Saturday, November 16, 2019

Italian Take on a Classic Roadster

Have you seen a Fiat 124 Spider on the road? Did you even know Fiat made a two-seat, convertible sports car? Don’t feel bad if you haven’t, as this car is pretty invisible—but certainly not for any bad reason.

Fiat’s back in the sports car business–with an assist from Mazda

Fiat knew they needed a convertible sports car in their line-up to go along with the 500—or Cinquecento—and the small 500L and 500X crossovers. (Smarticd has driven all the Fiat models, reviews are found at the end of this story.) Fiat has a history with a 124 Spider as it was one of the most fun and affordable sports cars you could own from 1966-1982. So the challenge was how to quickly add a sports car to the current Fiat line-up that would be recognized immediately for its serious fun factor.

If the 124 Spider looks familiar, it should. Fiat called on Mazda with the idea of the new Fiat 124 Spider based on the but with a few Italian tweaks, of course. What Fiat came up with is a stylish sports car, available in three trim levels of Classica, Lusso and Abarth, that uses the Miata’s underpinnings, but offers two different engines, suspension modifications and unique styling.

Driving Experience: On the Road

The rear-wheel drive 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Classica is powered by the same engine found in the Jeep Renegade and all Fiat models except the electric 500e, a turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder DOHC, 16-valve engine producing 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. Smarticd’s 124 Spider had the stock six-speed manual transmission, while there is an optional automatic with paddle shifters.

The EPA rates the 124 Spider fuel economy at 26 city/36 highway/30 combined. In 480 miles driving throughout Southern California we averaged 28 mpg. Our fuel economy was lower than the EPA estimate mostly because we found every bit of stop-and-go highway traffic possible, which has a couple of downsides other than the serious frustration level. With a manual transmission, being in traffic is a never-ending combination of clutch-in, clutch-out, which makes the turbo kick in between the clutch-in, clutch-out. This results in a worn-out left leg and a drop in fuel efficiency. So, if this kind of traffic is an unfortunate part of your driving life, go with the automatic and the paddle shifters.

The view of the 124 spider many will see

With this said, it is important to remember that one of the thrills of owning a convertible sports car is shifting through the gears. In this area, the 124 Spider does not disappoint. The six-speed manual transmission, driving the rear wheels, is buttery smooth with notchy gears and a near-seamless clutch in its operation and feel.

The engine likes, let me restate this…LOVES, to be pushed high in the rev band. Low-end torque is missing, but don’t worry as once above 1,500 rpm, the 1.4L turbo wants to be taken to redline. For some fun, enjoy the strong pull in third gear to 75 mph. There is some turbo lag to deal with, but compensating with the clutch and shift points makes the 124 Spider driving experience one that I recommend everyone try at least once.

The low center of gravity, a curb weight of 2,436 pounds and a 53/47 percent front-to-rear weight distribution deliver confident, consistent and nimble handling. The Touring Suspension pieces include double wishbone front, multi-link rear, electric power-assisted rack and pinion steering and stabilizer bars at both ends. The 195/50VR16 Yokohama Advan Sport V105 tires on 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels, were grippy and didn’t fall off after repeated hard cornering. The 124 Spider dares you to find an open stretch of long drawn-out sweepers or tight corners to fling it from side-to-side.

Driving Experience: Exterior

The all-new 2017 Fiat 124 Spider was designed at Centro Stile in Turin, Italy, home to the famous Pininfarina design house. Iconic Italian styling was the key to not only

A brand-new classic?

differentiate the 124 from the MX-5 Miata, but also harken back to the original, classic Spider. While both cars share the same general shape, there is no mistaking the 124 Spider from its MX-5 soulmate. Fiat stretched the front by three inches and the rear by two inches, resulting in a longer visual look that is accentuated by its low-slung 4.9-inch ground clearance.

