From 1966 to 1985, the Fiat 124 Spider was one of the easiest and most popular ways to experience open-topped Italian driving. Over 200,000 buyers worldwide fell for its good looks, affordable price, and great handling. But the 124 also had enough “Italian charm” that owners could also spend all winter addressing the mechanical, electrical, and rust issues that popped up over the warm weather months. In spite of all their quirks, a high survival rate and affordability make them a great entry-level classic car.
But on the other end of the spectrum, the Mazda Miata debuted in 1989 and drove a stake through the heart of questionably-built, old world sports cars. Simply put, it offered everything an old-school European roadster could without any of the hassle. Suddenly, the days of sports car owners spending nights, weekends, and plenty of money trying to track down the source of some mysterious electrical short, oil leak, or rattle were gone forever. Automakers like Alfa Romeo, Fiat, and Lotus were put on notice, and within a few years, they had all stopped trying to compete with the reliable little Japanese roadster that would start, drive, and behave itself in any condition, year after year.
So it’s unsurprising Fiat decided to ask for Mazda’s help when it returned to the segment. After all, the current Miata is arguably the best one ever. It’s as small and as light as it was 27 years ago, but it still offers all the modern amenities and safety features you could expect from a mid-$20K sports car. And unless the Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ ends up with a convertible variant anytime soon (not bloody likely), it’s the only affordable roadster game in town.
It makes sense that the 21st century 124 would have a lot in common with the Miata. What may be surprising, however, is how much they have in common: The 124 isn’t built in Italy, it’s built in Hiroshima, Japan, in a Mazda plant, on the Miata line. The new Fiat has plenty of Italian charm, but thanks to its Miata DNA, no longer has the “Italian charm” that relegated so many of the original cars to weekend and summer duty. But is it enough to make the Italo-Japanese sports car better than the car it’s based on? That’s what we’ll try to find out in our latest installment of Buy This, Not That.
Tale of the tape
The same chassis, 90.9-inch wheelbase, dashboard, electrical systems, and suspension components are found in both the $25K and up Miata and $27K and up 124 Spider. And while both cars have a six-speed manual (autos are offered, but why bother?), the Fiat’s notchy gearbox is cribbed from the previous-generation Miata. Fiat has done an admirable job making the 124 recall its 20th century progenitor in a way that doesn’t come off as too precious or slavish, but there’s no way to unsee that Miata DNA.
Inside, Mazda’s fingerprints are even more apparent. Aside from the fantastic, horizontally ribbed leather seats, door cards, and slightly different instrument cluster cap, the 124 and Miata are identical. That’s by no means a bad thing; sitting low and just forward of the rear axle makes for a great driving position, and both cars’ near-50/50 weight distribution mean they both stay planted in the corners — even if the Fiat stays a little more level in the twisties than the Miata.
The big difference here is engine choice. Critics of the Miata have long penalized the car for its naturally-aspirated 2.0-liter engine that makes just 155 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. As great a corner-carver as it is, there are some out there who just wish the Miata had more grunt. Now they have the 124, which offers a turbocharged 1.4-liter MultiAir four, which makes 164 horses and 184 pound-feet of torque.
Despite sharing so much DNA, the Miata and 124 actually do feel different. The Miata is an old-school corner carver; its body-colored door caps and long, bulging hood reinforce the fact that you’re a part of the car. If you have the top up on a nice day, you instinctively want it down. The 124, however, is different; despite having a little more grunt, it feels a little more refined. The cabin is a quieter place to be, the added weight of the longer nose and sound insulation make it feel more like a comfortable tourer than something to take autocrossing — though you could if you really wanted to.
For us, we’d still take the Miata for its familiarity, more visceral driving experience, refined gearbox, and angular looks. But the 124 is hardly a consolation prize. It’s more powerful, has a slightly nicer bark under acceleration (though nowhere near as throaty as the 500 Abarth, unfortunately), and manages to make the familiar Mazda cabin feel even more upscale. If you want a handsome, comfortable Italian cruiser that lives up to its name, the 124 Spider is a fine choice. But if you prize the pure driving experience over everything else, the answer is still Miata.