Yesterday I had to chance to finally see the new Italian roadster in the flesh at the Fiat 124 Spider launch event in San Diego. The design is much easier on the eyes in person and I think it is quite fun. Compared to the ND the Fiat reminds me of a bulldog...in a good way. After finishing photos and video for Brian, I was thrown the keys for two quick laps. Lots to take in driving the car and finding my way around the small autocross but I could not stop smiling the entire time!
When the 124 Spider was announced I was torn. At a glance I thought the looks of the front end were OK and reminded me of an NB in many ways. My only complaint was the design of the rear quarter of the car left a lot to be desired. After getting seat time with the Fiat 500 Abarth that my Fiance drives, I got more and more excited for the 124 after learning it had the same powerplant as the Fiat 500 Abarth. It did not take long to realize the potential of an ND chassis with a turbo engine.
Out of the gate I immediately noticed the Fiat had a slightly heavier steering feel than the ND. The heavier steering gives you the perception the car has a little more weight to it but it is still very nimble. According to Fiat, the 124 is about 100lbs heavier than the ND and I think most folks would be hard pressed to feel the difference without some serious back to back driving.
The springs, dampers and sways are all Fiat/Abarth spec and completely different than the ND. The suspension provided a noticeably firmer ride and it was much more controlled on the autocross compared to a stock ND. While there was still a lot of body roll, the Fiat was not as nervous at the limit like the ND can be. I was able to throw the car into a corner, give it a boot full of throttle and hold a nice slide without too much effort. The only change I would want to see is a shift from the neutral-understeer bias the Fiat had to a more neutral-oversteer bias. Overall the balance was great and still very fun!
If you’ve ever driven the original MazdaSpeed then you are familiar with turbo lag. Unlike the MazdaSpeed, the 124 Spider 1.4L is very responsive and has an excellent mid range with power tapering off around 6000RPM. Below 2000RPM there is a bit of lag before the turbo spins up. Transitioning back to the throttle mid-corner you can feel a hint of lag but it did not make the car difficult to drive like the “old days” of turbocharged engines.
Living up to the Abarth name, the 124 Spider Abarth also had a very fun exhaust note. The Fiat I drove had the optional Mopar active exhaust and gave the car a bit of a dual personality which, dare I say, was almost a bit too refined. Compared to the factory Fiat 500 Abarth I wished the Fiat 124 Abarth had a little more bark. The Fiat also had the optional factory installed bypass valve which made me giggle every time and added to the experience. At the end of my two laps I realized much like the 500 Abarth, the Fiat 124 is about the experience...not outright speed.
If I was forced to pick between the ND and the new 124 Spider I would be looking at the Italian roadster in my garage. The Fiat is just FUN and every time you give it some throttle and go around a corner there is a sense of passion! If I was looking for my next track weapon, the ND would be my top choice...but a track weapon does not always make the best street car. The Fiat is the MazdaSpeed that will never be and I am OK with that. Fiat did a great job of taking the wonderful chassis Mazda created and made it their own.