Photo Credit: Fiat and Mazda Press Teams
Since 1989 the Mazda Miata has been the go to budget roadster for hairdressers, autocrossers, cute car lovers, and those too poor to buy an S2000. Now, after 27 incredible years as the only budget roadster, it finally has a competitor, or does it?
On sale now, with a turbocharged 4 cylinder engine, a drop top, rear-wheel drive and sharing a platform with the Miata comes the resurrected Fiat 124 Spider.
So which Miata is the best Miata? That’s a question that will be endlessly debated for years to come. After driving both, I hope to go beyond the numbers and spec sheets to find what makes each car shine. Both of these cars come in three trim levels. For the Miata, it’s Sport, Club, and Grand Touring. For the Fiat, it’s Classica, Lusso, and Abarth. If performance and handling is your end game you want the Miata Club or 124 Abarth as both feature limited slip diffs, Bilstein shocks front and rear, and a front strut tower bar. Unfortunately, at the time of this review, I was unable to get a hold of a Fiat 124 Abarth as well as a Miata Club so this review will feature a 124 Spider Lusso along side the club spec'd Miata.
The major difference between the Miata and Fiat 124 Spider lies under the hood. The Miata features the 2.0L Skyactiv engine found throughout the Mazda line-up. With this power plant the Miata is good for 27mpg city and 36mpg highway. That probably doesn’t matter much to most people, but for as fun as the car was, I found it to be impressive. Then again, any sports car that gets better city MPG than I get highway MPG impresses me, but I digress. Now for the numbers that matter, 2.0L Skyactiv in the Miata is good for 155hp and 150 lb/ft of torque. While this doesn’t scream fast, it makes for a pretty quick car. Sixty miles an hour comes in a brisk 6.1 seconds, which is quicker than an FRS/BRZ or Focus ST. The engine in the Miata is quick to rev, and the power comes on smoothly, never hesitating to respond to the driver’s right foot. For a low powered naturally aspirated four cylinder it never feels wheezy or out of power, a testament to Mazda’s engineers and their Skyactiv engine tech.
Compared to the NC Miata the ND Miata might look slightly more aggressive with its angled headlights and sculpted lines, but it is not overdone. The curves and lines of the ND give it a very slim, fit, and sporty appearance compared to its predecessors. As I mentioned before I tested a Club trim of the Miata featuring a limited slip diff, Bilstein shocks front and rear, Brembo brakes and a front strut tower bar. If you ever intend to take your car to an autoX or track day this is definitely the trim level for you. The other two trim levels are nothing too special. The Sport trim is a base model, though it doesn’t feel too barren. The Grand Touring trim features leather seats and surfaces, extra high-tech features like auto windshield wipers, auto dimming mirrors, and even blind spot monitoring.
My biggest takeaway from this was how humble the Miata felt. Not once did the Miata feel like it was trying to be something it wasn’t. It’s a small light roadster, and what you see is what you get. My route included a stretch of four lane highway and some slightly curvy roads. Unfortunately, I didn’t have access to the roads where these cars would excel. During my test-drive I never felt like the car was lacking power. When I pushed down on the accelerator the engine was eager to provide a response. Turn in was very responsive and confidence inspiring.
After almost three decades of refinement, the Miata has become a prime example of the roadster genre. The Miata has been built to purpose and it excels at it.
The Fiat 124 Spider is a great take on the classic formula. Under the hood, it features FCA’s 1.4L turbo four cylinder making 160 to 164hp, depending on the trim level, and 184 lb/ft of torque. The 124 Spider marks the return of a turbo engine to the Miata platform, last seen in the Mazdaspeed Miata offered in 2004 and 2005. Fiat has also changed the transmission in this car, opting to use the previous NC Miata 6 speed to handle the extra torque from their engine. Speaking of the torque, I didn’t really notice it most of the time. There was a bit of a punch when it first came on, but coming out of a corner felt better in the Miata. Part of the reason could be the extra 100lbs the Fiat carries due to the size increase. The biggest benefit of this engine, in my opinion, is the ability to tune it. In the Fiat 500 Abarth the same engine has been tuned up to produce 200 wheel horsepower.
Much of the Fiat’s 124 Spider design is clearly inspired by its predecessor. However, the Fiat manages to look much less aggressive than the Miata. Every body panel on the 124 Spider differs from the Miata and Fiat claims it is a 100% Italian design. One of the other big differences between the Fiat and Miata is the size. Fiat added length to both the front and rear overhangs, though it is mostly cosmetic as not much usable space was gained. I hoped that it had helped more, but according to Fiat their trunk is only 0.3 cubic feet larger than a Miata. Inside the 124 Spider, the relationship to the Miata becomes very apparent. Outside of a different steering wheel emblem and gauges they are practically identical, only minor changes to the door cards and dash materials were made. Like the Miata, there are three different trim levels, Classica, Lusso, and Abarth. They match up feature wise with their Miata counterparts, Classica is the Sport Trim, Lusso is the Grand Touring trim and the Abarth lines up with the Club trim.
Overall they are very much the same car. If you’re looking for a roadster to take for a cruise on the weekends you can’t go wrong with either. Stock for stock however if you plan on autocrossing or going for spirited drives in the hills and canyons the Miata is still the right tool for the job. The naturally aspirated engine in the Miata is quicker to respond to changes and revs a little higher, giving you a little extra feeling and control. That’s not to say that the Fiat 124 would be bad around an autocross or on a back road, it’s just one small step behind the Miata. If you want an engine you can easily tinker with and tune then the Fiat is the car for you. The 1.4L turbo has been tested in other cars so it shouldn’t be long before tuners get their hands on the new 124 Spider and turn up the boost. At the end of the day, both of these cars are excellent to drive. It’s hard to declare one the real winner when they are so close across the board.