2017 Fiat 124 Spider first drive review

Fifty years ago, Fiat sought the help of the legendary Pininfarina design firm to turn its somewhat stodgy 124 sedan into a stylish convertible sports car. The result was a simple but attractive drop-top that would enjoy a 19-year production run of more than 200,000 cars—roughly 170,000 of which were sold in the United States. Pininfarina not only designed the car, but also built most of them, and it never needed to redesign the car's classic sports car shape.

Fiat left the U.S. in 1983, and returned in 2011 with the 500 city car. Sales haven't gone gangbusters since their return, and now Fiat is expanding its line with a new 124. Once again, Fiat sought help from elsewhere to design and build this car. This time, however, Fiat didn't look to Italy. Instead it turned to Japan.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider, 2016 Press Drive San Diego

2017 Fiat 124 Spider, 2016 Press Drive San Diego

CHECK OUT: 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata first drive: Video

The 2017 Fiat 124 Spider shares its architecture with the fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 Miata. Both cars ride on the same 90.9-inch wheelbase, use the same front wishbone and multi-link rear suspension setups, and even share the same Mazda-based infotainment system. The looks are completely different, however, and so are the engines.

Is turbo the way to go?

While Mazda uses its naturally aspirated 2.0-liter 4-cylinder that makes 155 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque, the Fiat is motivated by Fiat-Chrysler's single-overhead cam, turbocharged 1.4-liter 4-cylinder. The 1.4-liter's power figures—160 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque—best the Miata's, but that doesn't translate into the real world. A hint of turbo lag and the weak low-end power of a small-displacement engine mean the 124 takes 6.8 seconds to run up to 60 mph. That's pretty quick, but the Miata, with its more immediate punch, needs only six seconds flat.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider, 2016 Press Drive San Diego

2017 Fiat 124 Spider, 2016 Press Drive San Diego

The issue can be mitigated slightly by revving the engine in the sweet-shifting manual models; the automatic just makes the power gap more prominent. The transmission shift paddles in the Abarth also help a bit, but I found power to be a bit sludgy in an automatic-equipped Lusso model, which is heavier because of its extra equipment and it lacks the shift paddles.

Despite its smaller size, the 1.4-liter isn't quite as efficient as Mazda's engine. It is rated at 25 mpg city, 36 highway, 29 combined with the automatic transmission and 26/35/30 mpg with the manual, while both versions of the Miata get 30 mpg combined.

Based on power delivery and fuel economy, the turbo isn't ideal here, and Mazda has the better solution. The addition of direct injection might change that, as it would add power, improve fuel economy, and reduce some of that turbo lag. Your move, Fiat.

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