Clean Fleet Report’s Classica model’s front end starts with almond-shaped projector headlights set under what look like eyelids. The honeycomb grille is smaller than the grille on the MX-5 and leads to a hood characterized by two domes. The sides are smooth, ending at the short trunk deck, dual exhaust tips, and downward/inward slanting taillights. Badging on the car is kept to the absolute minimum. The soft convertible roof, with an acoustic headliner, is manually operated and could not be easier to lower and raise.

The 124 Spider comes in seven exterior paint colors including Rosso Passione (Red), Bianco Gelato (White), Nero Cinema (Jet Black Metallic), Grigio Moda (Dark Gray Metallic), Bronzo Magnetico (Bronze Metallic) and tri-coat Bianco Perla (Crystal White Pearl). Grigio Argento (Gray Metallic) was on our test car.

Driving Experience: Interior

The 2017 Fiat 124 Spider and MX-5 interiors are nearly identical. Fiat added soft touch surfaces and additional sound insulation to reduce NVH (Noise-Vibration-Harshness), resulting in a more refined and quite ride.

Depending on the person, the interior can be snug—and maybe even a deal breaker. The space needed for elbow, head and legroom, storage space, an infotainment system and multiple cup holders become the design challenge in a two-seater with a droptop. At 5’9”, I fit easily in the Spider, but it was a bit tight for a six-foot friend, so this is definitely a car that needs to be driven to find your comfort level.

Fun, but tight spaces

The 124 Spider Classica comes with cloth seats that nicely keep the driver and passenger planted when cornering hard.  The seats are a long way down, so sliding into them isn’t as simple as launching into a SUV or truck. There is some travel in the seat adjustment and it reclines a bit, but once you find the closest position to being comfortable you can stop messing with the manual adjustments. I would have liked more bottom cushion padding and there was no lumbar adjustment. These are not as important if you are driving short distances. However, if thinking of taking a long road trip on open freeways, then investing in aftermarket seat cushions might not be a bad idea.

The dash layout is simple and clean. Three round gauges were deep set under a hood to help reduce glare because, as you soon find out with the top down, everything is pretty bright. Because performance is key, the tachometer is in the center of the three gauges and the largest of the three. The HVAC round knobs were center-placed just above the gearshift lever, making for easy use.

The Mazda-designed infotainment center continues to be among the most challenging to operate, so the 124 Spider suffers as a result. Our car had the optional Technology Collection that included the top/center dash-mounted seven-inch, color touch-screen display. Without volume and channel knobs on the dash, we found it cumbersome to make band and channel changes. It required multiple steps to control a single function, and the need to use the center console-mounted selector knob resulted in diverting the driver’s eyes from the road. The controls mounted on the leather-wrapped steering wheel helped some, but were limited in their range of functionality. Maybe in time it becomes an easy operation that can all be done by touch, but after a week and hundreds of miles we did not get the hang of the system.

This is not to take away from the four-speaker (including one in each of the seat headrests) sound system for the AM/FM/CD/MP3/AUX radio with a USB input. An optional eight-speaker Bose system is available on the Lusso and Abarth trim levels.

A top-down conversation piece

Fiat has obviously worked hard to keep wind and noise from inside the cabin. With the cloth top lowered, which is a very simple one-person, three-latch process, and the windows up, there is minimal wind hitting or swirling around the driver and passenger. I received an incoming call, which I took using the Bluetooth hands-free feature accessed by the steering wheel mounted controls. To my surprise the call was crystal clear with no wind noise; the caller’s voice came through the speakers in the seat headrests.

Convenience comes your way with cruise control, remote keyless door locks, power windows with one-touch down, power side mirrors, push button ignition, tilt steering column, A/C, carpeted floor mats, small but appreciated storage areas and two inconveniently placed cup holders. The trunk is adequate for two people on a weekend road trip, but bringing golf clubs, visiting wineries and lugging home cases of wine or antiquing should be left to the Fiat 500L or 500X.


