Colorful leaves enhance 124 Spider image

September 29, 2017 by
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

 

From the front corner, the new Fiat 124 Spider greatly resembles the 1960s model.

By John Gilbert

   Every time the calendar makes its way around to September, the recurring image of one of my favorite definitions of a sports car comes alive, with the sports car approaching on a curvy roadway, accompanied by an exhilarating exhaust note as it comes around the last curve, and its silhouette outlined by a wake of multicolored fallen leaves blowing up in a swirl.

   That iconic image has stayed with me for about 50 years, and it was most recently regenerated when I spent a week driving a new Fiat 124 Spider roadster along a curvy road, almost looking ahead to any early-fallen leaves that should have filled up the image in my rear-view mirror.

   There was further significance to link those indelible memories with the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider. The car, particularly from the front corner, bears a striking resemblance to the original Fiat 124 Spider that was the object of considerable lust by a much-younger me back in the 1960s.

   Fifty years ago, when the first Fiat 124 first came to the U.S., the auto business was vastly different. There were big sedans, a few pickup trucks, and a scant few primitive imported sedans, leaving plenty of margin for .an impressive array of sports cars. They came mostly from European countries, most notably MGs and Triumphs that came from Great Britain in large and smaller sizes, amid a few German and Italian roadsters.

   Fiat, in fact, was best known in those days for its 124 Spider roadster, and its companion 124 Coupe 2-plus-2. The 50 years since it first showed up saw Fiat quit selling cars in the U.S., missing our veering trends to station wagons, pickup trucks, minivans, large and small sedans, and then have SUVs take over the marketplace, all but squeezing the pure-pleasure sports cars out of the picture.

  

Before colorful leaves swirl, Lake Superior’s North Shore nicely frames the Fiat 124 Spider.

You can’t find an MG or Triumph anywhere, and we can can only thank Mazda for making and keeping up with the inexpensive joy of  the Miata sports car. With Fiat coming back into the U.S. both on its own and as owner of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Fiat is also celebrating Mazda’s latest Miata. Far more than merely inspiration for Fiat to recreate its 124 Spider; it is the basis physically and spiritually for the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider.

   Our neighbors, who always wanted to add a sports car to their pickup and SUV world, bought a Miata a year ago, and they look for every opportunity to put the top down and go off on drives together, or fight over which of them gets to drive it to work before the Minnesota chill shortens the roadster season. Another good friend celebrated starting a successful business by buying a new Fiat 124 Spider.

   

Fiat left Mazda’s better-idea controls intact while converting the Miata platform to Fiat style and power.

When I had the Fiat 124 Spider for a week’s test drive, our neighbors with the Miata remarked about how the control knobs and interior features are identical to their Miata. That makes sense, because the 124 Spider began life as a Miata.

   But Fiat did far more than just take a Miata, change the grille and put a Fiat emblem on the nose. When Fiat first decided it wanted to work with Mazda, the thought was to rebadge it as an Alfa Romeo, which is another Fiat-owned nameplate. But then Fiat realized that a rebirth of the 124 Spider was the most-appropriate way to go.

    Fiat first replaced the exceptional Mazda Skyactiv powertrain, with its 155-horsepower 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine, and replaced it with Fiat’s own 1.4-liter MultiAir 4 from the 500’s Abarth-powered pocket rocket, reinforced with the turbocharger to 160 horsepower, with 184 foot-pounds of torque. It is the first application of that engine in a front-engine/rear-drive layout.

Combining Mazda technology with Italian style makes the Fiat 124 Spider extra appealing.

   Leaving pertinent features as Mazda built them, Fiat stretched the body a bit from the Miata’s silhouette, styling the extended nose to be longer and more gracefully slender, and also styling the rear bodywork, both to more resemble the 50-year-old Fiat 124 Spider. Fiat did its own thing with suspension, too, tuning double-wishbone front and multilink rear. Without driving the two back to back, I would venture that the Miata might be a bit more abrupt in quickness of steering and handling, while the 124 Spider might be a bit more compliant as a boulevardier. Both are supremely fun to drive.

    The 124 I test-drove was the Spider Lusso model, which is positioned between the base Classica and the higher-powered Abarth models. With a few luxury amenities, the Lusso raises the base price of the 124 Spider from $25,000 to $27,495, and with several classy options the test-fleet car carried a sticker of $29,985.

    A 6-speed stick guarantees that there is no shortage of sporty flair with the 124 Spider Lusso, and the arrangement between Italian designers and Japanese engineers worked. The 124 is assembled in Hiroshima, Japan, and the test car was finished in Grigio Moda Meteor Grey metallic, with Nero black leather interior.

    A carryover feature from the Miata is that when you’re driving along — preferably blowing those fallen leaves up behind — and you realize it’s warm enough out that you should have the top down, you can reach up with your right hand, unlatch the top, pop it upward, and guide it back and down, latching it securely under a hard cover. No need to stop and pull over. You can do it in a few seconds, even at 15 or 20 mph.

   Same if sundown, or a sudden rainstorm interrupts your solitude: Slow down, reach back to unlatch, then pull the top up and over and lock it in place. Tight, precise fit, water tight with an acoustically lined headliner on the underside of that soft top.

   Driving pleasure is enhanced by some of the contemporary auto features, such as blind-spot detection, cross-park detection, rear parking camera and parking assist, plus rain-sensing wipers and LED head and tail lights.

   The 124 Spider is also easy on gas, making its 35-mpg highway fuel economy reachable and staying above 26 in town even if you like to run up the revs to hear that exhaust note. You can get an upgraded Bose audio system with nine speakers, although I still can’t comprehend where there is room for nine speakers.

    Emergency handling is obviously excellent, and pleasurable handling is precise and exciting. Under Fiat’s direction, the 124 makes some pertinent changes, including adding just a touch more power, but a buyer who is determined to get a thoroughly enjoyable sporty roadster that has more than enough punch for real-world driving, and can turn a cloverleaf into a thrill without breaking any speed limits, my advice would be to try both the Mazda MX-5 Miata and the Fiat 124 Spider. You can make your decision based on appearance or any other element, and you won’t be making a mistake. 

With a flick of your wrist, the watertight and insulated soft top goes up, or down, in seconds.

   One last note for those who are reluctant to get a sporty, rear-drive roadster in snow country: My experience is that folks in colder climates enjoy and appreciate top-down driving more than those all across the South, where you’ll see more roadsters with the top up because it’s too hot!. Up north, we appreciate sun and warmth, and capitalize on every possible moment to put the top down and go. While we continue searching for snow tires to extend the length of our driving season.

  

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