For most people, the difference between the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider and the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata will be academic. Like Mars Chocolate knows about candy bars, the Fiat 124 and Miata (or “Fiata,” if you prefer) may split hairs, but there are buyers for subtle differences: Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t.
And car buyers today should recognize that these two cars — which cast nearly identical shadows — keep alive great cars for tomorrow.
In certain automotive circles there’s a naughty, foul, evil, horrible phrase that we need to address here before continuing: badge engineering. That’s what happens when your $50,000 luxury car depreciates to a kitten’s whisker away from the econo-box it was based on. Cadillac buyers hate badge engineering. Dealers love it. Who do you think the final customer for manufacturers is anyway? (Hint: It’s not us.)
The good news is that the Fiata is not actually badge engineering. When the Fiat 124 Spider goes on sale next summer, the starting price should be within spitting distance of the Mazda’s $24,790, albeit for the slightly more potent engine and a few other styling cues. But the Fiat roadster will still hit budget droptop money well south of Mercedes and BMW’s offerings — same as the Miata. Badge engineering is usually built on silly profit margins.
The two cars also will appeal to different buyers. The Miata is a budget tourer or frugal road-carving machine; the Fiat is a triumph of style over substance. The Fiat 124 Spider adds more than 5 inches of overall length beyond the Miata — none of it is functional, it’s all for show — and the Fiat’s 5 extra ponies aren’t as noticeable as the shouting exhaust. (Methinks the Fiat protest a little too much.)
Nonetheless, the differences between the two cars are more substantial than meets the eye. There are two fully different engines, two different stances, and two philosophical approaches to the concept of a roadster. Both versions of the Fiata have their bona fides, we’d say.
Further, both models could lay out a future for better cars that compete in vitally important — but significantly smaller — segments for consumers other than family haulers, full-size trucks, and sanitary sedans.
Here’s what I mean: Even a quick look at Kelley Blue Book’s 2016 list of cars with the highest resale values shows business-case nightmares. The Jeep Wrangler, Toyota’s Tacoma and 4Runner, and Subaru’s WRX are all cars that at some point over the last five to 10 years wouldn’t have been made if they were brand-new for those automakers. A body-on-frame SUV with the aerodynamic qualities of a barn door that sports removable doors wouldn’t get past the designer’s sketchbook if it were new for 2008 — yet Jeep can’t build them fast enough now. A mid-size truck in a full-size world and its related truck-based SUV would get dumped for a full-size truck and yet another crossover if they weren’t already icons for Toyota. And so on.
For automakers that want to make money today, the formula is clear: Make a sedan on stilts, and call it a crossover. For automakers looking to stay relevant in the future, ahead of five-year, multi-million dollar product development cycles and shifting consumer tastes, sharing engineering costs on a car makes sense — it saves dollars, too.
That’s why the Fiata is important today. Two different cars from one very similar platform can shed the history of bad “badge engineering” and keep alive a genre that’ll eventually return. The two-door roadster was hot when Pierce Brosnan was James Bond in the 1990s, and I’m betting it will be again when Brosnan is playing Alfred the Butler in 2030’s Batman reboot.
Or maybe I’m just a nut.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.