Prominent Minnesota auto writer leaves too soon

October 7, 2018 by · Comments Off on Prominent Minnesota auto writer leaves too soon
Filed under: Features, Autos 

By John Gilbert

    Those of us who have spent a lot of years writing about new cars lost a star out of our galaxy. just as the September of 2018 was yielding to the changing foliage of October, when Tony Swan died at age 78 after a long and intense battle with cancer,

Tony Swan, looking like he enjoyed the high-tech tools of being an auto journalist, was spotted in the San Antonio airport in April of 2017.

     Weakened to a point of unwilling fragility after trying every potential method of fighting the insidious disease, Tony spent most of his final week in a gentle hospice facility near his home in Ypsilanti, Michigan. After final farewells to his devoted wife and partner, Mary, and insisting his gathered kids from an earlier marriage talk about seeing each other soon, rather than saying goodbye, Tony allowed himself to relax and slip away overnight.

    For most of four decades, Tony Swan and I were the only two automotive writers from Minnesota. Times have changed, with a new generation of social-media types have blogged their way into the business, not always with proper responsibility in our estimation. We always discussed such matters because even though we had taken widely divergent paths to whatever status we attained, we remained close friends for something like 55 years, ever since we attended the University of Minnesota journalism school together back in the 1960s.

   Those divergent paths were because Tony and I shared a love of cars, which led him on an upward spiral from AutoWeek to Popular Mechanics, Motor Trend and Car and Driver. My journalistic drive, so to peak, was split between hockey and sports writing on one hand and auto writing and motorsports on the other, a form of writing ambidexterity that made me determine to stay in Minnesota. In an odd way, we always had each other’s back, regardless of how scarce out time together was during my 30 years at the Minneapolis Tribune and later return home to Duluth for a couple of opportunities and more recent freelancing.

     We always seemed to agree on things of true importance, but even the disagreements were noteworthy. You could debate or even argue with him for a while, remaining respectful and cordial, then suddenly Tony would look you in the eye and say: “Well, you’re wrong!”

    End of discussion.

   Tony lived his life by his own rules, and that carried over to friendships and arguments. Our mutual passion for motorsports led us both to pass road-racing schools at Sports Car Club of America venues when Showroom Stock Sedan racing started in the early 1970s. I did it for a year or two, and to this day employ some of the smart-driving techniques we learned there, while Tony continued racing a little, most recently in the low-budget “24 Hours of Lemons” series for cars with a $500 maximum value. 

    Tony mostly enjoyed keeping things simple behind the wheel. He was an excellent driver, and except for a few speeding tickets now and then, he didn’t overdo it on the streets. His personal car of choice? A Volkswagen GTI, the no-compromise performance model of the Golf. Inexpensive, comparatively speaking, and with a six-speed stick shift because it was most fun that way and, as a simple pleasure, it gave him total control.

    Tony and Mary lived in Ypsilanti, Michigan, close enough to Detroit, the nation’s automotive nerve-center. At age 78, Tony had eased back from his writing at Car and Driver magazine; I was never sure it was his own call, because a new generation was taking over, and he kept free-lancing wherever he could.

    Writers rarely talk or write about other writers, but I will. Anyone who read about cars for the last few decades has read something by Tony, in one of those “buff” magazines. Others will write about what a great guy he was, a warm human behind that curmudgeon-like demeanor. I will simply say that he was that, but he also was the most skillful writer for every publication he worked for.

   Tony grew up in the western suburbs of Minneapolis, near Lake Minnetonka.  He was a couple years older than I, and we hit it off because we both had cynical senses of humor, and we could crack each other up anytime we got together. I left for a two-year experience writing at the Duluth News Tribune, then accepted an offer from the prestigious sports department of the Minneapolis Tribune about the time Tony got a job writing sports at the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

    The papers were bitter rivals, but Tony and I stay friends while competing in print, both covering hockey all winter and motorsports all summer. We never told our papers, but when we were sent off to cover Glen Sonmor’s University of Minnesota hockey team for a heated series with Badger Bob Johnson’s Wisconsin outfit, Tony and I would share a drive from Minneapolis to Madison. We kept each other awake, and in stitches, when we drove home through the night after the Saturday game. We’d make a stop for soup, a sandwich, or a piece of pie at Grandma Smrekar’s all-night cafe at Millston, Wis., and invariably we’d end up laughing like fools over something that a normal human might find inconsequential.