The 2017 Fiat 124 Spider comes with an extensive list of standard and optional safety features including four airbags, four-wheel power disc ABS braking system, rearview back-up camera, electronic stability control, traction control, tire pressure monitoring system, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert and an anti-theft alarm/engine immobilizer.

The 2017 124 has not been rated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Pricing and Warranties

Smarticd’s 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Classica, with optional equipment, had a MSRP of $26,290 excluding the $995 destination charge. Base MSRP for the 2017 124 Spider models, excluding the $995 destination charge are:

Classica: Manual Transmission                     $24,995

Three trim levels, two transmissions, one engine

Classica: Automatic Transmission                 $26,345

Lusso: Manual Transmission                        $27,495

Lusso: Automatic Transmission                    $28,845

Abarth: Manual Transmission                       $28,195

Abarth: Automatic Transmission                            $29,545

The 2017 Fiat 124 Spider comes with these warranties:

  • Basic – Four years/50,000 miles
  • Powertrain – Four years/50,000 miles

Observations: 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Classica

Smarticd is a fan of sports cars, cars without tops and cars with manual transmissions. Give us the keys to one with all three and unbridled euphoria with unbounded glee sets in. We also value history, recognizing automobile companies that have designed and built iconic cars. Fiat is one of those companies and the 124 Spider is one of those cars.

Rarer than a Miata

Recognizing that the 124 Spider is largely based on the Mazda MX-5 Miata does not discount Fiat’s contribution to adding another fun sporty car to the world of the same-old, same-old offerings of sedans and SUVs. Yes, a family hauler is a necessity at times, but would you really own one if you didn’t have to? I know, rhetorical.

Fiat added Italian flair with a redesigned exterior, upped the luxury level with changes to the interior and noise reduction insulation. They then offered-up a different engine option: the turbocharged MultiAir engine. Its performance numbers and feel is comparable to the Mazda engine, especially when the added weight to the Fiat is considered against any horsepower or torque gains over the Mazda.

So with these distinctions, how to compare the two cars?

It comes down to styling, uniqueness and image of buying the 124 Spider over the MX-5. There are not many 124 Spiders on the road, so if you buy one, expect to get the same reactions we did—“What is that?” and “I didn’t know Fiat made a sports car.”

To a person, after a quick conversation, they all thought the 124 Spider was a pretty cool car.

We think you will too.

Whatever you buy, Happy Driving!

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Smarticd is loaned free test vehicles from automakers to evaluate, typically for a week at a time. Our road tests are based on this one-week drive of a new vehicle. Because of this we don’t address issues such as long-term reliability or total cost of ownership. In addition we are often invited to manufacturer events highlighting new vehicles or technology. As part of these events we may be offered free transportation, lodging or meals. We do our best to present our unvarnished evaluations of vehicles and news irrespective of these inducements.

Our focus is on vehicles that offer the best fuel economy in their class. We also feature those that are among the top mpg vehicles in their class. In addition, we aim to offer reviews and news on advanced technology and the alternative fuel vehicle market. We welcome any feedback from vehicle owners and are dedicated to providing a forum for alternative viewpoints. Please let us know your views at [email protected].

John Faulkner is Road Test Editor at Smarticd. He has more than 30 years’ experience branding, launching and marketing automobiles. He has worked with General Motors (all Divisions), Chrysler (Dodge, Jeep, Eagle), Ford and Lincoln-Mercury, Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Toyota on consumer events and sales training programs. His interest in automobiles is broad and deep, beginning as a child riding in the back seat of his parent’s 1950 Studebaker. He is a journalist member of the Motor Press Guild.

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Marvin G. December 22, 2017 at 7:17 pm

The Fiat Spider Classica is everything I’d hoped for. It’s regained my youth. Thanks!

    Michael Coates December 23, 2017 at 12:15 am

    @Marvin G,

    Glad you enjoy it. We did, too! –ed.


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