Payne: How Fiat saved Mazda’s Miata

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Thanks goodness for the Fiata.

In partnering with Mazda’s MX-5 Miata to resurrect the classic Fiat 124 Spider — thus the nickname “Fiata” — Fiat Chrysler not only gained a halo sports car for its struggling Italian brand, but likely saved the most celebrated small sports car of the past 25 years.

The arrangement with Mazda gave Fiat and its 124 Spider a needed brand identity jolt in its return to the American market.

“The possibility exists that without our partnership with FCA, there may not have been a business case to produce the fourth-generation MX-5 Miata,” says Robert Davis, Mazda’s senior vice president of U.S. operations.

The critically acclaimed 2017 Fiat Spider is the latest addition to an American performance product renaissance. From the Dodge Challenger Hellcat to the Ford Focus RS to the Subaru BRZ, the motoring public has not had such a buffet of affordable performance iron since the 1960s. As Tim Kuniskis, Fiat Chrysler’s head of passenger car brands, likes to call it: “The Second Golden Age of the Performance Car.”

But U.S. automakers are facing the costliest wave of government regulation since the 1970s: So-called CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) gas mileage rules from Washington mandate average vehicle fuel economy of 54.5 mpg by 2025. California mandates that 15.4 percent of vehicles sold by 2025 be electric- or hydrogen-powered “zero-emission vehicles.” Combined with tougher safety regulations and increased consumer demand for navigation and driver-assist features — electronic enhancements unheard of just a decade ago — the cost of developing a new car can run into the 10 figures.

So when Mazda contemplated the fourth generation of the Miata, a green light was not assured, even as the frisky roadster has come to define the Japanese-based manufacturer’s “ZOOM ZOOM” image that covers everything from its 3-model sedan to its mid-sized CX-9 crossover.

The MX-5 is the best-selling two-seat sports car ever with more than 1 million sold since 1989 — but with annual production of just 15,000 cars it’s a relatively low-volume toy. Given the car’s bespoke platform — not shared with any other Mazda — its business case is tenuous. So for the first time in its history, Mazda looked for a partner on Miata production.

“Cars have gotten more expensive with safety and emissions requirements,” explains IHS Automotive Senior Analyst Stephanie Brinley (and an MX-5 owner). “Look at the first Miata compared to the current car; it’s night and day in terms of equipment.”

Meanwhile, partnering with Mazda was an opportunity for Italy’s Fiat which was struggling to gain an identity in the U.S. market after its merger with Chrysler. Like Mazda, capital-starved FCA faces enormous challenges to meet looming government regulations.

“If you look at where FCA is at and where are the most important places to put our money, a 124 Spider heritage car might not be at the top of the list,” said Bob Broderdorf, director of Fiat North America, at the Spider’s media launch in San Diego this month. “Unique partnerships allow us to bring a car like this to market.”

Fiata was born.

The MX-5 Miata has the same platform as the Spider 124.

Mazda’s rear-wheel-drive soft-top was the perfect platform for Fiat to launch the Spider’s comeback. The MX-5’s proven production record was an added bonus to a quality-challenged Italian automaker stuck with the nickname “Fix it again, Tony.” The two cars roll off the same Hiroshima assembly line and share chassis, switchgear, even infotainment systems – their skins and drivetrains the only significant differences.

“For Fiat it was an easy way to expand the lineup, and they have enough of a history with sports cars to credibly pull off another one,” says Brinley.

The result are two fun-mobiles starting at just $25,000, a throwback to 50 years ago when European sports cars from Fiat, Alfa, Lotus, MG and Triumph were topless fun. In 1989 the Miata resurrected that era and now, ironically, is being sustained by one of the vehicles it aimed to recreate.

But with automakers girding for a harsh decade of regulation, will the Second Golden Age last?

“Performance and tech are . . . intermingling to pay homage to these originals before additional CAFE regulations and changes to the marketplace kick in,” says Broderdorf. “Particularly with electrification.”

FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne has made no secret that he would like to partner with General Motors or another, larger company to share the R&D investment required to meet those challenges. With fewer resources, smaller manufactures are entering into more symbiotic partnerships to sustain lower volume models that are still essential to brand image and youth buyer outreach. Subaru developed the BRZ sports car and rebadges it as a Toyota 86. And Mazda builds the Toyota Yaris iA in Mexico off its Mazda 2 platform.

Fiata may be the future of many more industry marriages.

Henry Payne is The News’ auto critic.

Twitter: @HenryEPayne