   Tony left the Pioneer Press to join an attempt by a suburban paper into a special-edition sports scheme. It didn’t work and was disbanded, leaving Tony out of writing while I was on an upward trajectory writing sports and an automotive column for the Tribune. I was flattered that management, advertising, and, most importantly, readers enjoyed my take on both subjects..

   I was more flattered when Better Homes & Gardens, the huge, slick and world famous magazine, produced in Des Moines, wanted to interview me to take over their monthly auto column. They flew me to Des Moines and made me a very solid offer. I paused, because at the time I was free to cover the best hockey games at every level in Minnesota every all winter, and auto racing all summer, with my auto column year-round. I couldn’t see moving from the Twin Cities to Des Moines and giving up sports and cars for just cars

   So I turned them down, but I suggested that I knew an exceptional writer who might be perfect for their job, and how to reach Tony Swan. He jumped at it, and stayed with it, moving to the West Coast as it morphed into a travel feature, the perfect launching pad to join AutoWeek, then Cycle World, then Motor Trend and Popular Mechanics, before relocating back in the Midwest in Detroit to write for Car and Driver.

    We stayed connected at auto shows and other places. Covering a race at Donnybrooke Speedway stands out, because Tony was doing a lengthy report on a Peugeot diesel, which he drove from Detroit, timing his trip so he could visit his family on Lake Minnetonka and cover the road race. Those of us who regularly made that trek from the Twin Cities to what became BIR took the smaller but faster and less-congested Hwy. 25 north off Interstate 94 and straight into Brainerd. The Peugeot Diesel was a great long-running car but not fast, being before turbocharging came into fashion. So when Tony stepped on the gas, there was no evidence the pedal had any connection to the engine for a mile.

    The only car on the road with him was just ahead, some guy who didn’t want his big American car to be passed by that foreign thing. Whenever Tony pulled out to pass him, the other car would accelerate just enough to stay ahead, then slow down until Tony would try again. It was maddening to Tony, so he plotted ahead, where he knew of one particular 4-way stop in an otherwise deserted rural area. Approaching that intersection, you could see for a mile ahead and both ways on the crossroad. So Tony backed off a bit,  and when the other driver started to slowed down for the stop, Tony had stayed hard on the gas and pulled out, flying through the four-way stop and passing him at 75 just as his tormentor came to a complete stop, settling that issue.

    Swan was one of the founders of the North American Car of the Year award, given out every year since 1993 by a panel of selected journalists. In its second year, Tony called me and invited me to join the jury. It wasn’t out of friendship, but because he respected all I had done as the only person writing about cars in Minnesota. I enjoyed my 13 years on that jury, contributing several suggestions that I thought helped streamline the selection process and gaining publicity for the award. Years later, a fellow decided to cut me from the group, for his own reasons, and Tony fought the move and led a group that argued in my favor. I’m forever indebted to him for his attempts to aid my cause in what had become a hotly political group.

    I was flown to San Antonio for a new vehicle introduction in April of  2017, and as I left my plane and entered the gate area, I spotted Tony sitting in a chair, writing something on his computer while he operated his cell phone, which was plugged in recharging at the same time. I couldn’t resist shooting a photo of it, because Tony didn’t see me, and while he looked like Mr. High Tech at the time, I knew he hated all these new-fangled devices.

   By then, Tony had been diagnosed with cancer, and had explained it to me in considerable detail. He was optimistic about beating it, and continued testing cars, writing about them, and racing in his vintage class as he tried some new procedure. He fought it, and won a few rounds, but it was sinister and kept coming back or worsening. He’d pursue the every suggested treatment, but the dreaded disease would circle back and strike somewhere else.

   All the while, his weight, and his strength, were being diminished, but not his spirit. I tried to cheer him up to keep fighting, knowing well that he would, by phone calls, e-mails, or phone voice-messages.

