Review of: 2017 FIAT 124 Spider 2dr Conv Lusso
2017 Fiat 124 Spider: More than just platform sharing
By Dan Heyman
Jan. 25, 2017
The Graduate. It was before my time, a little, so while I have seen it, I’ve never quite understood just why it seems to have gone down as one of the most monumental films of all time. Teenage angst? Hoffman? Mrs. Robinson? Alfa Romeo?
Wait a minute… what was that last one again? Alfa Romeo? What’s up with—oh, right.
If nothing else, for this one car guy, the movie cemented a certain little red roadster from Italy in my consciousness; indeed, it was likely the fact that car had – apparently – such a big role in the film is what made me want to see it in the first place.
It’s likely also one of the main factors that drew me to the Fiat 124 you see here. Sure, it’s not technically an Alfa, but both manufacturers are owned by the same group, and it’s the first time we’ve seen the classic European junior roadster in our country since gawd knows when. That, and the fact that it’s based on one of my favorite cars today, the Mazda MX-5. But with more power! What could go wrong?
Pros & Cons
- + Ride comfort
- + Value for money
- + Interior design
- - Some odd exterior styling touches
- - Not particularly powerful
- - Transmission shift quality
I have to say: if you didn’t know any better, you’d never know the 124 had anything to do with the lil’ Mazda roadster. Bumper extensions both front and rear make it appear bigger, while the head- and taillights are nothing like those on the Japanese car.
The question is, though: does it look good? Is it befitting of what an Italian sportster should look like?
Well, yes and no.
I’d say the dimensions are just about right; the 124 is nice and squat, the oblong taillamp lenses and subtle trunk lip combining to do a good job lending a compact appearance to the rear fascia. I’m a fan of the twin exhaust outlets protruding from the rear splitter, too.
The front end isn’t quite so well thought-out; sure, there are some telltale signs that look similar to the original 1966-80 124 Sport Spider, such as the way the leading edge of the hood meets the grille ahead of the headlights, or the six-point design of the grille itself.
It’s just that it doesn’t come together as cohesively as I’d like. The stacked foglamps, for example, seem unnecessary but they’re standard fitment on the Lusso trim seen here, so you’re stuck with them. The grille, while pleasingly shaped, also seems just a little big, lending a bit of a guppy-like look when seen from straight on. The front three-quarter angle is okay (while the rear three-quarter is the best angle from which to view the car), but seen head-on, there’s work to be done.
You’ll see a little more MX-5 here than you do on the exterior: same gauge cluster, display screen and interface (more on this in a minute), fan controls; even the vent roundels seem a direct lift from the MX-5. Sure, the shift knob atop the pleasingly-stubby shifter is different and they’ve moved the cupholders from their awkward spot between the seats in the MX-5 to the passenger footwell. It’s not ideal – I guess it was decided that instead of injuring both passengers’ elbows, the lesser of two evils would be for just one to ding their knee – but it’s preferable, for the driver especially. There’s also a touch more trunk space, but still: don’t’ expect to get a golf bag back there.
Since our tester was of the Lusso variety, it had heated leather seats, gauge cluster hood, shift knob and instrument panel and the Saddle colour in which ours was finished is fantastic – no matter the paint colour, it’s my firm opinion that saddle brown always works. Maybe stay away from it in a yellow car, but that’s really it. The Lusso trim also adds lockable between-seat storage, six-way driver and four-way passenger manual-adjust seats, and air conditioning. There really isn’t room for much more stuff, that’s for sure.
Lusso also adds a seven-inch display screen and while it’s identical to that in the Mazda, it’s not to say that it’s bad. The menus are well laid out, controlled via a console-mounted knob which, to my surprise, actually didn’t bother my forearm as I went to shift gears. Instead, it rested on a nicely-flat, perfectly-placed surface that doubles as a door to your storage bin. Nice piece of engineering, that.
Our car also had the $4,200 premium collection package, which adds GPS, LED headlamps and DRLs, nine-speaker Bose audio (I know: they can fit NINE speakers in this thing?!? Wow. The items mounted into the headrests are especially well-implemented) — which is up from the standard four — satellite radio, rear park-assist, blind-spot recognition and rear cross-path detection. While I guess the nine speakers are nice to have, I feel that the rest of this is kind of cursory for a small car like this.
Not to mention, they tend to distract from the act of driving, which is really what a car like this is all about, and what the MX-5 absolutely is all about.
The big add for the 124 over the MX-5 – other than the styling, of course – is the 1.4L Multiair turbo, which it shares with Fiat’s own 500 Abarth. It gets more power, here, as it has more weight to shove: 160 hp and 185 lb-ft in the 124 play 155 ponies and 148, respectively, in the MX-5.
At first blush, the addition of a turbo motor is a good thing; as good as the MX-5 is, there are very few out there who would throw up their hands in despair if a little more power were added, especially if it’s of the turbocharged variety. After all: if small, turbocharged four-bangers work so well in the hatches, crossovers and even SUVs in which they reside, why not a sporty roadster, too?
So I was happy to find that there was more power in the 124; the trouble is that all too often, it seems like the extra power’s only there to help the 124 get out of its own way.
That’s not to say it’s slow, no way; acceleration off the line is quick enough, and it’s easier to keep in the meat of the powerband than the Miata not just because of the extra power, but because it uses the transmission from the previous-gen MX-5, which has longer ratios than does the current ND generation. That’s good for some (well, most) but for me, I loved snicking through the gears on the current MX-5 as much as possible, sometimes more. This ‘box isn’t quite as fun to row through.
With regards to the staying-out-of-its-own-way thing: I’m also not trying to say that the 124 doesn’t handle, and isn’t a willing dance partner in the twisties. It’s just that you don’t entirely feel that the 124 is as eager to tackle bendy backroads as the MX-5, or even a GTI or Focus ST. It’s much more boulevard cruiser, and when you really get on it, it simply doesn’t feel as fast as that added power suggests it would.
Having said that: the 124 also sports differently-tuned suspension and anti-roll bars to the MX-5, and even sees an adjustment done to its power steering. As a result, it doesn’t take quite as much elbow grease to turn the wheel. It’s not big-American-luxury-SUV light, but there’s a noticeable difference here in weight, while steering feel is pretty much the same. The ride and low-speed characteristics really surprised me.
Believe it or not, at $30,495 at base, the 124 actually starts at less than does the MX-5, by about $1,500. They’re similarly-equipped, but the 124 gets niceties like a leather-wrapped steering wheel and of course, the turbocharged engine. Beyond the MX-5, it’s tough to compare the 124 to much else, as these two exist in a bit of their own bubble in Canada. You could throw the VW Golf GTI and Mini Cooper S Convertible in the mix, but the latter starts at more than do both the MX-5 and 124, and the GTI is, well, a Golf and it simply doesn’t have the same panache.
The prevailing sentiment I ended up with once my test was over is that the 124 is a little more grand tourer than it is sports car. It’s a well-insulated, surprisingly luxurious-feeling little roadster that should appeal to those looking for a little more fun from their daily driver. That being said, if sportiness-above-all is what you’re looking for, the MX-5 may be the better option.
It reminds, a little, of the Mercedes SLK versus BMW Z4 argument: One was always a little more luxurious and a little more look-at-me, while the other was driver-focused above all. In the end, we’re seeing the same thing here, and I’m wondering if that’s exactly how Fiat wanted it. They knew that folks were going to know that their car was a re-skinned, re-engined and re-badged MX-5, and wanted to ensure the 124 was about more than just more power. If that’s the case, then I’ll say they’ve succeeded. The question is this: Is a slightly more luxurious roadster what folks are going to want from Fiat?