CARLSBAD, California — It was a maroon Nissan Rogue that blunted a nice run on the snake of an obscure mountain road northeast of San Diego. This 2017 Fiat 124 Spider being a pure sports car, driver and car were as one, gathering steam, getting into a rhythm with upshifts and heel-and-toe downshifts mostly between third and fourth gear. After a mile or two, the sport-utility relented and pulled over to let the Fiat by. (Thanks, Rogue!)
Though there was enough free and open road to gather some decent first impressions of the 124 Spider, the Nissan’s driver was the only one I encountered who pulled over with no overt prompting—no tailgating here.
Such is the fate of the enthusiast who buys a basic, straightforward driver’s car such as this. We are a diminishing breed, or at least, a breed with diminishing opportunities to enjoy such cars without getting caught in traffic. In Southern California, many consumers don’t like to buy sports cars with manual gearboxes because they’ll spend too much of their road time in stop-and-go jams. This part of the world is single-handedly killing off what’s left of the three-pedal cars. (That’s not a personal opinion but an observation gleaned from talking to local auto hacks.)
Back to the Fiat 124 Spider Classica: It comes with 195/50R-16 three-season Yokohama Advan Sport V105 tires on multi-spoke alloy wheels. The steering is unchanged from the Mazda MX-5 Miata’s double-pinion electric power system and it’s quick and direct, with excellent feedback, especially important when you get the tail loose. The Fiat is about 5 inches longer, with a filled-out body and a long, almost straight hood contrasting with the Miata’s drop-off nose. It’s also about 100 pounds heavier, depending on equipment.
I didn’t get the tail loose on these canyon runs; I would have had to drive too fast for the guardrail-less cliffside routes and the light traffic. In Classica form, the 124 Spider was perfectly neutral in these conditions—perhaps slightly more relaxed than its platform sibling, but so close that it will take back-to-back runs between the two to amplify differences. The Fiat in each of its versions shares with the other car a reassuring balance of ride and handling, with a significant degree of compliance going into a tight corner. Then it takes a set and guides you firmly around the corner with an easy willingness to rotate in a controllable way. It’s that same tasty polar moment of inertia that makes its sibling so much fun to drive, without being uncomfortable over crusty roads and expansion strips.
The 124 Spider comes with one engine choice, and it’s not a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter like the Miata, but instead Fiat’s 1.4-liter turbocharged MultiAir four, rated at 160 horsepower (with dual exhausts) in the Classica and Lusso and 164 horsepower in the four-pipe dual-exhaust Edizione Abarth. It’s the first longitudinal application of the engine, assembled in Termoli, Italy, and sent to Hiroshima for installation in the Spider. Fiat uses the close-ratio six-speed manual from the old third-generation (NC series) Miata to handle the 184 lb-ft produced by the turbo engine. The torque rating is the same for both the 160- and 164-horsepower applications, but the gearbox is recalibrated for the engine, resulting in lower revs at freeway speeds compared with the NC Miata. (The engine produces 170 lb-ft normally; Sport mode ups the output to 184.)
The turbo engine doesn’t change the car’s nature as much as expected, though that opinion might change on a road with tighter turns than the 124 experienced for this drive. It pulls nicely out of the mostly third-gear corners, but when launching from a rolling start—when a red light changes to green just before you come to a complete stop, for instance—you’ll need to row back into first instead of second. The NC’s gearbox is slick as ever, of course, with short, positive throws. Clutch takeup is perfectly linear for novice and expert alike, and the pedals are arranged for easy heel-and-toeing. Due to the turbo lag, though, you have to give the throttle a bigger blip to properly match revs for the downshift.
With the Fiat MultiAir sitting low and back in the cab-rearward chassis to create an almost front-mid-engine layout, there is still no space for a glovebox. The catalyst intrudes under the left side of the passenger’s footwell, and my drive partner, who’s a few inches taller than my 5-foot-11 frame, complained of a cramped passenger seat. It doesn’t have as much fore-aft travel adjustment as the driver’s seat, and his knees were up close to where the glovebox would be. Fiat uses Mazda seat frames but has its own seat foams in the car—there’s even different foam in the Abarth than in the Classica (the seat back is a bit too soft in this version) and Lusso (firmer). Dashboard materials are richer-looking in the 124 Spider than in the Mazda, and the door panels are unique, with no body-color plastic accents like the ND Miata’s. It’s classic Italian style and taste, certainly what Fiat’s designers were going for, and Alfa Romeo’s before that; the car originally was supposed to go to that brand until Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne declared that all future Alfa models will be built only in Italy.