   In early September, after reading an intriguing article on immunotherapy and its potential to fight cancer, I summoned Tony’s phone number but I didn’t want to disturb him with a call, so I sent him an email and follow-up text message asking if he’d ever tried it. He responded brusquely: “I’ve had experience with two different immunotherapy drugs, with very little luck…Who is this?”

   I apologized and told him who I was, saying maybe my phone wasn’t coded into his, and I had sent a text message because I wasn’t sure the e-mail had gone through. He responded to thank me for the thought and explained he was doing daily radiation for a month, “…to shrink a series of surface tumors marching down my chest…I’m pretty close to out of options. If I’m lucky with these treatments, maybe I’ll see another birthday. (May.)”

    Later, I attended another introduction where he had canceled. So I explained some neat technical features on the new vehicle to keep him updated, and I used text messaging again — the rest of my family’s favorite method of communication. Tony responded and talked about other models that had been engineered impressively.

   The he abruptly finished with a comment: “Where did you get this numbered e-mail? Not a good idea, in my estimation.”

   I sent him a gentle response, trying to avoid sounding condescending, and saying: “…this is text-messaging, a seemingly more efficient, if trendy, contact method.”

   Then I realized, here was this master auto reviewer who can understand the finer engineering points of a new car, and he still didn’t like things that were fancier than need be, and he had never heard of text messaging, or willingly engaged in it. Numbered e-mail? I loved it.

   Tony and Mary drove to the Twin Cities to see family member again in late September, and Mary helped him attend a Gopher football game by wheelchair. It was perhaps too much for him. On their drive home, they decided to drive south, which was fortunate, because Tony had some serious issues that caused them to make a side-trip to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. They get him patched together for the rest of the long drive, and Mary noted on his Caring Bridge page that he finally agreed to go right into hospice care upon their return.

   She also alerted us that the end was near a few days later, in midweek. Joan and I talked about it, both knowing that our attempts to send thoughts, prayers, inspiration, and maybe even cosmic energy had become futile. I sent him a final note — by e-mail, this time — recounting Grandma Smrekar’s and other good times from our past. I told him we would keep hoping for a miracle, but if he had gotten weary of the fight, we hoped he could find some pain-free and peacefulway to relax and rest. I closed with: “We love you, man.”

   I went to bed and slept hard, but I woke up four or five times, and each time I was surprised that my thoughts were focused on Tony Swan. When it was time to get up, as the first sunlight ventured across Lake Superior, I noted the trees in our yard blowing back and forth with great force from the persistent wind gusts. Then I spotted the Caring Bridge notification from Mary that said Tony had peacefully ended his battle overnight.

   It called for one final message to Mary, where I offered our sincere condolences, and described the oddity of waking up repeatedly through the night, focused on Tony each time, and then spotting the trees being blown back and forth. I submitted to her that Tony will always be with us, and maybe the wind-blown trees meant it was Tony’s spirit, making one more lap around his beloved Minnesota. 

    Rest easy, Tony.

Audi A4 matures into sports-luxury sedan

September 27, 2018 by · Comments Off on Audi A4 matures into sports-luxury sedan
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

All grown up in its fifth generation, the 2018 Audi A4 is now an entry-luxury sedan.

By John Gilbert

    The first Audi A4 was built back in 1994 and introduced to the U.S. as a 1995 model. That was 23 years ago, and the car remains near and dear to my heart because that also was the year I was invited to join the North American Car of the Year jury.

   Rookie or not, I was fully confident in voting for the all-new Audi A4 because it met and exceeded all the criteria for being new, uniquely styled, for having high technology, and for being a superb car to drive.

   Audi had built great cars in Ingolstadt, Germany, for many years before that, but the A4 was a breakthrough as a moderately priced and moderately sized sedan, combining the luxury of the larger Audi autobahn cruisers and the fuel-efficiency so important to buyers world wide. Audi started out racing cars as Auto Union, which brought several companies together to compete with Mercedes and, later, BMW.

