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Brand engineering is a bit of a taboo subject in the automotive industry. It originates from the fundamental desire to satisfy both manufacturers and customers. Usually, it provides platform variations to give buyers options and usually provide manufacturers with a broader piece of the marketplace. Until now, the Miata has been notably excluded from this commercial tactic. Times have changed and now the automotive world has been introduced to the Fiat 124 Spider.
What makes this branding exercise unique is that the brands are from different automotive ideologies. It would be easy to over analyze the perceived differences between the Italian and Japanese driving experience. However, truth be told, the chassis is Japanese and any subsequent changes would be to allegedly make it more “Italian”. This isn’t the first time a platform has crossed an ideological divide…no better example exists than the Lamborghini Huracan and the Audi R8. In that example, it seemed like the overriding tendency was to make the R8 more ragged and unrefined to suit its clientele’s expectations. Are Italian cars inherently more ragged and unrefined? If so, why is this a selling point? What does this mean for the 124 Spider?
By most available accounts, the Fiat appears to be very similar to the Miata in execution. It gains some pounds and a bit more power, but could’ve been an optional Miata package without losing its identity. Of course, a major difference is the aesthetics of the car. While the Miata is a sharp, progressive design thinly draped over its stamped skeleton, the Fiat is an almost retro exercise with its familiar, organic curves.
What is there then to compel a buyer to choose the Fiat over the Miata? The answer is a choice. Consumers will vote for their preferred sports car experience with their dollars. It could prove to be an interesting (albeit risky) case study within a fairly conservative industry.
I’ll stand to take the undoubtedly unpopular position of praising the arrival of the 124. While Fiat as a brand may slightly taint the accepted image of what a Miata should be…it opens up the possibility of evolving the platform indirectly without diluting the original car’s essence. It also enables the possibility of more high performance options in the future. A harbinger to more radical versions of the 124 is the current Abarth model. If successful, it could potentially prompt Mazda to create a new, alternate Miata reality. Perhaps, a factory rotary version utilizing the (hopefully) upcoming RX-9 drivetrain? A rotary engine would do little if anything to alter the Miata’s perfect balance and may actually prove to be lighter.
Of course, no vehicle is created and marketed in a vacuum. A more aggressive setup could be just what’s needed to have the Miata compete head-to-head with an inevitable new opponent…the next generation Honda S2000. The previous battle between the two chassis left the Miata essentially out-gunned and isolated within its own unique sports car segment. The next battle has the potential to be completely different…perhaps even turbocharged.