“Go fast,” implores my littlest niecelet. She is sitting shotgun in the Fiat 124 Spider. We’ve got the ragtop down, the sun is blazing and she wants to go places. Now.
Okay, kid. I gun the Spider, and she squeals happily as we spring forward.
And who wouldn’t? Whatever your age, the 124 Spider is one of those of cars that you almost have to like. It’s a fun machine, and this year it is returning to the scene of its unhappy departure a couple of decades ago.
Until the mid-1980s, when Fiat disappeared from the U.S. market, the Spider was one of the coolest cars going. A real Italian sportster that the non-Ferrari set could afford. Then, like all things from Torino, it went away when then-flailing Fiat withdrew from the American market. Che peccato for Spider lovers.
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The return of the Spider this year is part of the evolution of Fiat Chrysler, the much stronger company that emerged after Fiat bought Chrysler in the midst of the Great Recession. The first order of business was saving the Americans, which was has been well and truly accomplished.
The next part is saving the Italians, in part by extending the Fiat brands across the U.S. The beloved Cinquecentos, the Fiat 500s, have done okay. But if you have invested a ton of money to become a Fiat dealer, you’d really like to have an affordable Italian sportster to sell, too. And this is it.
Sort of. Because the Fiat 124 Spider is actually made in Japan. In Hiroshima. By Mazda. It rides on the same frame as the new and lavishly praised Mazda Miata, a circumstance that has set off much consternation in the auto press. Why would an Italian auto company with an unprecedented sports-and-racing car history fob off a low-end roadster on a Japanese rival? Cost, for one. You need $500 million to $1 billion to develop a truly new car these days. Mazda had the manufacturing capacity, and clearly wasn’t worried about the added competition. Indeed, having another model in this segment might actually expand demand.
Money tested the Lusso model, which lists at $27,495 vs. the entry-level $25,000 (for both the Spider and the Miata). So what’s the difference? A meaningful combination of Italian tailoring and engineering. To infuse a little stilo Italiano, Fiat’s designers stretched the frame. The front has more sweep, a little more Armani-like draping if you will; the rear has more trunk space, which is actually a big thing in a little roadster. Miata owners might quibble, but the Spider is a beauty in its own right.
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As for the interior, it’s more or less the same, meaning it’s low and tight. The chair, while basic, is comfortable. The dashboard is dominated by the centrally located tachometer, which is a bit wasted on the automatic transmission version that adds $1,350 to the price. I’d opt for the 6-speed manual, but then again I would. On the other hand, the $1,495 Customer Preferred Package 225, which includes blind spot warning mirrors and cross path detection systems, is a must.
More important, though, is the power plant. Fiat shipped its 4-cylinder, 1.4-liter MultiAir turbo engine to be installed in the Spider. Why bother? Because Fiat is a small-engine specialist and the 160-hp MultiAir powerplant provides more horsepower and response while affording great gas mileage at a combined 29 mpg. The MultiAir technology is exquisite—basically it affords each value lifter five apertures as opposed to two, giving you a computer-optimized air/fuel flow at any given instant. This engine is also quieter than the Miata version, a significant difference when you’re at highway speeds. You are not going to crush Camaros or Mustangs in this thing; it goes from zero to 60 miles per hour in about 6 seconds. But I found the passing power, from 50 mph to 70 mph, say, to be more than ample—even pleasing.
So if you really want, you can go argue the merits of Japan’s Miata vs. Italy’s Spider. But I tend to look at it more positively. Now you’ve got two really fun roadsters to choose from.