   For a number of years, and through four generations of improved technology, the A4 was one of the best bargains in the automotive world, available starting on the bargain side of $30,000. It was always a well-balanced, safe car, and it had the quattro system of all-wheel drive that Audi had devised and was already acclaimed worldwide. The front-wheel-drive A4 was a good deal, but the quattro model was only a $1,500 hit on the sticker. Wise consumers learned early that for $1,500, you not only gained all-wheel drive, but when you traded it in five years later, it was worth about $3,000 more with quattro.

    The quattro concept was based on performance. When going around a tight curve the outside two wheels have to turn farther than the inside, so Audi’s quattro — lower-case letters, please — provided more torque to the outside wheels in curves. While helping speed and roadholding in racing curves, the quattro system provided improved safety and control on highways and streets in all weather conditions, as an exponent.

   A lot of years have passed since 1995, and the number of fantastic cars has proliferated beyond the scope of what any of us foresaw back then. But it all came back to me recently when I had a chance to spend a week with a 2018 Audi A4 quattro, with a manual 6-speed transmission.


A little longer, a lot more stylish and luxurious, the Audi A4 stands out.

  The car, now in its fifth generation, was dark red, called Matador Red metallic, and its understated luxury radiated whenever or wherever you parked it or drove it. Driving the car is a real treat, continuing a trait common to all Audis. The A4 has grown, or maybe matured is the best word, because it’s no longer the company’s efficiently stubby entry-level sedan, a role now filled by the very neat A3, allowing the A4 to age gracefully, retaining its sporty demeanor as it has grown into an “entry-luxury” car — a downsized version of the higher end A5, A6, A7 and A8 models.

   Climbing aboard, you are taken with the feel of security and luxury, from the leather seats and soft-touch dashboard and finely fitted seams everywhere. The supportive bucket seats amplify that feeling, all before you’ve even started playing with the instrumentation, which I find the most impressive of any manufacturer in the world. More on that later.

   The sticker delivered a bit of shock to my system. The A4 quattro listed for $40,500, which wasn’t bad, but as tested the car stood at $51,650. The high-tech stuff that all compiled on board as options can justify even that price, but it is a stretch upward from entry-level.

   Under the hood, the tried and true 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine is turbocharged to deliver 252 horsepower and 273 foot-pounds of torque. The 6-speed stick is a treat, especially with the quattro system’s ability to cling to the roadway when you drive aggressively around curves.

The 2018 A4 Sport quattro has a personal cockpit style and dashreplicated nav screen.

    It also comes with start-stop to save you some gas at stoplights, leather seats, a power panoramic sunroof, and all the safety stuff, such as multiple airbags, Audi’s antilock brakes with accompanying electronic brake-force assist and the ability to prevent low-speed collisions in city driving. Full stabilization control also joins the standard equipment list.

   The Premium Plus package adds 18-inch styled wheels, a Bang & Olufsen sound system with 3D sound, a built-in alarm with motion detector, LED headlights (to go with the standard LED taillights), and the Navigation and Telematics package with Audi’s unique navigation system for the virtual cockpit, boost the price by over $6,000. And the Sport Plus package is worth another $3,400, with dynamic steering, sport seats and adaptive sport suspension, plus the S-Line interior trim to set your car apart from other A4s.

   While the driving is what leaves the best impression, there are some surprises there, too. The coordination between the impressive turbo power, the transmission, and the direct fuel-injection feeds the computer and allows tremendous flexibility in performance. You can take off as hard as you want, and even with a stick, you can enjoy shifting a lot or relax and shift only a little.


The new A4 price reflects its new stature, technology, and style.

If you approach an intersection in, say, fourth gear, as you decelerate and see there’s nothing coming, you can downshift and get more revs immediately, or simply step on the gas and let the computer pull out a bit more torque for a smooth and easy rise from crawl speed.

   Also, more than once I got onto the freeway, shifting up to fourth gear, and then, hearing no complaints from the engine, forgetting to go up to fifth or sixth because it cruised so easily at 70 that I forgot I was only in fourth. Even with a few of those brain-fades, we got over 30 miles per gallon, and a couple times reached the EPA highway estimate of 33.

