Test Drive Notes Library
- The two-seat sports car is still romantic. Before SUVs became the American symbol of “freedom,” the two-seat roadster shouted “Freedom!” No kids. No responsibilities. No baggage. You’d see a couple in a two-seat sports car, top down, driving on a curvy mountain road, and you’d say to yourself, “Hey, there goes my dentist with his dental technician while his wife is visiting her mother. That’s freedom!”
- The Fiat 124 Spider is often referred to as the “Fiata.” It’s based heavily on a Mazda Miata, with a slightly different body, a Fiat engine instead of a Mazda engine, and a Fiat logo in the middle of the steering wheel. And since the Miata is a fun car to drive, so is the 124 Spider.
- It looks nice. The Italians took a Miata and crafted a new front and rear end. From certain angles, it looks quite good, and certainly has elements that are reminiscent of the old Fiat Spider. From other angles, it can look a bit clunky. It’s a personal choice. The Miata bodywork is sleeker, more flowing. The Fiat is a little more sculptural and bumpy.
- Handling. Aside from its convertible-ness and good looks, this car’s primary attribute is its handling. It probably goes without saying that you can really feel the road in this car. And every bump on it. This car is low to the ground, steers precisely, and holds the road beautifully. The ride is definitely firm, occasionally jittery, and if you hit a big, spring pothole, punishing.
- Drop top. The top is phenomenally easy to open and close. Drop a latch with two fingers, and give the top a little push backwards over your shoulder. That’s it. Open air. When you get a little chilly, or feel a little too much sun on your pate, pull a little lever between the seats, the top pops back up within reach, and you can reverse the procedure. It literally takes a few seconds, and it couldn’t be easier. I can’t imagine how you could improve on it.
- Top-down visibility. With the top up, the visibility is poor, and the 124 Spider feels a bit claustrophobic. But with the top down, you can see everywhere. And even with the top up, the rear window is so close to you (it’s about 12 inches from your head), that you can easily turn around and see out the back of the car. The 124 Spider has a backup camera, but it’s still unusual these days to be able to actually look through a rear window and see roadway.
- Controls are very straight forward. It has three large, simple knobs for ventilation. It has a small, but pretty straightforward screen that operates with a control wheel between the seats. It’s not the best we’ve seen, but it's understandable, and we were able to make the system do what we wanted it to do.
- You can get the 124 Spider with optional blind-spot monitoring and cross-traffic alert. Both really useful when the top is up.
- An affordable toy for some. Our 124 Spider “Lusso” rang up at $31,335. And it got 26 mpg for us in largely city driving (EPA says 29 overall).
Test Drive Notes Library
- Automatic transmission. While the Fiat is available with a six-speed manual transmission, our test version came with a six-speed automatic, which just doesn’t seem right in a two-door, convertible roadster. It made the car feel more like a compact economy car to us than a sports car — especially with the top up. We get that not everybody wants to shift, but certain cars call out for certain equipment. You wouldn’t want a stick shift in your Lincoln Continental, would you? And an automatic transmission just doesn’t make sense in a two-door, drop top roadster. To us. You do what you think is best.
- Fiat engine. While it’s more than good enough for moving the 124 Spider briskly, one of the great advantages of buying a Miata is that you get a Japanese engine with proven Japanese reliability. And Miatas have distinguished themselves as highly reliable over many years. We know much less about the 1.4-liter turbocharged Fiat engine. And to be petty, the sound of the Fiat engine is also not as pleasing to our ears.
- Noise. Woofa! The road and wind noise are pretty brutal in the Spider. Hey, you wanted to be one with the road, right? Great, your butt is eight inches away from it! This car is low to the ground, not overstuffed with sound insulation, and has a canvas top. If you want to relax on a long, quiet highway drive, this is not the car for you.
- Speaking of close to the ground, this is a car you fall into and hoist yourself out of. The proximity to the ground makes it handle wonderfully. But handling your own ingress and egress can get old, especially if you’re getting old.
- Narrow seats. The seats are heavily bolstered at the sides, and, unfortunately, designed for very thin Italians. I’m a normal sized guy, and my shoulders would not fit between the bolsters. They lay on top of them. And trust me, no one confuses me with Arnold Schwarzenegger. I also had occasion to ride with a normal-sized woman, whose name will go unmentioned (OK, Hon?), and while her shoulders fit in between the bolsters on the seat back, the bolsters on the seat bottom presented a more formidable challenge to her. If you run into her, don’t mention that I wrote about this.
- Almost no storage room. There’s an itty bitty cubby in the center console that holds something the size of a cell phone. Between the seat backs, there’s another slightly larger, but difficult to reach cubby. Storage room is a rare commodity in the 124 Spider. There’s a trunk, and because of the exterior design changes made by Fiat, it seems a bit deeper than the Miata’s trunk. But it’s still probably a one-bagger. The 124 Spider should come with one of the travel bag sizers they have at the airport gates, so you can figure out if your luggage is going to fit.
- That’s where you put the cupholders? Seriously? Perhaps the most ridiculously useless cupholders we’ve seen in the 21st century. They live a few inches behind where the driver’s right elbow rests. If you’re a person who picks up cups behind your back with your elbow, you’re all set. But those of us who use our hands for such things are required to contort ourselves in nearly impossible ways to reach our coffee. Do your yoga, people.
- No collision warning system or automatic emergency braking. It’s hard for us to imagine buying a car in 2017 without being sure to get those advanced safety features, in addition to blind-spot monitoring. We predict that any car that doesn’t have them will feel instantly out of date. In one other weirdness, you can’t get both the upgraded sound system, and the blind-spot monitors together. It’s one or the other. I think I’d get the sound system, so I can really enjoy the funeral dirge as I accidentally change lanes into a Walmart truck.
- The limitations of this car really make it an “extra car,” rather than a primary vehicle for most people.If you have a normal car you use every day, and can afford a sports car that you drive on beautiful weekend days, you could really enjoy a car like the Fiat 124 Spider. On a sunny day, with the top down, it really is a happiness generator. But if you had to commute in this car on the highway, pick up kids, groceries, and shoehorn your ass into the narrow seat day after day, you might regret making this your only set of wheels.
Get the Car Talk Newsletter