Christopher Little

Turning Japanese: 2018 Fiat 124 Spider

The original Fiat 124 Spider existed until 1985 in one form or another. But the nameplate was set aside in 1980, with the introduction of a 2.0L engine. From then on, it became known as the Spider 2000. Interestingly, 1980 also happened to be the year that The Vapors, an English power-pop one-hit-wonder, released their single, Turning Japanese. Coincidence? Probably. But the all-new Fiat 124 Spider has a more than a bit of Japanese inside it. So perhaps there is something to it.

2018 Fiat 124 Spider 3

Fiat debuted the new 124 Spider at the 2017 New York International Auto Show. The new model has several design cues that hearken back to the original; the hexagonal upper grille, the two power domes on the hood, and the horizontal tail lights. Under the hood is a thoroughly modern engine, the 1.4L MultiAir Turbo four-cylinder engine from the Fiat 500 Abarth. The 124 Spider gives this engine’s 164 horsepower and 184 lb-ft torque their first opportunity to power the rear wheels – all other applications have been FWD thus far. We scheduled a week with the little Italian roadster for our annual trip to the Greenwich Concours d’Elegance.

While the outward bodywork and drivetrain might look Italian, this Fiat has more than a little Japanese DNA. If you aren’t already aware, this 124 Spider arose from an agreement between FCA and Mazda. This means there’s plenty of Miata to be found without looking too hard. They share the same dashboard and console, infotainment system, windshield, and silly cupholder layout. Even the steering wheels are identical, save for the airbag cover. But ¬†from a visual and dynamic perspective, the Mazda Miata and Fiat 124 Spider are very different cars. For starters, the Fiat 124 is slightly longer. Some of that comes from design changes, but there’s also slightly more cargo space in the trunk. We were able to pack a weekend’s worth of luggage for two in the trunk. Any longer a stay and the Fiat might need a classic luggage rack.

2018 Fiat 124 Spider 5

Riding low to the ground, the tiny Fiat 124 amplifies the sense of motion. The short wheelbase does cause some jitters over expansion gaps and road seams, but the 124 Spider’s suspension has been re-tuned by Fiat. With softer dampers and seemly less body roll than the Miata, its more comfortable for long rides. The turbocharged engine has more mid-range torque, making for a more pleasing drive. In the Miata, building speed required downshifting and running to the top end of the rev range. Here, there’s enough torque to make it feel quicker out of corners without as much effort. We’re not sure why anyone should be charged nearly $1,400 for a 6-speed automatic transmission in this day and age, but our Fiat was optioned with it. It actually surprised us, doing well when left to its own devices and being fairly quick in manual mode. What’s more, the +\- action to change gears is in our preferred orientation with + (upshift) pulling back and – (downshift) pushing forward on the selector. It might be a minor detail, but it just feels more intuitive.

2018 Fiat 124 Spider 6

The 124 Spider shines around town just as much as it does in the wide open country, just so long as the roof is down. The MultiAir engine makes a pleasant hum and the car goes about its job with ease. It doesn’t ever feel rushed or frantic as the Mazda sometimes does, less tiny sports car and more tiny grand tourer. I consistently found myself slowing down and enjoying the drive than trying to scamper through the gears and get to the next corner. It’s a car to take in the sights with. So while there might be plenty of Japanese DNA in the heart of this car, don’t dismiss it as just another Miata. But there is one thing that the Fiat 124 doesn’t feel; Italian. Perhaps the Abarth version has a bit more passion and uniqueness baked into it, but this 124 Spider felt as it was turning Japanese.

-Christopher Little

2018 Fiat 124 Spider
Customer Preferred Package 1,495
Navigation & Sound Group 1,295
6-Speed AISIN Automatic Transmission 1,350
Destination Charges $995
As Tested MSRP $32,730

Related: Rude: 2014 Fiat 500 Abarth Cabrio

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