   If you chose the front-wheel-drive A4, you might get more gas mileage, with EPA highway estimates of 37, but I would bet in many cases the mileage would be almost identical. And if you’ve ever driven up the hills of Duluth, Minnesota, and realize what winter storms can be like, you might trade a couple mpg for the all-wheel drive quattro.

   My favorite feature might be the aforementioned nav screens. The normal center-stack screen does a good job, and can have its information screens altered easily by a console knob. Playing around with it, I found that you can have a flat map of streets and so forth, or you can switch it and come up with a Google Maps screen, which is from actual satellite photos, with building, street and tree detail. Impressive. And very neat.

   Meanwhile, the steering wheel is loaded with technology itself, and one of the features is that you can alter the look of the instrument panel, which starts with  the normal large tachometer on the left and large speedometer on the right, with a panel between them for various items you select. One of those items is to duplicate the nav screen.

   Sure enough, you get the nav map between the tach and speedometer. But if you click it again, it goes to the Google Map real-life satellite view. And if you click it still more, the large tach and speedometer shrink to about one-fourth their size, out on the extremities of the whole instrument panel, and the Google Map screen spans from left to right, a panoramic view of the area ahead of your car, only much clearer.

Panoramic view shows home, neighborhood.

Normal gauges can be reduced in size.

Navigation can select Google Maps view.

It is so amazing, I parked in my driveway and played with it for several minutes after getting to my rural home. I enlarged the panoramic view of my location until it showed my position in my driveway’s turn-around area, as well as my house and garage and tree-lined driveway. I magnified it more until it felt like I was parachuting down into my property.

    Come to think of it, you can have your autonomous self-driving vehicle. I’ll take the A4; I believe you could tape over the windshield and drive from here to Chicago by using only the nav screen on the instrument panel for your forward vision.

   By the way, I still believe I was right voting for the Audi A4 as Car of the Year back in 1994. Nobody can remember what actually won, but the A4 was the best and most enduring car of that year, and it is still among the best cars in the world.


Mazda6 adds turbo power in 2018 model

September 21, 2018 by · Comments Off on Mazda6 adds turbo power in 2018 model
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 
An all-new Mazda6 is due in 2019, but Mazda couldn't wait, spiking the 2018 with a turbocharged engine.

After an upgraded 2017.5 model, the 2018 Mazda6 becomes a hot performer with a turbo version of its 2.5 engine.

By John Gilbert

    It’s easy to poke fun at Mazda’s trademark “Zoom-zoom” catch-phrase, but for the 2018 Mazda6, the company could simplify it to “ZOOM!”

   The sportiness inherent in all Mazda products is real, and while the bold-face type and italics are mine, the new Mazda6 has earned them by spiking the previous Mazda6’s personality with a turbocharger to turn the top model with the enhanced 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine into a sizzling performer.

   Mazda resisted turbocharging since redesigning its 2.0 and 2.4 with the company’s revolutionary Skyactiv engine concept, which calls for holistic, clean-sheet design incorporating all the latest techniques in harmony to extract every bit of power and fuel-efficiency. The finished product came with a 13-to-1 compression ratio but still burned best with 87 octane regular fuel.

   When the company’s largest SUV, the CX-9 was redesigned, Mazda, which had dropped its V6 engine, still had to compete with the V6es in comparative Honda, Toyota, Nissan and U.S. vehicles. Easiest way to do that was to turbocharge the 2.5 in the CX-9, and it worked more than just satisfactorily.

   Mazda technology is unfolding almost too fast, and a totally redesigned Mazda6 is scheduled for sometime in 2019, but meanwhile, the already sleek Mazda6 got a feature and interior upgrade for mid-2017, called the 2017.5 model. The 2018 Mazda6 doesn’t look different at a glance, but to take on competition such as the all-new Honda Accord the latest Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry, Mazda figured to shift the turbo 2.5 from the big SUV into the Mazda6 midsize sedan.

