. So Fiat decided that Mazda had a pretty good formula for making a sports car (welcome to 1990, Fiat, we knew that too), and so decided to do a bit of collaborating with them. Fiat has changed the front and rear end enough to make it clear that it is a car other than a Mazda. They’ve also added a huge Fiat badge on the hood (overcompensating perhaps?), just to remind you again, it’s not a Miata. The 124 has large headlamps and a bigger grille opening that helps tack on an additional 5.5 inches of length over the Mazda. They’ve also redesigned the tail lights to a style that we actually prefer to the Mazda’s. To their credit, the interior is very much Fiat. The little things like knobs and satin finish is still Mazda, but the seats, and the instrument panel feel more Italian. The $1,195 optional Recaro seats are well worth the money if you’re planning on any sort of road trip ever. There is also more sound deadening, an acoustic windshield, and a thicker rear window—we Italians love music, and comfort.

The biggest and really most important differentiation between the two cars is where it counts—in the engine bay. The Italian engine is fully assembled in Italy (makes sense), and then shipped over to the manufacturer in Japan. Fiat dumps the Miata’s 2.0-liter 155-horsepower engine and drops in their own 1.4-liter iron-block/aluminum head turbocharged inline-4, courtesy of the Fiat 500 Abarth, which creates 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, which is 36 more than its Mazda twin. The extra torque also comes on a lot sooner than in the Miata’s engine, which is noticeable from the seat-of-the-pants feel. The same transmission is used, but the Fiat employs wider and taller gears to compensate for the engine making its peak horsepower earlier than the Miata as well. There is also an optional Abarth trim that tightens the suspension a bit more and adds a sportier quad-tip exhaust that boosts total power another four horsepower and looks worlds sportier. That may not sound like much, but when you’re dealing with a 2,509 pound car, those little ponies make more of a difference than you might think. The Abarth option group is definitely worth the money as it can add things like a hand-painted matte black hood and truck lid, (yes, hand-painted), black lower front grille and side mirrors that add quite a bit more distinctive character to the 124 that help differentiate it from its Japanese sibling.

In terms of performance, the 124 performs a lot like… you guessed it… A Miata. It’s near perfect 50/50 weight distribution make it a breeze to drive, offering up no surprises around corners, or in a straight line. 0–60 mph comes up in a quick 6.7 seconds, through the quarter mile in 15.1 seconds @ 91 mph, 0–100 mph in 18.8 seconds, and has a drag limited top speed of 136 mph. Around the skidpad, the 124 pulls a respectable 0.87 g, while its braking leaves something to be desired, stopping from 70–0 mph in 171 feet. Of course, a lightweight, small-engined two-door roadster does clean up when it comes to the EPA. The 124 pulls a very impressive 26/35 city/highway mpg.

The good news is that Fiat has decided to price the 124 basically the same as a Miata. Base price comes in at $24,995, and with options can come very close to topping the 40K mark. The Fiat 124 is still, at its most basic level, a Mazda Miata… which quite honestly isn’t a bad thing at all. The Miata is a wonderful car in so many aspects; the only problem for the Fiat, is that the Miata is still in production and, although they are kin, they are still adversaries when it comes to market share. But, there is something about the Fiat. Maybe it’s the warmer feeling interior, or the more stylish front end, but the 124 feels like it has a little more… soul (?) than the Miata does. But that may just be us, and each individual will have to make that determination for himself. But what we do know is that while the philosophy of taking another company’s idea and tweaking it has sometimes worked in the past, and sometimes not, this time around, we can say with certainty that having another sporty, good-looking two-seat roadster in the world is absolutely a good thing.

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