SAN DIEGO, California—Those of us of a certain age, or a certain enthusiast persuasion, will fondly remember the two-seat convertible from Fiat that graced our shores from the late sixties through to mid-eighties, badged as a Pininfarina. Heck, at one point even this humble writer gave some serious consideration to buying one.
With Fiat’s modern resurgence, the company has decided that now is the time to reintroduce the 124 Spider. With modern design and clever packaging, this Fiat is a welcome addition to the convertible segment. It’s a combination of Italian styling and an Italian heart, with the surefooted-ness and ease of use of one of the benchmark convertibles.
It may come as no surprise, but this new 124 Spider is based on Mazda’s venerable and massively fun to drive MX-5 convertible. Make no mistake, though, Fiat hasn’t pulled any badge-engineering sleight of hand, but rather took the MX-5’s fundamentals, added a double shot of Italian flare, and has created an entirely new modern Italian roadster.
Exterior styling is so unique that not a single exterior element carries over from the Mazda. Furthermore, the Fiat is noticeably longer, especially at the rear, giving the 124 the edge in terms of trunk capacity.
Lightweight construction is the name of the game and the Spider is fitted with aluminum front fenders, trunk lid and hood. Given the additional length and content, the 124 rolls over the scales about forty-five kilos more than the MX-5. Weight distribution is 54-percent front, 46-percent rear, and with humans aboard, it’s near-perfect.
Some of the interior will be familiar to fans of the MX-5, though that’s limited to the steering wheel, turn signal and wiper stalks, climate controls, and infotainment controller.
Indeed, perhaps the 124’s only flaws come from the Mazda-sourced pieces. Just like the MX-5, the Spider’s steering column lacks some needed reach adjustment and the infotainment controller with its audio volume knob sit too far behind the shifter to be ergonomically effective.
The seats, on the other hand, are unique to the 124 Spider. Though a little difficult to quantify, they feel softer and more luxurious in this Fiat, with good lateral support and enough comfort for long distance drives.
The convertible roof is perhaps the simplest manual roof in operation and lives up to the promise of one-handed operation. The roof material is thicker for quieter top-up driving, though during my test in perfect Southern California weather, I didn’t bother to drive with the roof closed. It seems sacrilegious to do so while behind the wheel of such a wonderful roadster.
The heart of the Spider comes from Italy. Powering the 124 is Fiat’s first rear-drive application of their Italian-made 1.4-litre turbocharged MultiAir engine, and here it produces 160 horsepower and a generous 184 lb-ft of torque. Transmission choices are a six-speed auto or a delightful six-speed manual.
The automatic is perfectly pleasant and shifts reasonably quickly, both up and down the gearbox, and will match revs on downshifts which suits the character of this little roadster.
It’s not nearly as engaging as the manual, and if you do prefer to control the gears of the auto, on Classica and Lusso trims you have to slide the lever left into manual mode and do your shifting from there. Steering wheel paddle shift levers are only available on the Abarth model.
If you appreciate a tuned suspension and the traction that a mechanical limited-slip differential gives you, the Abarth is the model of choice. Optional Recaro seats and Brembo brakes make the Abarth nearly complete, and that’s because there is a dealer-installed exhaust option that gives it a hearty note that’s perfectly fitting for an Abarth-branded roadster.
What really makes a roadster is its fun-to-drive factor, and this 124 Spider has it in spades. Starting with a great cockpit – save for the aforementioned lack of steering column adjustment – the driver has a near-perfect set up for spirited motoring. The electrically assisted steering is exceptionally precise, though some drivers may appreciate a little more feedback than the system offers.
With its superb shift action and feel, the manual transmission is the better choice for the 124. Clutch engagement is excellent and everything works harmoniously, especially if you’re familiar with the art of heel-and-toe downshifts. The manual gearbox only enhances the 124 Spider’s already wonderful driving experience.
The Spider’s power-to-weight ratio is near-perfect and there’s always enough acceleration on tap to paint a smile on your face. The 1.4-litre turbo doesn’t exhibit much lag, if at all, though it’s never going to have the crisp throttle responses of a naturally aspirated engine. Still, I’ll take the turbo’s generous heap of torque all day, every day.
The chassis settings of the Classica and Lusso are clearly engineered to favour comfortable and composed ride characteristics, rather than a kidney-bruising, stiff-riding, punishing suspension.
Even the sport suspension in the Abarth certainly favours handling, but the ride isn’t punishing. This is one roadster that you could drive comfortably, from coast to coast, and leave you feeling refreshed after a full day’s worth of seat time.
Three distinct trim levels are available – Classica, Lusso, and Abarth – with pricing of the base Classica model starting at $33,495.
Lusso adds fog lamps, seventeen-inch wheels, silver A-pillar trim, leather seats, automatic climate control and a back up camera, for a starting price of $36,495.
The core enthusiast choice is undoubtedly the Abarth which is finished with distinctive black exterior trim and comes fitted a sport suspension with Bilstein dampers, a limited-slip differential, a sport mode which sharpens the throttle and steering, and gets a bump of an additional four horsepower over the Classica and Lusso trims. The Abarth starts at $37,995.
After sampling all three variants, it became evident that the more enthusiastic drivers will choose either the base-spec Classica model or a properly optioned Abarth; however most buyers will likely prefer the Lusso with its blend of luxury trimmings and useful features.
Fiat has succeeded in developing the perfect, modern interpretation of their classic Spider. With its combination of Italian design and well-rounded dynamics, this is a superb choice in the entry-level convertible segment.
Disclosure—This writer’s travel and accommodations were provided by the automaker for the purposes of this first-drive review.