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Budget Buy $20,000: Mazda Miata vs Fiat 124 Spider

A classic of affordable fun, the Miata compares closely to its badge swapped analogue, the Fiat 124 Spider. But which is the better buy at $20,000?

Built for Fun

netcarshow.com | news.mazdausa.com
netcarshow.com | news.mazdausa.com

There’s just one reason to consider buying either the Mazda Miata MX-5 or the Fiat 124 Spider, you’re seeking a rollicking good time behind the wheel. Not raw power or speed, not luxury comfort or the latest infotainment technology; no, the Miata and 124 Spider are here to remind you that driving can still be an occasion, something you look forward to.

Not only are these two cars rare examples of affordable, rear-wheel drive sports cars in a market long hostel to such formulations, they also happen to be almost the same darn car, built on the same platform in the same factory in Japan. However, the Miata and 124 Spider differ just enough, as we’ll see below, to warrant a side-by-side comparison. With a budget of $20,000, you can find youthful examples of each, a 2017 Fiat 124 and a 2016 Mazda Miata, to be specific. But which one do we recommend for a weekend in the hills?

Specs

2016 Mazda Miata MX-5 2.0L I4 - news.mazdausa.com
2016 Mazda Miata MX-5 2.0L I4 - news.mazdausa.com

The 2017 Mazda Miata is the first year of the current ND generation of Miata. The rear-wheel drive Miata comes equipped with a 2.0L inline four-cylinder engine making 155 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual transmission comes standard but can be traded out for a six-speed automatic if you so choose. Fuel economy comes in at 27/34 MPG for the manual and 27/36 for the automatic. Optional Brembo performance brakes are also available.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider 1.4L I4 - carsforsale.com
2017 Fiat 124 Spider 1.4L I4 - carsforsale.com

One of the primary differences for the Fiat 124 Spider is that it comes with a different engine from the Miata. Under the hood of the 124 we find a 1.4L turbocharged four-cylinder making 160 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. Like the Miata, the 124 comes in rear-wheel drive and offers your choice of a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. Fuel economy is slightly worse at 26/36 for the manual and 25/36 for the automatic. Brembos and Recaro sport seats are optional.

Driving & Performance

2016 Mazda Miata MX-5 - news.mazdausa.com
2016 Mazda Miata MX-5 - news.mazdausa.com

It’s the on-road characteristics of the Miata and 124 Spider where their few differences play out. They may share the same platform, but different engines, different suspension tunings, and a difference in weight all contribute to unique in driving personalities.

The Miata and 124 Spider offer two distinct flavors of driving. The Miata is known for its playful, go kart-esque, body roll and a squirrely rear end. Take the Miata out on a curvy road, let loose, and every turn you feel like you’re in a John Frankenheimer movie. Meanwhile, the 124 Spider’s more taut suspension dispenses with most of these backend shenanigans which translates to a more controllable car in fast cornering. Which you’ll prefer should be determined with test drive.

The Fiat’s turbocharged engine is more powerful on paper, but once out on the road, the gap between it and the Miata diminishes considerably. The turbocharged engine does provide a bit more pull at the lower end of the rev range, but up in the midrange, turbo-lag rears its head, only dissipating at higher rpm. If nothing else, these cars are about driver engagement, so the more immediate throttle response plays in the Miata’s favor.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider - netcarshow.com
2017 Fiat 124 Spider - netcarshow.com

Steering in both cars is light and accurate. The six-speed manuals found in these cars are genuinely impressive, with light clutches and snappy shifts. The Miata has shorter gearing, giving you a bit more to do and find a perfect complement in the naturally aspirated engine. If you haven’t ever learned to drive stick, these cars easily justify the effort.

To boil this down, the Miata’s the wilder car of the two. While all that backend management can become tiring on long canyon roads, it’s also a prefect antidote to the daily driving doldrums. By the same token, the 124 Spider is more composed in the corners but can be annoyingly laggy in urban driving where you can’t wring out the engine.

Comfort & Interior

The clear divisions we mentioned in driving aren’t replicated inside the Miata and 124 Spider. Their cabins are, aside from a few stylistic flourishes and badging, nearly identical. Neither car is especially roomy for taller passengers. If you’re taller than 6-feet, please consider the more commodious BRZ/86 twins as good alternatives. With that said, the Miata and 124 Spider are driver focused cars, and their interiors reflect that fact.

Overall, material quality is good, with more soft touchpoints than you’d expect, given the price range. Controls are well laid out and emphasize ease of operation. The seats are a highlight. Comfortable and supportive, they’re the perfect counterbalance to these cars’ sporty suspensions, keeping fatigue at bay even on longer drives. Storage isn’t great, with just enough space in a trunk for a weekend bag. The Fiat bests the Mazda just slightly here with 4.9 cu-ft of trunk space to the Miata’s 4.5 cu-ft.

Trims & Features

2016 Mazda Miata MX-5 Brembo Brakes - news.mazdausa.com
2016 Mazda Miata MX-5 Brembo Brakes - news.mazdausa.com

The Mazda Miata comes standard with push-button start, Bluetooth, cruise control, 16-inch wheels, USB port, a 6-speaker stereo, and a six-speed manual transmission. Options include 7-inch infotainment screen, satellite radio, a 9-speaker stereo, keyless entry, Brembo brakes, navigation, leather upholstery, and heated seats.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider Sport Seats - carsforsale.com
2017 Fiat 124 Spider Sport Seats - carsforsale.com

The Fiat 124 Spider also comes standard with push-button start, 16-inch wheels, and Bluetooth. Its default stereo makes do with four speakers. Options here include larger 17-inch wheels, leather upholstery and heated seats, and keyless entry. As we mentioned above, you can also find 124 Spiders optioned with Recaro sport seats and Brembo brakes.

Tangibles and Intangibles

2016 Mazda Miata MX-5 - news.mazdausa.com
2016 Mazda Miata MX-5 - news.mazdausa.com

First the tangibles. Despite sharing a platform and a lot of components, the Miata and 124 Spider offer distinct driving experiences. The Fiat’s turbo provides a bit more power on the low end while the Miata’s naturally aspired engine is more immediate and, coupled with the shorter gearing of its six-speed manual transmission, more fun to push. Your preference in handling will come down a bit more to personal preference, with the Miata the more “playful” and the 124 Spider more controlled. Overall, the Miata nudges out the 124 Spider.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider - netcarshow.com
2017 Fiat 124 Spider - netcarshow.com

The glaring intangible we haven’t mentioned yet is the vastly different styling of these two cars. The ND Miata borrows from prior generations of Miata as it is also informed by current Mazda styling. The result is sleek yet substantial. The Fiat 124 Spider features the same wheelbase as the Miata but with five and a half inches of additional overhangs front and back. As a result, the 124 Spider looks like the bigger car. It’s double-bubble hood and squared-off haunches also make it look beefier than the Miata. The look of these two cars is just as, or even more different than their respective driving experiences. You’ll have to decide for yourself which you think looks better.

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Chris Kaiser

With two decades of writing experience and five years of creating advertising materials for car dealerships across the U.S., Chris Kaiser explores and documents the car world’s latest innovations, unique subcultures, and era-defining classics. Armed with a Master's Degree in English from the University of South Dakota, Chris left an academic career to return to writing full-time. He is passionate about covering all aspects of the continuing evolution of personal transportation, but he specializes in automotive history, industry news, and car buying advice.

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