   The very classy 2018 Mazda6 Signature model I got for a Labor Day week’s test drive was equipped with the 2.5-liter turbocharged 4, and the turbo’s 225 horsepower and 310 foot-pounds of torque — which would have been impressive for a V6 just a couple of years ago — were startling upgrades from the 184 horses and 185 foot-pounds of the normally aspirated 2.5.

As midsize cars stretch into the larger segment, the Mazda6 displays the class of a luxury car.

   A footnote to the preferences of U.S. buyers to go after SUVs, pickup trucks, or compact cars, my suspicion is that the sedan category might be streamlining itself in the future, because the newest midsize cars are as big and roomy as large cars have been. And the midsizers outperform their heftier relatives with ease.

   I love to drive hot cars that might be overpowered but fun, but I also can appreciate the fine engineering of certain high-tech advancements in whatever size. I always was aware the previous 2.5 lacked the sudden jolt of larger engines on initial takeoff, but it also revved easily and readily to real-world levels. So I found the normally aspirated 2.5 more than adequate in the 2017.5 model I reviewed early in the 2018 calendar year.

   In fact, that one was a stunning red color, so when the new grey Mazda6 appeared — called, boringly, “Machine Gray Metallic” — I was a bit let down, thinking it was just more of the same car.

   The car looked classy, so classy that I thought it had traded sportiness for class in the exchange. Then I opened the door and saw the deep-chestnut Nappa leather seats and the revised interior. More class, without depicting sportiness. After that, I climbed behind the steering wheel into the well-supported driver’s seat and hit the start button. Shifting into “D,” I hit the gas, and, without question, instead of “Zoom-zoom” I had “ZOOM!” at the touch of my right toe.


Comfort and features join in the revised Mazda6 interior appointments.

  The largest and roomiest of Mazda’s sedans is clearly designed and built to take on the best from Honda, Toyota and Nissan, and even their upscale arms of Acura, Lexus and Infiniti, for zip, and still provide over 30 miles per gallon when you keep your foot off the gas.

   By Skyactiv tradtion, Mazda engineers go well beyond mere engine power. The new Mazda6 handles with quick-steering and firmed up suspension front and rear, bolstered by stabilizer bars at both ends, and you the little toggle switch on the console is a big benefit if you want to delve deeper into sporty handling. Switching it without even looking, you can alter suspension firmness, the Mazda-built automatic’s shift points, and the quick and precise steering to comfort or sporty choices. I never found the sporty settings to be harsh, and at its sportiest, they do noticeably add performance and handling quickness to the car.

    Quite amazingly, the tightening of the settings combined with the instant power of the turbocharged engine makes the 2018 Mazda6 perform much more like a sports sedan than a luxury car, despite its classy good looks.

    Sticker price was $34,750 on the loaded Signature model, with virtually all features standard. Not only does that include about every imaginable comfort and safety feature, it also includes the subtle G-vectoring system, which ingeniously alters power to the outside front drive wheel to create an almost-instinctive inducement when making a sharp turn, resulting in far less need for steering correction.

Shifter is joined by a control knob for display features, and a toggle to alter handling levels.

    There is never any doubt that the focus is on driving precision and astute control, and the features on the Signature model reflect that. Dynamic stability control, traction control, hill-launch assist, and the battery of recent driver/safety  aids such as blind-spot monitoring, radar cruise control, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, the suite of antilock brakes and electronic braking assist, with smart braking assist, are all present and appreciated.

    Structurally, the Mazda6 feels stronger because of the improved Skyactiv body ring structure, which encircles the occupant compartment with high-strength steel rings, improve the structural rigidity and secure feel that’s relayed through the steering wheel.

   The LED headlights are bright and feature a precise cutoff, and also have automatic on and off when set to operate it, and are supported by LED taillights and daytime running lights, and adaptive headlights also bend around curves up ahead. Tire-pressure monitors let you know if any tire loses a few pounds of air pressure.

   The manual mode on the console-mounted shifter are useful, although the steering-wheel paddles are my choice for manually shifting up or down without taking your hands off the wheel. Great for accelerating, and also excellent for dropping down a couple gears to help slow you descending hills.