Marchionne later said the switch from Alfa styling to Fiat styling delayed the Spider’s launch by just six months, which further helps the Mazda-Fiat Chrysler partnership. Sports car sales typically drop off after the first model year, and this gives the program, which probably wouldn’t have happened without Fiat, a second first-model year.
The Lusso’s interior is tastefully rich enough that it could have been an Alfa. From outside, wheels and a silver-painted windshield header instead of the Classica’s body-colored header (charcoal on the Abarth) distinguish the trims. We saved our drive in this car—which comes with 205/45R-17 Bridgestone Potenzas on its own alloy wheel design, and standard heated leather seats in black or saddle—for after lunch. This portion was mostly on straight, boring roads and highways to and from Qualcomm Stadium, where we could try the Abarth on an autocross course. The Lusso also comes with a backup camera, chrome-tipped dual exhaust, and 7-inch infotainment display, straight out of the Miata Grand Touring package. We also saved the Lusso for this portion of the drive because all these test cars were equipped with the optional ($1,350) Aisin-supplied six-speed automatic.
Fiat originally planned to sell Lussos only with the automatic option (it’s the only transmission on the limited, 124-unit, $35,995 Prima Edizione Lusso), but certain curmudgeons from outside the company complained. Fiat Chrysler design chief Ralph Gilles told me previously he’d passed on those complaints to the board, and now you can buy a Lusso manual.
The Lusso’s bigger wheels and tires didn’t transmit bumpy roads any more than the 16-inchers, but there was no real opportunity to push the handling. Not until we got to Qualcomm.
Fiat set up a fairly long, fast autocross course, and we sampled a couple of Abarth Edizione automatics—the only version of the automatic that comes with paddle shifters—and a Mopar-equipped Abarth manual. Seats in the Abarth are either microfiber and leatherette, black leather, or black and red leather, and the 17-inch wheel design is unique to this version. Brembo brakes and Recaro seats are optional. Max torque comes in at 2,500 rpm, but there’s not much torque available at tip-in. The Sport mode and its extra torque made a big difference on this autocross circuit, which was all second-gear (automatic or manual), and with traction/stability control turned off. The only Mopar parts on the manual that change performance are a strut-tower brace, lower-arm bar, and a tunnel bracing kit, all of which tightened up the handling over the standard Abarths.
Again, there’s Mazda-like compliance at turn-in, then the body motion takes a set, and then the car grips nicely and transmits its willingness to rotate. The tail is ready and willing to drift and it’s all safe and controllable. And fun. Again, there was no back-to-back with the Miata Club Sport in this setting, but you get the sense that the handling differences are much like that of Scion FR-S/Toyota 86 vs. Subaru BRZ. The Fiat 124 Spider Edizione Abarth seems to be the drifter.
The Edizione Abarth is the Spider enthusiasts will want. Considering the state of sports car popularity these days, the Fiat 124 Spider Lusso may better define the car as a stylish roadster with capabilities that go undiscovered—much like the off-road capabilities of all those Jeep Wranglers everybody seems to buy these days. Fiat’s participation probably saved the ND Miata, and now Fiat needs the 124 Spider to appeal to non-enthusiast customers to extend its popularity and volume beyond the first model year. Who knows? Maybe if a few of those fashion-conscious buyers find themselves on a twisty canyon road and any SUVs ahead pull over for them, we’ll get some new members for our community of enthusiasts.
2017 Fiat 124 Spider Specifications
|On Sale:||Summer 2016 (Classica, Lusso, Prima Edizione Lusso), third quarter 2016 (Abarth)|
|Price:||$25,990/$28,490/$29,190 (Classica/Lusso/Abarth) (base)|
|Engine:||1.4L DOHC turbocharged 16-valve I-4/160-164 hp @ 5,500 rpm, 184 lb-ft @ 2,500 rpm|
|Transmissions:||6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic|
|Layout:||2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD convertible|
|EPA Mileage:||25-26/35-26 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H:||159.6 x 68.5 x 48.5|
|0-60 MPH:||6.8 sec (mfr)|
|Top Speed:||134/140 mph (Classica, Lusso/Abarth)|