There aren’t a lot of inexpensive convertibles left at new car dealerships these days, so the arrival of the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider should be welcomed, no matter how it actually gets here.
The 124 Spider restores a historic name from Fiat’s past, a roadster introduced in 1966 that was largely about inexpensive, few-frills open-topped driving. Forty years later, this new one looks like it’ll accomplish the same task, thanks in no small part to Mazda.
Fans of the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata might therefore feel at home in the 124 Spider. The new Fiat is a close relative of that roadster, thanks to a partnership between the two companies. Yet the 124 Spider doesn’t look much like the Miata. In fact, it’s a relatively successful reinterpretation of the original model’s long proportions and edgy details.
A partnership with Mazda should yield great things for the way the 124 Spider drives. Rear-wheel drive and a double-wishbone suspension are all great attributes for a sports car, specifically when talking about a car that’s meant to be driven enthusiastically on winding roads rather than in a straight line on a drag strip.
Under the hood, the Fiat diverges significantly from its assembly plant-mate. The Mazda’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine is ditched in favor of the 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine from the Fiat 500 Abarth, among other Fiat Chrysler vehicles. It will be mated to either a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission. That engine is certainly enthusiastic, but in various applications it suffers from turbo lag and hesitant response, especially when compared with naturally aspirated engines or even modern turbocharged engines from Hyundai, Kia and Volkswagen. At least it encourages vigorous downshifts, which makes you look like an exuberant driver.
Inside, the Fiat doesn’t differ from the Mazda much more than the badge on the steering wheel. That’s just fine since the Miata’s interior is a quality place. Fans of Fiat Chrysler’s simple-as-pie UConnect touch-screen infotainment system may be more frustrated with the Mazda’s knob controller system, but it’s ultimately a competent way to manage audio, navigation and vehicle settings.
Options for the 124 Spider, according to Fiat, will include a Bose audio system with nine speakers (including ones mounted in the headrests, a la Pontiac Fiero), blind spot monitoring and a rearview camera, as well as leather upholstery and heated seats.
Don’t expect the 124 Spider to start any lower than the Miata’s $24,915 base price when it goes on sale in summer 2016. But consider most other two-seat roadsters, like the Audi TT and BMW Z4, cost north of $50,000, and the Fiat 124 is bound to be a bargain and a bastion of the classic Italian roadster.
Even if it’s being shipped from Japan.