   All the latest connectivity items also came on the Signature model, with a navigation system, USB audio, and trip computer all readily spotted on the heads-up display or the 8-inch color touch-screen, and all important controls are remotely operated with steering wheel buttons. The only place Mazda might have gone overboard is in eliminating its previous simplicity in offering a simple round knob or two to adjust volume and station selection.

Steering wheel remote switches enhance driving control, and heads-up display helps you spot deer crossing the road.

   Ventilated and heated front buckets are power operated, with two preset settings. The 19-inch wheels are fitted with all-season tires, and rain-sensing and de-icing wipers are appreciated.

   When all of those features are combined in one very attractive sedan, the case could be made to find a Mazda dealer and negotiate for the 2018 model. We can assume, based on Mazda’s creative styling studios, that the 2019 will be spectacular. We can wait for whatever surprises Mazda might have coming next year, but for now, all of the latest high-tech features are already out, on the 2018 Mazda6.

   Including Zoom-zoom tweaked to full “Zoom!”


September 19, 2018 by · Comments Off on sportshort
Filed under: Uncategorized 

What happened last night in sports up north.

New Fiat 124 is Miata kin that loves pasta

September 14, 2018 by · Comments Off on New Fiat 124 is Miata kin that loves pasta
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Fiat fitted its own drivetrain and bodywork to convert a Mazda Miata into the Fiat 124 Spider.

By John Gilbert

    When you climb into a Fiat 124 Spider, right away you forfeit the right to complain about a laundry list of nitpicks that a lesser vehicle would justify arousing.

    For example, you can’t complain about a lack of rear-seat room, because there is no rear seat. You can’t complain about its inability to tow

a trailer, or about the fact that a little road or wind noise might creep into the cockpit. You can’t complain that it is a tight squeeze to climb behind the steering wheel, or that it requires a certain level of conditioning to hop out of its driver’s seat.

   Those allowances are easily made up for by the sheer joy of driving the 124 Spider, and it has always been thus. Back when the Fiat 124 was all Fiat, with its little Italian heritage and less-than neck-snapping acceleration, in exchange for a completely coordinated sports car, that could take on the best British MGs or Triumphs and deliver satisfaction.

    The 2018 Fiat 124 Spider is, of course, the Italian company’s spin on the perpetually satisfying Mazda Miata, now called the MX-5 at least as long as you are within earshot of any Mazda official. Otherwise, we all call it the Miata.

   Fiat arranged a deal with Mazda, when it wanted to recreate its old 124’s image, and Mazda provided the platform and bodywork of the Miata for Fiat to play with.

    First, Fiat took off the low horizontal grille that has been Mazda’s signature, and fitted it with a lower and wider oval opening that is, come to think of it, a quite-faithful rendition of the old 124, brought up to modern times.

   But mainly, Mazda kept its fantastic SkyActiv 20-liter 4-cylinder engine which delivers 155 horsepower and 148 foot-pounds of torque. Nobody ever complains that the Miata is underpowered, because that high-revving, naturally-aspirated 4 keeps revving and giving you easily adequate punch to make a tour around a cloverleaf feel exhilarating.


Framed by Lake Superior, the Fiat 124 Spider brings back to life its own iconic Fiat 124.

  But Fiat has built its own even smaller engines, and made the most of them with the MultiAir treatment to the valvetrain, and then turbocharging it. In that guise, the Fiat Abarth’s 1.4-liter 4-cylinder is more than 25 percent smaller than the Miata engine, yet puts out 184 horsepower and 184 foot-pounds of torque.

    That’s a lot of power from such a small engine, which best defines the wonder of turbocharging to force a greater volume of fuel-air mixture into the engine.

   With a 6-speed manual transmission standard, the front-engine, rear-drive 124 Spider feels every bit as perfectly balanced as the Miata, and if it looks slightly less sporty than the Miata, it also has a bit more of a classic appearance, befitting a company that also presented Ferraris to the world for so many years.

    The soft-top 124 Spider has a perfectly fitted fabric top, and, like the Miata, doesn’t offer any fancy electric buttons to make it go down or up. But it does offer an amazingly simple manual operation. You could stop at a stoplight when you realize that you should have put the top down before you left. No problem. Reach up and unlatch the single-latching center point on the top, and it pops ajar.


