From 1966 to 1985, the Fiat 124 Spider was one of the easiest and most popular ways to experience open-topped Italian driving. Over 200,000 buyers worldwide fell for its good looks, affordable price, and great handling. But the 124 also had enough “Italian charm” that owners could also spend all winter addressing the mechanical, electrical, and rust issues that popped up over the warm weather months. In spite of all their quirks, a high survival rate and affordability make them a great entry-level classic car.
But on the other end of the spectrum, the Mazda Miata debuted in 1989 and drove a stake through the heart of questionably-built, old world sports cars. Simply put, it offered everything an old-school European roadster could without any of the hassle. Suddenly, the days of sports car owners spending nights, weekends, and plenty of money trying to track down the source of some mysterious electrical short, oil leak, or rattle were gone forever. Automakers like Alfa Romeo, Fiat, and Lotus were put on notice, and within a few years, they had all stopped trying to compete with the reliable little Japanese roadster that would start, drive, and behave itself in any condition, year after year.
So it’s unsurprising Fiat decided to ask for Mazda’s help when it returned to the segment. After all, the current Miata is arguably the best one ever. It’s as small and as light as it was 27 years ago, but it still offers all the modern amenities and safety features you could expect from a mid-$20K sports car. And unless the Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ ends up with a convertible variant anytime soon (not bloody likely), it’s the only affordable roadster game in town.
It makes sense that the 21st century 124 would have a lot in common with the Miata. What may be surprising, however, is how much they have in common: The 124 isn’t built in Italy, it’s built in Hiroshima, Japan, in a Mazda plant, on the Miata line. The new Fiat has plenty of Italian charm, but thanks to its Miata DNA, no longer has the “Italian charm” that relegated so many of the original cars to weekend and summer duty. But is it enough to make the Italo-Japanese sports car better than the car it’s based on? That’s what we’ll try to find out in our latest installment of Buy This, Not That.