Mountain Wheels: Enjoy some holiday weekend fantasy in the unusual Fiata
2017 Fiat 124 Spider
MSRP: $27,495; as tested, $31,335
Powertrain: 164-HP turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder, six-speed automatic transmission
EPA figures (combined/city/highway): 29/25/36
I will beg your pardon this week for a slightly seasonally inappropriate entry but our overly long fall in Colorado provided extra time to check out a few vehicles I do not foresee having major year-round utility in the High Country. And so we will indulge in some post-turkey coma fantasy, for a moment.
Actually, a major dose of tryptophan and some inexpensive boxed Cab Sav might make the very odd Fiat 124 Spider seem like an absolutely rational vehicle, now that I think about it.
What’s not unusual about the idea of the new and summer-wonderful Mazda MX-5 — the car we all know as the Miata — given a makeover, some mechanical rejiggering and a new engine, and then turned loose as a Fiat? It is indeed an odd concept to follow.
As an effort of reminding the relatively limited audience for two-seater convertibles of those golden days of imported sports cars, but not exposing them to the mechanical and reliability nightmares that were also a reality with those old Italian roadsters, maybe Fiat Chrysler America has done the right thing.
The Mazda underneath, carefully and thoughtfully redone last year, is a pretty fantastic vehicle, for those seeking a pretty specific driving experience. Straightforward top-down cruising, some joyful cornering and the ability to turn limited power into a lot of fun due to not all that much car being there in the first place — the classic Miata elements have certainly stayed true, with an overall modernization.
And then there’s this wacky Fiata, the 124 Spider, which substitutes a whole new face and hood, different rear lights, bigger and cushier seats and an odd range of Chryslerized switchgear and controls, resulting in a vehicle that is a Miata, and totally is not a Miata at the same time.
It’s still made in Japan, with some Italian-styled components and the engine; Mazda itself will be further morphing the Miata with the RF, a new hardtop version with a slick, automatically stowing mid-roof section.
Minus that vehicle’s interesting-sounding mechanics, really the most substantial non-cosmetic change in the 124 is the move to a turbocharged 1.4-liter four cylinder, an FCA-built motor that generates 164 horsepower and guns up 184 lb.-ft. of torque.
The engine’s end result is a little sparkier than the 155-horsepower 2.0-liter non-turbo in the standard MX-5, helpful for reaching deeper into the power at our high altitudes.
The greatest joy to be found in the 124 Spider is leisurely bombing around, carefree and of course with the top down — again, I apologize the seasonality here — as that power is certainly capable of getting the car moving, but even turbocharged, did not transform it into a tiny Jaguar F-Type.
I also had the optional six-speed automatic transmission, which certainly performed admirably but … you kind of need a manual transmission in a car like this, just to get the feeling right.
Things are about as simple as they get in the 124, with basic climate controls: The vehicle is marginally winterized and features heated seats, but with rear-wheel drive and a little under 2,500 pounds of total body weight, we are not even pretending this would be a good winter car, except maybe in the short snow windows you experience in the Front Range.
The absolutely manual roof operation is wonderful, however, and can be accomplished with one hand — crack the handle above the rear-view mirror and throw the whole thing back, and you’re done.
The seating position seems almost perched on the pavement but once inside it’s more comfortable than I remember ever feeling in any generation of Miata, with wide and well-bolstered attributes. The cabin itself is not especially gigantic and that will be a primary consideration if your body type or height are simply incompatible.
On the upside, there’s a surprisingly large trunk and even an ample between-the-seats storage box, though mine was being used as the storage spot for some ungainly pop-to-install cupholders for the still fiendishly rigid center console.
The headrest speakers are a nice touch and the Mazda-sourced info and audio screen great, though mine was again a navigation screen with no navigation functionality. A new blind spot and cross-path detection system was also very, very sensitive.
Ultimately, if the choice to go for a lovely but strange alternative to the Miata seems like your kind of deal for the warmer months, it’s the 124’s aesthetics that may seal the deal.
I could almost swear the heavily wrinkled hood is a leftover from the Chrysler Crossfire, itself another strange blend of Mercedes-Benz donor vehicle and Chryslerized parts.
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