Fiat 124 Put to the Test by Good-Win Racing

The Good-Win Racing brand has resonated as a popular aftermarket parts resource for the Mazda Miata for years. After backing the MX-5 Miata platform for all this time with solutions to street performance, racing parts and more, the company and its staff have become a trusted source for Mazda performance. This week, Brian Goodwin of Good-Win Racing was given the opportunity to test drive the Fiat 124 Spider, Fiat’s affordable roadster built on Mazda’s MX-5 ND platform. Brian took multiple variants of the 124 around an autocross course to find the limits of the car, and shared his experience with us at DSPORT Magazine.

Text by Brian Goodwin // Photos by Sean Thomson

When news broke that Fiat would bring back the beloved 124 name in a car that is part Miata, part Fiat, dubbed a “Fiata” by some, I was skeptical yet hopeful. The turbo 1.4-liter engine is all Fiat and made in Italy, while the rest of the car is built in Japan on the bones of the latest ND generation Miata with body panels restyled by Fiat. Seat stitching and interior details are unique to the Fiat 124 but overall the interior is very much a Miata with a Fiat badge. On the outside, the car’s styling recalls the original 124. When I saw the new 124 in person for the first time, I realized that pictures do not do it justice. In person, it looks more conservative, smaller, and more restrained in styling detail than many pictures suggest. But how does the Fiat 124 compare to the ND Miata from behind the wheel?

Fiat 124 Autocross

Fiat 124: Automatic vs Manual

I had the opportunity to drive the snot out of three versions of the Fiat 124 for two days on an autocross course laid out next to Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California. Two of the samples provided were automatics. Let’s first deal with that issue of the automatic transmission. To most serious enthusiasts, it’s manual transmission or nothing. But in the Fiat, you can certainly have fun with the automatic. Paddle shifting up and down is the same as in the Miata and it is a good experience overall, just not as engaging as the excellent Mazda-sourced manual shifter. Put the automatic car in Sport mode, turn off traction control, keep steering inputs gentle (no sawing at the wheel), and you can turn a reasonably good lap even without the limited slip differential that is reserved for the Abarth model.

The first version of the car I drove was a bone stock Fiat 124 with an automatic transmission. It was fun, however, the turbo lag was apparent, exhaust was rather muted, and reactions of the car were soft in a manner entirely similar to a stock ND Miata. The second version of the Fiat I drove carried items from the Mopar catalog, including front and rear braces under the car that look similar to the bits available from Mazda for the ND Miata. This second version had less flex and crisper turn-in response thanks to the bracing, which was slightly more confidence-inspiring at speed.

Fiat 124 Autocross

Tune it Up

Finally, they let me hop in the Abarth version with the manual transmission. The Abarth is Fiat’s tuned up version of the Club trim ND Miata. Visually, the Abarth is much more aggressive than any factory Miata we have ever seen, trim pieces on the front and rear are more aggressive, the hood and trunk are painted flat black. The Abarth model carries a full audacious racer look with an Italian flare. Some will feel too old for the appearance of the Abarth, I felt somehow irresponsible just getting into the seats and looking down the flat black hood with bold red paint on both sides. The Abarth includes a much more aggressive exhaust, it will be too much for many, but just right for some. Push the start button and the turbo engine crackles and pops to life, trumpeting proudly out four bold exhaust tips! The transmission is from the prior generation NC Miata and works brilliantly here, delivering smooth and sure gear changes.

A loud whoosh from the front of the Abarth accompanies the press and release of the gas pedal, as long as you purchase the optional Mopar catalog blow-off valve that was installed in this example. Seriously, optional blow-off valve? I cracked a smile every time I hit the gas pedal and was greeted by the rowdy exhaust note followed closely by the blow-off valve opening.

The Abarth feels aftermarket in a big way, like a young tuner has already had months of spare paychecks to raise the fun level a few notches higher. This is the full-tuned MazdaSpeed ND Miata that Japan will never offer. Call it over the top, some will call it ridiculous, but there is no denying that it is big fun in a small package.

Through the Turns

With the limited slip differential and a tighter suspension tune, the Abarth quickly became comfortable at the limits of the tire grip throughout the autocross course. Coming from many hours racing an ND Miata over this same bumpy and worn pavement in the past, the contrasts in the setup decisions Fiat made for the 124 Abarth really jumped to my attention. The 124 steering is tuned by Fiat to be slightly heavier, leading me to immediately prefer the Fiat version. The suspension spring rates are tuned by Fiat, where again I prefer the Fiat Abarth setup simply because I can push the car a little harder than the factory ND Miata.

My first autocross events in a stock ND last year were quickly reduced to lessons in extreme patience because the body lean is so dramatic. In the Miata, anything but the gentlest steering inputs could quickly toss it violently onto the bump stops. In quick autocross transitions, the bounce off of the bump stops with the ND were enough to get the rear end light, forcing the driver to modulate throttle input. In the stock ND, the driver may feel a lot of time is lost to being patient, waiting for the body to get gently onto and off of the bump stops.

In the Abarth, however, the suspension tune is aggressive enough that lean in the corners is reduced and bounce off of the bump stops is less severe, resulting in an improvement in responsiveness. Admittedly, the Fiat crew was very smart with designing this autocross course layout to benefit the driving experience of the 124. It was not a typical SCCA course with super tight five-cone slaloms, boxes, and decreasing radius turns. Instead, Fiat set up a course that reflects BMW Club autocross events, utilizing more open and flowing turns to allow for more time on the throttle. This course design allowed the Fiat to shine. As expected, the turbo 1.4-liter power plant needs to be kept spinning. If it the engine speed falls below 2000RPM in a really tight turn, it can show noticeable lag. But on this course layout, the line could be drawn to keep the turbo spinning at 2,500RPM and higher, helping the Fiat leap out of each mid-RPM turn with strong turbo thrust up to the 6,500RPM redline.

Fiat 124 Autocross

Fiat 124 or Mazda MX-5 ND?

Fiat’s version of the car is heavier than the ND Miata. Fiat added acoustic glass in the front and rear, overhangs are longer, additional insulation resides in the dash, and trunk space is marginally larger. The extra weight over the ND Miata makes itself especially apparent in the transitions. But in the end, I am surprised to say that I didn’t care much about that extra mass, or that the turbo lags at low engine speeds. In the end, I was having a blast spinning up the turbo for everything it could give me, and what it gave me was a great time.

The bottom line is this, if you like the Miata but the current body style does not grab you, then you owe it to yourself to give the Fiat a try. If your significant other won’t let you tune the Mazda with your choice of sway bars and exhaust, the Fiat 124 Abarth version can come from the dealer with a bit more fun already bolted into the package.