I can’t think of a better way for Fiat to revive the 124 Spider nameplate after nearly 50 years of dormancy than to affix the title to a sports car developed in conjunction with Mazda. Think Italian styling with Japanese-build quality and you get the picture.
In today’s global automotive environment, it makes sense for companies to share development costs, especially for low-volume vehicles such as a two-seat sports car. The Spider is derived from the all-new Mazda MX-5, an ideal base upon which to build because the MX-5 is small, agile and lively. It is the personification of driving fun, characteristics that Fiat has long espoused as well.
To my eye, the Fiat version of the MX-5 is much more attractive. The nose bears a strong resemblance to the 1966 124 Spider. The grille is more upright than that of the MX-5, and the sculpted hood bulges provide nice surface detail. The top edge of the door has a kick-up character line that recalls that of the original 124.
The 124 Spider comes in three models. The Classica starts at $24,995, the Lusso at $27,495 and the Abarth at $28,195. The Abarth gets a slight increase to 164 horsepower. I drove a Lusso with an automatic transmission from Fiat’s press fleet.
It’s fitting that the new 124 has a 1.4-liter Fiat MultiAir engine, the same displacement as the one used from 1966 to 1970. The big difference, however, is that the original car’s engine had 90 horsepower while today’s turbocharged engine delivers 160 horsepower and has a fuel mileage rating of 25 miles per gallon in the city and 36 on the highway. That’s the beauty of technology.
The Fiat engine is nicely responsive from low rpm, and while an automatic transmission may seem anathema to diehard enthusiasts, it works very well with this engine. A six-speed manual is also offered.
The 90.9-inch wheelbase means the Spider is pretty small, and the cockpit definitely feels tight. Folks over six feet tall are likely to be cramped. The pedals are tightly grouped and getting in and out is not the easiest.
Dropping the manual top is a matter of undoing a central latch and pulling it back into folded position behind the seats. It is most easily done outside of the car, but it can be done from inside.
The use of high-tensile steel and careful attention to reducing even the slightest amount of weight results in a curb weight of 2,476 pounds. The lack of weight enhances the Spider’s manueverability. The steering is light and direct and the car pivots around corners so precisely that it almost feels telepathic, thanks in large measure to a 50-50 weight distribution and low center of gravity. The Fiat may ride a tad softer than its Mazda cousin, but the difference is not significant.
On the highway, the cloth top was noisy in spite of an acoustic headliner. I found the sound to be a real distraction on a trip of any distance. A retractable hard top would add weight and take up trunk space but it would make the car much more suitable for highway use.
The Fiat’s infotainment system has a seven-inch color touchscreen display. It is operated with voice commands or a multi-function command dial on the console. The test car had keyless entry, Bluetooth connectivity and a satellite radio with a four-speaker audio system. Navigation is a dealer-installed option.
It’s good to see Fiat revive the 124 Spider even if sales are likely to be small. Joining with Mazda to make it economically feasible is a bonus for both companies. After all, the world can always use another affordable two-seat sports car or two.
2017 Fiat 124 Spider Lusso
Engine: 1.4-liter, 160-hp four-cylinder
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 90.9 inches
Curb weight: 2,476 pounds
Base price: $27,495
As driven: $29,840
MPG: 25 in the city, 36 on the highway