Acoustic fabric roof can be folded down in seconds with one hand.

Top folds into its own receptacle, clicks into place, and you’re free.

Push the leading edge of the top upward just an inch or so, and relatch the switch so it isn’t dangling, then flip the top up and back, where its perfectly folded and fitted self disappears into itself as you push it back, and as it starts to lower itself into the receptacle behind the tall headrests of the bucket seats, you can reach back — awkwardly, maybe, if you have a sore shoulder — and give it one firm push downward. You are pleasantly surprised at the neat, firm sound as the top clicks down tight.

    When you hop out of the car, you might be thankful at how much easier it is to extricate yourself when there is no top, but then look at the refined fit of where the top is folded down on top of itself, leaving a hard fabric-covered panel to face the elements.

    Facing the elements is one of the joys of owning a two-seater sports car. You get used to the wind, but the 124 Spider is remarkably adept at channeling the passing wind to  keep on passing, without the anticipated turbulence that you might anticipate lifting your baseball cap off your head and flinging it to the roadway behind you.

   My older son, Jack, rode with me on a trip from Duluth to near the Twin Cities during the week we had the 124 Spider. I anticipated him grumbling and complaining about the wind, but he — undoubtedly anticipating me grumbling and complaining if he grumbled and complained — never uttered a word of dissent.

   I put the top down, we strapped ourselves into the buckets, and we were off. It was about a 2-hour drive, and we were comfortable the whole way, registering 32.5 miles per gallon as we sailed along at the 70 mph limit, or whatever any other motorists might be establishing as the norm.


Top down, windows down, the 124 Spider can help stretch summer into fall.

  I have my own set of rules for a two-seat roadster. One is that if it is foul-weather and you need to put the top up, go ahead. But if you put it down, then lower the side windows. True, if it gets nasty you might be tempted to power them up, but to me, nothing looks clunkier than a two-seater with the top down and the side windows up. Just a personal thing.

   With the top down, getting in a neat trick, too. You don’t need to be a gymnast to put your feet in on the floor while you swing your rear end in and place it against the backrest, then lower yourself down and in perfect place in the seat. You can pretend you are climbing into a Formula 1 car if you choose, but it’s just a neat touch.

   Touring suspension and electronic stability control undoubtedly had a hand in the handling, although it simply is incomprehensible that the 124 Spider wouldn’t handle with superb, flat stability no matter how aggressively you threw it into a turn. The turn-in is predictably precise, seemingly designed for how hard you might want to zip around curves.

   It has air-conditioning, although that seems superfluous in most instances. It doesn’t have power seats, either, which is no big thing, because there is precious little room, or need, for much adjustment. It does have power outside mirrors, which I found interesting.

   It has an adequate trunk, as long as you don’t plan on hauling three weeks of luggage with you on your trip to the shopping center.


Rain is no problem; raise and secure the top in a matter of seconds from the driver’s seat.

The 124 Spider also has nice options such as satellite radio and a navigation system with a small but adequate screen, and it has a back-up camera and voice-commanded Bluetooth connectivity. Three-season performance tires are mounted on the 16-inch alloy wheels, which indicates you might want to invest in special winter tires, or, better yet, park the 124 Spider unless there are a few of those sunny, dry winter days in your climate.

   Projector headlights and LED taillights set off the car, fore and aft.

   The test car showed up with a base sticker price of $24,995, which also was a pleasant surprise, and with the few options it still listed for $27,385.


Simple and efficient, the 124 Spider interior is alluring on its own.

  That is a small price to pay for a vehicle you will pamper and enjoy for as many years as you care to own it. It is not a Porsche, certainly, or a Corvette, but you might enjoy engaging those super-powered sports cars in a neighborhood autocross and surprise them.

   Sure, you can make the 124 Spider perform, but almost immediately you will find that your pleasure will mainly come from pleasing yourself at the adroit handling and quick-revving, barking engine performance. And that’s more than enough to make the drive to work, or home from work, a time of pure pleasure.


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