2017 Fiat 124 Spider captures spirit of original, despite Miata DNA

Tribune Newspapers

Five years into the Fiat brand's return to U.S. shores, the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider goes on sale this summer to bolster the lineup, inspired by the original Fiat 124 Spider sold in the U.S. from 1968 to 1982.

That last model year marked Fiat's retreat from the U.S. market, and my mother bought one of the last new Spiders. I drove it a lot — even took my driver's test in it — and it gave me an appreciation for small European sports cars. Years later I would buy a well-loved 1981 Spider of my own, and the 2017 captures the spirit if not the distinction of the original.

While most brands would kill for younger customers, Fiat Brand North America director Bob Broderdorf thinks the new 124 Spider convertible will bring in an older and more affluent crowd to Fiat buyers who are five years below the industry average of 51 years old.

The price of admission is reasonable. With the exception of the limited-edition launch model, you can buy any trim level of the 124 Spider starting under $30,000, even with an automatic transmission. This falls in line with the appeal of the original Fiat Spiders, as they were reasonably priced.

My mother remembers paying $8,000 for her '82. This was right as the Spider would be remarketed as the Pininfarina Azzurra Spider with a leather interior for a lot more. Italian design house and coach-builder Pininfarina actually manufactured the Spiders for Fiat. Cost savings were achieved by the use of off-the-shelf mechanical bits from Fiat 124 sedans. "It was iconic because it was affordable," quipped Broderdorf.

The 2017 Fiat 124 Spider also springs off of existing technology and uses an outside builder, but in this case it is based on the Mazda MX-5 Miata and manufactured by Mazda in Hiroshima, Japan. It's hard for the Italian roadster to escape a resemblance even though it shares no sheet metal with the Miata, and it's 5 inches longer and about 100 pounds heavier. The wheelbase and track width are the same. Most of the 5 inches is in a longer front end ahead of the wheels, which slightly skews the perfect 50:50 front-to-rear weight distribution of the Miata and the original Spider.

"It would have been nice if they pushed the styling a bit further so it's less like a drag and drop of Spider 2000 elements onto a Miata," said John Ekholm, a consultant in Seattle who bought my '81 for his first car. "It seems like the rear-end styling might be less successful and 'Fiatish' than the front."

The grille shape works as an homage to the original, and I'll buy the headlights as a modern interpretation. A character line from the fender up over the door handles does evoke the original.

Giovanni D'Avola, noted vintage Fiat expert and proprietor of Chicago's Autosprint Ltd. since 1985, agrees. "The front at least has a European slick look, but once you get past the doors, honestly, it's a Miata."

It has an Italian-built Fiat 1.4-liter MultiAir turbocharged four-cylinder engine; the original 124 Spider had a 1.4-liter, though saw only a few turbos late in the run.

It's the same engine as the Abarth 500 but is the first rear-wheel drive application, said Leia Horton, program manager of the 124.

A significant amount of suspension tuning was done to the car in order to distinguish it as a unique product, Horton said, though Horton was vague when pressed about actual parts differences.

Back in the '80s and before, the Fiat brand certainly suffered from an image of poor reliability. Contrary to the brand's questionable reputation at the time, our '82 Spider needed only one inexpensive repair in 15,000 miles.

Today's Fiats rate well against other subcompacts. J.D. Power ranked Fiat the top "city car" in dependability over three years in 2016, and Strategic Vision called Fiat 500 the top "Micro Car" in total quality for two years running. Initial quality is another story, however. Fiat ranked second from the bottom in J.D. Power's 2016 Initial Quality Study of all brands released on June 22, tracking problems owners experience in the first 90 days.

Roadster test

I tested a base Classica trim level in Grigio Argento, a metallic gray that is a little darker than the silver on my mother's Spider. No blue interior like hers, as the cloth interior comes only in Nero (black).

Average-size drivers will be comfortable, but at 6 feet, 4 inches with long legs, I found the 124 Spider a tight fit. It was workable for shorter stints, but the fact that I couldn't straighten my left leg would become tedious over time. The passenger side was even worse as the footwell is shorter for some reason. No tilting the seat back at the rearmost point, either, as you are up against a wall. The old Spider was cozy but had a vestigial back seat, which allowed a little reclining or even stuffing a second friend in for short periods of time. With the top up, I nearly maxed out headroom. Cup holders looked clipped on as an afterthought at the rear of the console, right up against the back of the small passenger compartment. The door of the storage compartment, when you open it, will hit anything you have in the holders.

Steering response is quick, and the 124 Spider Classica can easily overpower its Yokohama 16-inch tires on more challenging curves. When it happens, the car exhibits its excellent weight distribution and handles well enough that it does not understeer or get out of sorts. Peak torque is cited at 2600 revolutions per minute, but I found 4000 a sweet spot with the turbo spooled up, smoothly pulling it out of the corners, looking over the two familiar bulges in the hood.

Horton pointed out the sport mode on the Abarth version increases torque, changes throttle mapping and changes steering calibration as well as paddle shifter operation on models with an automatic transmission. "We incorporated a little oversteer," Horton said. "You can really whip it around."

I found this to be true; the Abarth was great fun to take around a fast autocross course. It did remind me of the Fiat 500 Abarth, despite the different chassis and drive wheels. Both were created with the same performance philosophy.

Mere Miata?

Comparisons to the MX-5 Miata are inevitable, and Fiat had one on hand for short test drives. It was surprising how different the cars feel in two aspects. Though with less power, the Mazda engine is more free-revving with a snarling exhaust note. Suspension feels stiffer over bumps, giving the Miata more of a go-kart feel. Interestingly, this and the uplevel Grand Touring Miata wear the same 17-inch Bridgestone tires as the Lusso and Abarth 124 Spiders.

In a lot of ways I felt the 2017 captured the character of the original Spiders. They weren't terribly fast but fast enough to have fun. Which recalls the expression: It's better to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow. The ride was firm yet compliant, but when you threw it into a corner, it was well-balanced and predictable.

The 2017 has a lot more power, but it's still a smooth cruiser with great cornering capability. Based on the vehicles I sampled, the Classica and Lusso Spiders have nicer interior trim for less money than Miata. That coupled with a firmer ride makes the MX-5 Miata feel more raw. This can be a positive depending what you are looking for, and that distinction grows less evident in the 124 Spider Abarth.

Andy Mikonis is a freelance writer.

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