Featured: Here's Why Fiat's 124 Spider Is All About Its Turbocharged Engine

Here’s Why Fiat’s 124 Spider Is All About Its Turbocharged Engine

By Michael Banovsky
September 27, 2016

Photography by Michael Banovsky

If you asked me on the first day of ownership why I bought a 2013 Fiat 500 Abarth, I’d have answered, “The engine”. Today, more than 60,000 km (~37,300 miles) later, the reason is still, “the engine,” with its pops and burbles and way-too-much-character. The only thing that’d make it better, really, was if it was fitted to a convertible sports car—like the one Fiat just released that I’ve got keys to.

Meet the 124 Spider, our weekend getaway on four wheels.

For Kay and I, it really was a getaway: a quick 8-hours-each-way jaunt to la belle province, Québec, basically to see friends and eat great food and drive home again. So why not make the trip as interesting as possible, calling in a favor to ensure we’d at least enjoy the journey there and back?

The first observation is that we’re definitely not used to getting many stares and looks in our grigio 500 Abarth, its subcompact shape an effective cover for its exhaust note. The 124 Spider in Rosso, on the other hand, was not only a brand-new car to most observers but much lower and sleeker-looking in person than photos suggest. It’s also much quieter in person than you’d expect, which led to more than a few shrugs when we burbled by.

Based on the Mazda MX-5 Miata, its exterior skin, engine, seats, and a number of other small details are unique to the 124 Spider. There’s a sportier Abarth version available that’s fitted with a more raucous exhaust, but all versions get the engine I know and love from my car—albeit in a much more sporting chassis and oddly comfortable suspension.

Tuned more for ride quality than outright grip, it’s a welcome throwback to the days when a couple could choose a small, sporty car for these types of weekends that didn’t come equipped with kidney-punching suspension. On interesting backroads around Québec and the less boring side of Ontario, it’s a car that hides speed well, with triple digit speeds in double-digit limits a real concern as the torquey engine never seems out of breath.

Both Kay and I loved the car’s 6-speed transmission, where the final cog is set up for highway cruising and good fuel economy—for what it’s worth, we did just over 31 US mpg in mixed driving. Around town, it takes a while for the turbo, engine, and transmission to gather steam; it’s not going to be a point-and-shoot sports car like the MX-5.

Truthfully, we’d been to Montreal many times, but never in a vehicle powered by the turbocharged 1.4-litre MulitAir 4-cylinder engine that we know so well, and never in a Miata.

Like many large North American cities, it’s a place caught between decay and rebirth, with local highways and construction zones a real hazard for daily driven sports cars—to say nothing of the winter months. There are pockets of perfection, of course, which are mostly B-roads roads outside of the major cities that you’ll need a wake-up call to enjoy thoroughly.

As we learned, it’s a situation that perfectly suits the 124 Spider: it’s practical and comfortable enough to be driven year-round and fun enough for a weekend away. It’s Italian styling and an Italian heart within the highly-regarded chassis of most successful modern sports car ever.

Dare I say it’s probably the easiest and one of the least expensive ways in 2016 to Drive Tastefully, daily…with a warranty.

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Jim Spackman
Jim Spackman(@jim-spackman)
2 years ago

It’s not the same engine as the 500 though. It’s got the newer MultiAir unit and the 500 has the T Jet so the top end is different. And the comments about reliability? I’ve been using mine as a daily for over 2 years and 45,000 miles in Wales, it lives out in the street in all weathers. Nothing’s broken or fallen off, I haven’t even had to change a light bulb yet. It’s worn out one set of tyres an is less than half way through the replacements. it still looks superb apart from some stone chips on the front.

Alexandre Goncalves
Alexandre Goncalves(@cacem)
5 years ago

Guess you aren’t familiar with new (last 20 years) Fiat cars – we in Portugal are, but I’m yet to see one on the road… i wonder if it’s being sold, or, in case it is, if it has conquered anyone…

Fiat, poor construction, poor electrics, I wonder how that car is going to look like in 2 years (if used as a daily driver)…

Good luck!

Carlos Ferreira
Carlos Ferreira(@sketchtank)
4 years ago

I’ve had a Fiat Abarth for 3 1/2 years, which has the same engine as the Spider, and have experienced zero problems other than a faulty tire pressure sensor (not made by Fiat). Nothing has broken, fallen off or stopped working. The window seals squeak a little, but it’s easily remedied by an application of lithium grease every 6 months which takes 5 minutes. Maybe you prefer to live
via outdated stereotypes or drive boring cars.

Per Eldh
Per Eldh(@per)
5 years ago

Great car and great photos too.
I feel so sorry for Mazda.. not. 🙂

5 years ago

How does the Fiat 124 get a write up while the ND Miata has been out for months and no mention. Its been the better reviewed car of the two in most scenarios as well. At least write about both to mask the brand bias.

5 years ago
Reply to  Nar


5 years ago
Reply to  Nar

Motortrend said the fiat was the better of the two. Soooo what the fuck are you talking about? Overall the abarth is the one to get….. Cant wait for that Ridiculous FCA depreciation… In two years it will be worth 10k just like the 500 abarths…. Abarth spyder will be my second weekend warrior…..

Todd Cox
Todd Cox(@mc70)
5 years ago
Reply to  Nar

Generally speaking the ND is the more favorably reviewed of the two. And it is typically less expensive. And yes, I’d very much like to see Petrolicious do a review.

I believe that it could be very interesting to review that particular car; few manufacturers take the time to really hearken back to their roots, which Mazda did here.

Most every review so far compared the ND to a modern car except when relating external dimensions. Having the perspective of classic motorcar enthusiasts would be refreshing. What elements of the past does it evoke? What does it do right by the classic motorist?

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger(@gtrslngr)
5 years ago

What the ( cough ) FIAT 124 Spider is really all about unfortunately … is pretense .. plain and simple . Just Say No and buy a Miata/MX5 … which is whats underneath the premium priced 124 party dress … that does’t resemble a 124 in the slightest .. saving a bunch of money … not to mention avoiding dealing with FCA’s Lost in Translation abysmal reliability and dealer network .

5 years ago
Reply to  Guitar Slinger

Isn’t the base price for the Fiat about 400 CHEAPER than the Miata? What’s this ‘premium price’ you’re referring to? Also, the Fiat has a completely different engine and a suspension that’s apparently tuned for cruising instead of the Miata’s corner-carving.
Granted, I’d choose the Miata but I could definitely understand someone picking the Fiat especially if they liked the styling.
But hey, I’ll go ahead and get off your lawn …