2017 Fiat 124 Spider Lusso
Ti amo la mia piccola auto sportiva ItalianaMy singing teacher had one of these back in 1980. She was a cool old lady living in one of the nicer areas in the city, and driving what most of us at the time considered the poor man’s, or in this case woman’s, Mercedes SL. She was hardly poor, but merely understood that you can have just as much fun in a less expensive sports car while enjoying a more carefree type of prestige.
I won’t go into all the challenges she had with her then new albeit horribly unreliable 124 Spider, because today’s Fiat is a completely different company and its cars wholly better made. In fact, the new 2017 Fiat 124 Spider shown here is a thoroughly reliable Mazda MX-5 Miata in disguise, or at least the mostly Euro-sourced components that gave such Fiat owners headaches decades are now Japanese made.
Italian engines have always been among the most revered. Some of the first and all of the best hemispherical heads came out of Italy going way back to the 1907 Fiat 130 HP Grand Prix racer, while Weber was responsible for the best in carburetion. I could go on, Weber’s parent company Magneti Marelli, itself a subsidiary of Fiat since 1967, produced the first electronic ignition system in 1968, the first fuel-saving automatic idle-stop system in the early ’80s, developed the first automated manual transmission in a road car in 1997, and more recently the world’s first mass-produced full-LED headlamps in 2007, while soon after became the first to implement an open-source platform for in-vehicle infotainment systems, and the list goes on.
In the case of this new 124 Spider I personally celebrate the fact that its heart is Italian. First and foremost I’m not a giant fan of the MX-5 engine, as it doesn’t rev out as freely as I like a four-cylinder to spin, but that’s not the only reason I’d choose a Fiat over the Mazda. For me it also comes down to exterior and interior design, the Fiat a more substantive looking car with a longer more elegant nose and classic 124 Spider styling.
It’s ironic the model that singlehandedly made the roadster body style popular again in the early ’90s by pulling styling cues from classic convertibles like the Lotus Elan is now the most modern and edgy drop-top in the entry-level convertible sector, but this is a good thing for Fiat being that this new 124 Spider makes no bones about stealing design elements from the Pininfarina-penned 1967–1978 original and near identical 1979-1982 2000 Spider (which was also sold from 1983–1985 under the Pininfarina brand and Azzura Spider nameplate). Such “theft” is ok when it’s your own, and I for one am grateful they dusted off one of the prettiest sports car designs of the late ’60s that remains a personal favorite era.
With the main body of work done previously Fiat didn’t need to turn to Pininfarina this time around, so therefore its in-house Turin studio took care of modernization. From what I’ve been told the process of re-skinning a current design is particularly difficult, which means that Fiat’s design team should be especially commended for giving this new 124 Spider a completely unique yet wonderfully elegant and totally sporty new look.
The grille and double-domed hood are the most obvious tie-ins with the early Spider, but for me the unorthodox shape of its front and rear fenders are even more intrinsic to the original design. They flare upward and outward similar to the nose of another Pininfarina creation, Ferrari’s 1963-1965 330 GT 2+2 (and a few others of the era), which is most noticeable when looking straight on, a delicate bit of inspired artistry that’s nice to see once again on a modern sports car. The pyriform-shaped headlamps and rectellipse-ish taillights are reminiscent of the original circular and rectangular lenses respectively, albeit much more complex and filled with bright LEDs, while the sporty lower front fascia and its various driving and fog lamps are pure automotive modernity. I could go on, but no matter the angle Fiat has come up with a beautiful new roadster that pulls admiring eyeballs wherever it goes. And it’s at least as nice inside.
