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Test Drive: 2017 Fiat 124 Spider

Test Drive: 2017 Fiat 124 Spider

By Christian Wardlaw, June 10, 2016
Half a decade ago, Fiat returned to America with the cute little Cinquecento, or 500 as it is otherwise known. For too long, it was the only model in Fiat showrooms, followed up by the larger 500L multi-purpose vehicle in 2014 and the long-awaited 500X crossover SUV in 2016. Now, finally, Fiat introduces a car that can dramatically broaden its appeal in the United States: the resurrected 2017 124 Spider roadster.

Once Fiat’s best-selling car in America, the 124 Spider found 170,000 buyers in the States between 1968 and 1982. When Fiat exited the U.S. market, Pininfarina acquired the rights to sell the car as the Azzurra until 1985. By Fiat’s estimation, approximately 8,000 examples of the original 124 Spider remain registered and on American roads, reflecting enthusiasts’ continued adoration of the model 35 years on.

Nicknamed the “Fiata” because it is based on the Mazda MX-5 Miata and is built in Hiroshima, Japan, the new 2017 Fiat 124 Spider is charged with capitalizing on the model’s fan base and generating excitement about the brand more than it is driving significant sales, according to Bob Broderdorf, Director, Fiat Brand North America.

To create the new 124 Spider, Fiat didn’t simply attach new badges to a Miata and call it good. Every exterior body panel is unique to the 124 Spider, and the turbocharged, 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine comes straight from Italy.

Fiat also reworked the car’s exhaust, steering and suspension tuning, upgraded the interior materials, installed new seats, and more. The goal was to make the new Spider a unique car, so I headed to Carlsbad, Calif., to determine whether or not Fiat succeeded.

During a full day of driving, I sampled all three versions of the 124 Spider: Classica, Lusso, and Abarth. They’re all priced between $25,000 and $30,000, and go on sale in the summer of 2016.

Likes
While neither as timeless nor as simplistic as the original 124 Spider, the new car obviously draws its inspiration from the classic Fiat roadster. From the scalloped hood to the tapered taillights, this roadster is instantly recognizable as a Spider, and the design looks terrific.

Inside, evidence of Mazda’s handiwork is easy to spot. Nevertheless, Fiat improves upon the MX-5 Miata’s cabin with upgraded materials and, in Lusso trim, a gorgeous Saddle tan leather color. New seats look and feel good, providing hours of comfort thanks to special foam padding and other changes.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider Lusso interior photoA turbocharged, 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine makes 160 horsepower (164 hp in the Abarth) and 184 lb.-ft. of torque, and is paired with a manual gearbox. A 6-speed automatic transmission is available, but the standard stick is the transmission to choose. By rowing your own gears you can keep the turbocharger spooled up and the engine within the thick of its power band.

Fiat has made significant changes to the 124 Spider’s suspension, which proves softer and more absorbent than expected. The result is a cushier ride quality, and while body roll is plainly evident when tossing the car into a corner, it grips with grace and rips around curves with ease.

On an autocross course I was able to examine the 124 Spider Abarth at its handling limits without fear of consequence, and the car impressed. The Abarth receives a number of handling upgrades, and Fiat says that when this version of the 124 Spider is placed in Sport driving mode the company purposely tuned the car to deliver oversteer when exiting corners.

Talk about a good time.

Dislikes
Fewer people than ever can operate a manual transmission, which means that most 124 Spiders will have the optional 6-speed automatic. That’s unfortunate, because in the Classica and Lusso trims, it serves to emphasize the engine’s turbo lag. A Sport driving mode and a set of paddle shifters help to make the automatic more fun, but they’re offered only for the Abarth.

What Fiat does provide in the Classic and Lusso trims is a manual shift mode, but the pattern is counterintuitive and distracting when you’re hustling fast down an unfamiliar road. Besides, even when the transmission is placed in this mode, the car still feels sluggish right off the line as the turbocharger spools up.

This counterintuitive manual shift pattern, combined with hard plastic trim where the driver braces his or her legs while pitching the car into corners, can make the 124 Spider more of a handful to drive than might be expected of a sports car. Vague steering feel in sweeping curves does not help.

No matter which version of the car you select, the controls for the Fiat Connect infotainment system are difficult to use, especially for those with longer arms. This is also a challenge in the Mazda MX-5 Miata, because the controls are placed fairly far back on the center console.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider Lusso side profile photoAdditionally, on several occasions during the day, I wanted to access the trunk while my driving partner remained inside the car. However, the trunk release touch pad worked only when the key fob was in my hand and outside of the cabin rather than sitting in the storage tray forward of the shifter.

Finally, a day of driving netted an observed fuel-economy result of 23.7 mpg. That’s with the automatic transmission, and with Lusso trim, and with about 400 pounds of driver and front passenger aboard the car. Official fuel-economy estimates had not been published by the EPA as this review was written, but Fiat’s website says the 124 Spider gets up to 26 mpg in the city and up to 35 mpg on the highway.

Conclusion
If you know that the re-born 2017 Fiat 124 Spider is based on the Mazda MX-5 Miata, you might expect the two sports cars to be identical twins, the former different only by virtue of its Italian suit. Rather, in terms of exterior styling, interior design details, feel from behind the wheel, and driving dynamics, the 124 Spider is a unique and appealing offering from Fiat.

Because Fiat has successfully transformed the MX-5 Miata into the distinctly different 124 Spider, these 2-seat roadsters are fraternal twins, their relationship obvious mainly by examining their DNA. Deciding which car is right for you depends on more than just styling preference. A test drive is definitely in order.

Additional Research:

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