I was surprised to find that I have a definite preference on which one drives better.
That’s the actual car I drove up there, and it’s very similar to the one that I have on order. Yes, it is a manual. However, this one has the tech package with rearview camera and bumper sensors. I passed on that and added Recaro seats and Brembo brakes instead.
And that’s the actual Miata that I drove up there. It is also a manual. I drove it first. First thing I noticed was that the interior felt and looked cheap to me. This one had cloth seats, and they were awful and looked like the kind that will get stained up if you let a drop of distilled water get on them. The center console is all plasticky and chintzy. But the shifter feels great! Mazda just gets the shifter right, from the feel, to the very short throw, to the overall smoothness of the transmission. This thing is a real pleasure to shake hands with.
Power is smooth and evenly dispersed. It’s not an incredibly fast car, but it’s no dog. I love the way it drives, hitting the redlines is fun and power in the mid range is ample if you want to pull away. It’s been awhile since I’ve driven a car this small, and it takes some getting used to. I thought a bro truck was coming up beside me, but it turned out to be a Hyundai Sonata that was towering over me. But small cars are hilariously fun, and the turning radius is just insane.
With a smile on my face I turned in the key to the Mazda and headed over to the Fiat. I’ve had one of these on order since last fall, but have never had a chance to test drive one. I was excited about this!
The Spider just looks great in Abarth trim. It’s aggressive and chunky and just puts out a pissed off vibe. I felt manly climbing in. Inside, there were remnants of the cheap Mazda interior, but with changes just subtle enough that it struck me as much classier. It’s still not a Bentley in there, but it’s adequate where the Mazda was not. Maybe it’s just the different trim levels, because this one did have nice leather seats, but not the Recaros that mine will have.
First thing that I noticed as I put it in first and prepared to pull away was that the shifter had lost its smoothness. It clunked into gear instead of gliding. That’s probably due to the manual from the last gen of the MX-5 this car is equipped with rather than the latest version that the Mazda gets. As I punched it pulling out, though I’m sure it accelerated probably within the margin of error of the other car, it felt sluggish in comparison. The redline is a little lower, and is impossible to find. Can you find it in this photo? (Hint: you cannot)
THE WHOLE TACH IS RED. It’s completely bizarre. You can’t see it in this photo, but right around 6500 rpm the hash marks between the numbers change from regular ticks to x’s. That’s it. It took me half the test drive to find it. But aside from the redline being lower, I think it takes longer to reach with the slow-revving Fiat engine. I never felt the turbo kick in, even in sport mode. I was disappointed in the performance of this car.
The final downer was that it lacks the hilarious exhaust cackle that the 500 Abarth has. Even though I knew my wife wouldn’t like it, and that really it’s better this way since it’s a convertible and the noise would just get annoying eventually, I have to say that I was looking forward to hearing that crazy sound that the spunky little 500 puts out. You can’t even hear the turbo. Bummer.
So my verdict is that the one I would have (and will have) is still the 124. The car just looks phenomenal compared to the Miata in my opinion. I personally don’t care for the styling of the Mazda, especially the backend. The Abarth, however, has that aggressive sporty look that just works on this car. Even though the Mazda feels better, the performances are certainly comparable, and my wife won’t know the difference anyway. Sure the Fiat would be better with the Mazda engine and updated transmission, but what it has works too.
Plus I already have some tricks up my sleeve. I already have some go fast bits tucked away in a drawer ready to install on this car when it comes in that should raise the horsepower from the 160 range to a little over 200. More on that later, for sure. Meanwhile my Fiata has been manufactured in Japan, shipped to California, and is currently at a vendor somewhere having its final parts bolted on before it gets trucked all the way across the country to my place of work. I am stoked!