I remember my teacher’s Spider having a particularly nice interior for the time too, her car finished in tan leather, which matched the same tan top, the exterior a classy cream colored solid paint with de rigueur twinned pin striping down each shoulder line. It was only fitting that Fiat dressed my 2017 tester similarly, its paintwork a stylish Bianco Perla Tri-Coat (so much sexier sounding than Crystal White Pearl Mica), a $595 upgrade that’s well worth the extra coin, and the no-charge Saddle leather interior nowhere near as exotic sounding as Nero for standard black (they should’ve named it Sella), although richer in appearance. Along with the seat upholstery, Fiat uses the Saddle color for a padded instrument panel applique ahead of the front passenger and the beautifully formed door inserts and armrests, the rest of the interior Nero for dramatic effect. Splashes of satin aluminum trim buffed up my loaner’s cabin, much of the hardware pulled directly out of the MX-5 Miata.
My test model was in Lusso trim, a name also pulled from past classics, but more commonly associated with one of the more beautiful Ferrari 250 GT Berlinettas of the early ’60s, and more recently the exotic marque’s fabulous 2016-present GTC4Lusso than anything from Fiat, although it was used for a 500 trim line from 1968-1972; I love the reference just the same. Base 124 Spiders come in Classica trim, while top-line models get the revered Abarth designation, but I’ll leave any mention of that sportiest version to a future review (finger’s crossed).
Lusso trim ups the refinement ante with the aforementioned leather upholstery and upgraded instrument panel, not to mention a contrast-stitched black leather gauge hood “brow” and a soft-touch lower instrument panel. Piano black lacquered trim highlights key areas too, while satin-silver roll bars combine with the same treatment on the outer A-pillar and header facings for an especially upscale look. Likewise the wheels are upgraded to 17s on 205/45VR Bridgestone three-season performance rubber and the standard dual exhaust is chrome tipped, with other features including automatic headlamps, fog lamps, rain-sensing wipers, and proximity-sensing keyless access that opens the doors as well as a reasonably sized trunk, on the outside, and dual-zone auto climate control, Fiat Connect 7.0 infotainment with a seven-inch touchscreen, ParkView backup camera, and lower console-positioned rotating controller on the inside (with most of the latter right out of the very good MX-5 playbook).
These upgrades were joined by most of the Classica’s standard kit, including power-folding side mirrors that provided good rear visibility, a soft touch dash top and door uppers, a leather-wrapped multifunction sport steering wheel, a leather-clad shift knob, pushbutton ignition, Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity and streaming audio, detachable cupholders on the right side and rear of the lower console, a handy glove box between the front seats, excellent quality switchgear throughout, especially those on the steering wheel spokes, and of course an easily operated manual soft top with a coupe-like-quiet insulated acoustic headliner.
That top was black, not tan like my teacher’s Spider, but it certainly looked well proportioned atop the new model’s long, lean bodywork. It’s even more attractive lowered, of course, which is how I left it as often as I could, despite the cool but mostly dry weather enjoyed throughout my test week. This is where I need to expose my inner cognitive dissonance when it comes to convertibles. If a carmaker creates both hardtop coupe and convertible body styles of a given model I tend to prefer the former more often than not, even when discussing ultimate classics like Jaguar’s E-Type (two seaters only), Maserati’s Mistral, Ferrari’s GTC/GTS, early Porsche 911s, ’60s-era Corvettes, etcetera, but drop the top on a sunny day and it’s no bloody contest. What I’m attempting to admit to is the façade of a pedant who adheres to the performance benefits of a closed top design (lightness and structural rigidity) as well as a genuine preference to a well-drawn coupe’s lines, but when windy fresh air wisps through the hair I get all smitten and forget all about my puritan beliefs. What can I say? I was in love with the 124 Spider after the first stab of the throttle and turn of the wheel.
Nestled into its inherently comfortable leather buckets I’m already grateful for the ergonomic advancements made over the 35 years or so since the original was discontinued. The driver’s seat is appropriately manually adjustable and it’s easy to find the ideal position, while the Lusso’s three-way seat heaters made open-top motoring in the brisk breeze more enjoyable.
