When Fiat returned to North America in 2012 after a thirty year absence, Italian car enthusiasts rejoiced. What we got was the 500, a (very) small hatchback with a very big personality most cars in its class lack. Which was perfectly acceptable, but the problem was, unlike in Europe, most North Americans really had very little emotional attachment to the 500. On these shores, our fondest memories of Fiats past were the angular X1/9 Targa and the 124 Spider. In fact, during its run from 1966 to 1982, more 124 Spiders were sold in North America than in Europe. After a two year run being sold as a Pinninfarina, the car was gone, for what we assumed was forever.
Come the 21st century, Mazda teamed up with Alfa Romeo to share the costs of developing a replacement for the MX-5, and giving Alfa Romeo its own two seater, rear wheel drive sports car. However, it was later decided that Alfa Romeos should only be built in Italy. Yet with Fiat, this already wasn’t an issue, and the brand seriously needed a halo car. Thus, the 124 Spider was to be reborn, but this time built in Japan, on an MX-5 platform. What could we expect?
Some people jokingly call the Spider a ‘Fiata’, but the truth is, the Spider has a unique look all its own. At the time I had the test car, I actually owned a 1981 Fiat Spider. Parked side by side, it became instantly clear that Fiat designers took many cues from the original. The double hood bulge, ‘scalloped’ headlights, and the upkick just behind the doors are all classic elements. Yet this is by no means an exercise in retro design. The 124 Spider looks thoroughly modern. Most importantly to Fiat fans, although based on Japanese underpinnings, the Spider looks distinctly Italian.
Stepping inside, it becomes immediately clear you are sitting in a close relative of the MX-5. One glance and it is plain to see the gauge cluster is straight from Mazda. The same goes for the infotainment system and display, which is unfortunate, as the rest of the Fiat family uses the superior system sourced from Chrysler. Unique to the Spider is its own steering wheel, which is a delight to hold. Although the cars share seat frames, the Fiat has different padding, which was comfortable and did a fine job holding me in place. As in any two seat roadster, the cabin is snug, and larger driver’s might not find it ideal. There’s no glove box, the ‘cupholder’ is a joke, and unlike my old Spider, there’s no parcel shelf behind the seats to conveniently toss a bag. Finally, if you are hoping to keep the Italian vibe going, skip the black pictured above. Fiat offers a saddle interior, and the color chosen would compare to what you would find in a 1960’s Ferrari. With the contrasting black dash top and stainless trim, it shouts Italian style.
An important feature that distinguishes the 124 from the MX-5 is that Fiat brings its own engine to the party. In this case, it is a turbocharged 1.4L four, lifted from the 500 Abarth, rated at 160hp. Buyers can choose between a six speed manual or automatic. You want the manual. Although it is not the latest MX-5 box (it couldn’t handle the torque from the turbo), it is an absolute joy to snick through the gears. While the Spider is a perfectly livable car doing the daily commute and cruising along the shore, the car truly does not come unto its own until you find a country road. With the top down, I headed to the northeast corner of Connecticut, carving my way through roads in the woods dotted by roadside lakes, gleefully pushing it into corners. Now, the Spider was in its element. Impeccable handling, confidence inspiring brakes and telekinetic steering all combine for a sublime driving experience. Allegedly tuned slightly softer than the MX-5, the upside is after a day of spirited driving and making the trip back home, I arrived feeling perfectly refreshed.
The 124 Spider can be had in three flavors-the spartan Classica, the luxe Lusso, and the more aggressively tuned Abarth. Our test car was the Lusso. With option packages including the Convenience Group (auto dimming rearview and exterior mirrors, heated exterior mirrors, rear park assist, blind spot monitoring, rear cross path detection, alarm, universal garage door opener), Visibility Group (auto levelling LED headlights, headlight washers), and Sound and Navigation Group (GPS nav, nine speaker Bose audio and XM satellite radio). Including destination, our 124 Spider has an MSRP of $32,375USD.
Being built on an MX-5 chassis, there was never really a question of whether the 124 Spider would be a fun car to drive. For enthusiasts, particularly this one who owned an original 124 Spider, was if the new, Japanese built car carried on the spirit. In sum, this new Spider very much does carry on the spirit of the original in a modern package with the available technology and safety features that were once unimaginable. And of course, the inevitable comparison of the Spider and the MX-5 upon which it is based The Garage has not driven the new MX-5, but with the Spider being slightly heavier and more softly sprung, the Spider is considered a more relaxed car, especially over long distances, with the MX-5 favored if going on the track or regular, intense canyon carving is your forte. Regardless, we should all consider ourselves lucky that whichever your preference for a two seat sports car, you can choose what suits your needs.