The Fiat 124 Spider is a rare car. Not just because its U.S. sales (so far) are miniscule, but because it’s better than the car that spawned it, the Mazda MX-5 Miata.
I recently put more than 500 miles on a Spider from the press fleet, and I have also tested the Miata this year.
Can you think of another “badge-engineered” car quite like the 124 Spider? Usually, when automakers build cars for a partner, such as the Mazda2/Toyota Yaris or the Subaru BRZ/Scion FR-S, the changes are limited to different badges and perhaps a new front fascia and not much else.
The Fiat 124 is very different, and the changes could be the blueprint for a different type of car-sharing among automakers. Here’s why I think Fiat nailed the Spider:
- The styling changes are tasteful updates of the classic Fiat Spiders of the ’70s and ’80s. You can see the influence of those older cars in the shape of the headlights and taillights and the twin power bulges on the hood. Not one body panel is shared between the Spider and the MX-5. The Fiat is also 5 inches longer. Placed side by side, you’d be hard-pressed to know that the Fiat and the Mazda ride on the same underpinnings. The view looking over the dash and down the Fiat’s flat, wide hood gives the Spider a more aggressive feeling than the Miata.
- The engines are different, with the Fiat being powered by a 1.4-liter turbo that develops more torque and horsepower at lower rpms than Mazda’s 2.0-liter nonturbo. Beyond that, the Fiat engine has a slight gruffness that perfectly suits the character of a roadster. The two cars have very different personalities.
- The interiors have different materials. The Fiat’s interior is higher quality, more European-looking. At 5 feet 10, I could not get really comfortable in the Miata. My legs were scrunched. But the Spider’s different seats open up a bit more room.
Despite good reviews, both cars are suffering as consumers shun sports cars of all types and opt for SUVs and crossovers.
Fiat Spider sales are abysmal, with just 490 units sold in September. Since the car arrived at U.S. dealerships in July, 1,431 have been sold through FCA’s 200 Fiat dealers. The Miata’s sales performance is also dismal. In September, Mazda sold just 752 Miatas, bringing the total for the year to just 7,840 -- the worst debut for any new version of the Miata. The shrinking sales of sports cars reflect the changing market in this era of cheap gasoline.
According to the Automotive News Data Center, cars accounted for 40.3 percent of sales through September, down from 44.4 percent from the same period a year ago. Sales of light trucks (which includes SUVs and crossovers) now hold 59.7 percent of the market, up from 55.6 percent a year ago.