The little 1.4-liter MultiAir turbo-four barks to life with the eagerness of playful pup yet quickly made me realize it’s got a strong bite to go along with its rorty exhaust note. It’s rated at 160 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque, numbers that might make fans of the 89-horsepower original have second thoughts about their Sunday ride (the final 1984-1985 Pininfarina Spiders had 133) and will certainly cause Miata drivers to sit up and take notice thanks to five extra horsepower and 36 lb-ft more torque than the Mazda, while the equally exclusive six-speed manual gearbox delivered a wonderful notchy feel and clutch take-up was weighted perfectly for my tastes. Fiat offers a $1,350 six-speed Aisin-sourced automatic for those who’d rather take in the scenery, but for this (ahem) purist it would be a DIY box or nothing (note to Fiat: if you’ve got an automatic available for testing I’m open anytime).
That engine is actually pulled from the fabulously fun 500 Abarth, one of my all-time favorite hot hatches, but while there’s fire in the belly it’s notably more muted at its behind. This makes sense as the 500 Abarth sells to performance fanatics that don’t mind its rasping mechanical machinations, noisome backpressure popping cacophony and constant droning highway note (I’m solidly in this camp), some of this hubbub no doubt infused into 124 Spider Abarth trim that unfortunately gets no straight-line performance upgrade, but I reiterate there will be no such talk of this model’s mechanical limited slip diff, front strut tower brace, and high-performance Brembo binders until I get seat time.
As it is the Lusso is no slouch in the corners, its taut Touring suspension delivering adhesive grip no matter the tightness of curves or inane speeds taken at entry. It’s a car that rewards courage with brilliantly flickable precision, the steering superbly responsive to quick input while always transmitting near direct feel of the road below, the suspension doing likewise albeit not to the point of harshness, with the overall experience way above par. In fact, I like driving the 124 Spider even more than the ghosted Mazda beneath the skin, its refined demeanor better suited to my more classic (read aging) frame.
I appreciated all the extra luxuries Fiat added to my tester too. It came with a $3,795 Premium Collection with Sirius package boasting adaptive cornering and auto-leveling LED headlamps with washers, LED DRLs, auto-dimming rearview and side mirrors, the latter also heatable, a universal garage door opener, a nine-speaker Bose audio system with satellite radio that even allowed phone calls to be easily heard with the top down (a far cry from the old days when you couldn’t even hear the AM radio over the sound of rushing wind), GPS navigation with detailed mapping and accurate routing, rear parking sensors, blindspot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, and an alarm (smart with a fabric roof).
With everything added the 124 Spider Lusso came to $31,885 before freight and dealer fees, which is a small price to pay for a near-luxury two-seat roadster with more soul than most of its premium peers (and about the same as what you’ll pay for a similarly equipped MX-5). Then again base Classica trim starts at just $24,995, and Lusso without the upgrades can be had for $27,495.
Not only is the price reasonable, a Fiat 124 Spider will help keep your fuel budget down thanks to a five-cycle fuel economy rating of 26 mpg in the city, 35 on the highway and 30 combined, which incidentally is not quite as good as the MX-5’s 27 mpg city results, better than its 34 highway rating, and identical to its 30 mpg combined rating. Not bad considering the 124 Spider’s power boost. The 124 Spider with the automatic gets 25 mpg city, 36 on the highway, and 29 combined, which once again isn’t quite as good as the MX-5’s 26 mpg city rating, identical to its 36 highway number, and slightly poorer than its 30 mpg combined results.
To say I like it would be an understatement, the new 2017 Fiat 124 Spider one of the best all-round sports cars I’ve driven in years. Don’t even try to compare it to the MX-5 Miata other than its compact size, front-engine, rear-drive and two-seat layout, four-cylinder power, and obvious roadster body style. They’re two distinctively different cars with very unique souls. While it might ride on mostly Japanese underpinnings, the 124 Spider has a high beat Italian heart that’s audacia appassionato! It’s impossible not to fall in love with this fabulous little sports car.
Ti amo la mia piccola auto sportiva Italiana!
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press