Miata, Italian-Style: 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Debuts in L.A.

Distinctly Italian design for the Hiroshima-built roadster.

Fiata Spiata has a nice ring to it, no? The engineers, designers and marketers who worked on the car don't think so. While the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider unveiled at the 2015 Los Angeles Auto Show has unique sheetmetal, interior door panels, seats, and some distinctive dash design, its own spring and shock tuning, and even its own engine, its basic platform is the critically acclaimed ND-generation 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata. These pieces will be assembled in Mazda's Hiroshima assembly plant, with an Italian-sourced Fiat MultiAir 1.4-liter turbo-four under the hood, rated 160 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. It's the first rear-wheel-drive application of the iron-block MultiAir, which will have a front-mounted intercooler and its own engine mounts.

Sales are to commence in the summer of 2016, beginning with a high-zoot Prima Edizione Lusso launch model in Azzurro Italia (blue) with saddle seats and six-speed, um, automatic transmission only, and just in time for the original design's 50th anniversary. More about that tranny in a bit.

"I think it's going to change lives, create car clubs," says Fiat Chrysler's global head of design, Ralph Gilles. "I think it's the anti-commodity we need right now."

The Spider is a bit heavier and longer than its highly regarded donor, says chief engineer Enrico Genchi, because of the heavier turbo engine and 5.5-inch longer overall length. Designers have filled out the car's form, making its shape look a bit more like the NC than the ND Miata. But there we go again; the sheetmetal -- everything but the windshield (though acoustic glass in the Fiat), its header and the top -- are unique to the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider, which carries several cues from the original first sold in the U.S. in the 1967 model year. The manual top opens and closes with the same one-handed ease of the Miata's, and there's no talk so far of a folding hardtop version. No talk yet of other variants, including a rumored Fiat Abarth 124 Spider, with the Alfa Romeo 4C's 1,750cc turbo-four and dual-clutch transmission.

The exhaust note is exclusive to the Fiat 124 Spider, of course, thanks to its unique turbo engine. We can probably expect it to sound something like the exceptionally brappy Fiat 500 Abarth.

Visually, the new 124 Spider gives little indication of its connection to the MX-5 Miata. Note the hexagonal shape and look of the grille, with the sloped, blunted nose with a lower front fascia of almost equal size. Headlamps are ovoid, in place of the ND's thin, creased ones, with a triangular three-piece LED daylight running lamp outline. The two hood bulges recall those added to the original 124 Spider a few years into its long production run. The result is a classic Ferrari-like nose circa early '60s, which is what the original Fiat was going for. The hood badge is big enough so that you won't confuse it with either a Ferrari or a Mazda.

The side surfacing eschews the severe fender bulges and accents of the new Miata's Kodo design language for a long horizontal bone line that kicks up at the door handles, again recalling the original 124 Spider. The tail is creased and boxed off, also recalling the original, which had taillamps designed to evoke the one-off Pininfarina-designed 1961 Chevrolet Corvette Rondine ("Sparrow").

The boxy rear end resolves a design flaw of the Miata, which has taillamps that appear too close together inside the rear deck because of their spatial relationship to that car's flared-out rear fenders. The Spider has a much nicer spatial balance, and the car's design manager, Felix Kilbertus, says the more creased shape improves the car's aerodynamics. Indeed, the extra length gives the Fiat 124 Spider a more relaxed, languid air about it.

Kilbertus' team did a full redesign of the car a couple of years ago, when Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne told the press that he had redirected the Miata-based project from the Alfa Romeo brand to the Fiat brand. No trace of the design that was to be an Alfa remains, Kilbertus says, and all the original 124 Spider cues detailed above would seem to bear that out, even though Marchionne said the branding change delayed the project by merely six months.

It probably will place the car in about the same price range as its platform donor. The two trim levels announced thus far are the base Classico, with cloth seats and six-speed manual or optional automatic, and the aforementioned Lusso, which has heated leather seats with a two-tone black-and-tan option and comes only with a six-speed automatic. The Fiat Spider gets its own seats and door panels, and the dashboard gets its own treatment, though the general shape is same as the Miata's, thanks to its understructure. Twin cupholders attach to the back of the center console, where driver and passenger elbows would rest. Fiat Chrysler's Mopar accessories division will offer full leather seats for either trim level.

Mazda's 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system is available. There's also a Bose premium sound system, Bluetooth connectivity, and ParkView rear backup camera available.

For now, the only blue-paint option is on the 124 automatic-only launch models. Paint choices at the beginning of the regular production run are Rosso Passione (red clear coat), Bianco Gelato (white clear coat), Nero Cinema (jet black metallic), Grigio Argento (gray metallic), Grigio Moda (dark gray metallic), Bronzo Magnetico (bronze metallic), and for the Lusso ("luxury") model only, tri-coat Bianco Perla (crystal white pearl).

Fiat promises more trim levels to come, but for now, we complained about the "automatic only" limitations of the Lusso to Ralph Gilles, who vows he'll bring it up with top management. We're not naïve about the current status of the old-fashioned three-pedal manual gearbox, especially on a car making its debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show, in a town where traffic makes manuals a quaint relic of the past. But of all cars, the Fiat 124 Spider deserves manual availability across the board, just like its stepsibling.

What's more, while Fiat emphasizes its specifically tuned double-wishbone front, multilink rear suspension, we've got to wonder whether those transmission limitations send a subliminal message that the 124 Spider is, say, softer than the new Miata.

The answer to this and other questions will have to wait until we get our first drive before the summer launch. The other major question is how the turbocharging will affect the nature of the car's driving dynamics -- accelerating out of a tight corner as well as straight-line speed, the latter of which has never been the Miata's forte.

Though chief engineer Genchi avoided comparisons with the Mazda MX-5 Miata as much as he could, we can't help but compare them by the numbers. Here are some important differences:

  • Engine:
  • 1.4L turbocharged I-4
  • 2.0L I-4
  • HP:
  • 160 @ 5,500 rpm
  • 155 @ 6,000 rpm
  • TORQUE:
  • 184 lb-ft @ 2,500 rpm
  • 148 lb-ft @4,600 rpm
  • WHEELBASE:
  • 90.9 in
  • 90.9 in
  • LENGTH:
  • 159.6 in
  • 154.1 in
  • WIDTH:
  • 68.5 in
  • 68.3 in
  • HEIGHT:
  • 48.5 in
  • 48.8 in
  • WEIGHT:
  • 2,436/2,476 lb (manual/automatic)
  • 2,332/2,381 lb (manual/auto)

Related Articles
Automobile Mag Logoemail newsletter

Stay Updated

Car news, reviews, and more!