I cut my driving teeth on roadsters from the '60s and confess to a certain fondness, along with the requisite cloudy memory, for the agricultural little beasts. That top-down, wind-in-the-hair, country-road-on-a-warm-spring-day driving experience negates the dark side—out of adjustment carburetors, no air-conditioning, leaky tops, fogged windows, chokes, and cold morning warm-ups juxtaposed with overheating on a hot summer day. Still, I think back to those daily drivers with affection.
The Fiat Spider, like so many of the more affordable sports cars of that era, evokes these sepia reminiscences. The Spider made its debut at the Turin Auto Show in 1966 featuring Pininfarina styling, a 1438cc twin-cam front-engine/rear-drive formula, five-speed manual transmission, and four-wheel disc brakes. The drop-top, friendly-faced little roadster arrived in the United States in 1968 with a domestic price tag of $3,265, offering entry-level enthusiasts the trappings of a European lifestyle—with Italian roots.
Nearly 50 years later, the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider attempts to emulate everything good about its predecessor, leaving behind some of the more trying aspects of the past—drawbacks we've forgotten when waxing sentimental.
There are a number of two-seat roadsters on the market today. You know what they are, and if you've read this far, performance comparison tests are largely irrelevant. This is about aesthetics in design. The Fiat 124 Spider is stylistically different and should stand on its own merits. It follows that a potential owner is likely seeking his or her own automotive individuality.
Moving Forward by Looking Back
The opportunity arose to discover those distinctions with an invitation to take the 124 Spider for a spin, courtesy of Fiat. The manufacturer opened the pre-drive presentation backed by two guests of honor—a retro red, blast-from-the-past example, sharing the dais with the commemorative edition Prima Edizione Lusso in Azzurro Italia, with a mere 124 of these blue, individually numbered specials to become available.
The presentation commenced with the viewing of two Fiat 124 Spider commercials, "Blue Pill"—a must-watch nod to those of a certain age—and "Free Like a Bird"—which features an action-camera-clad eagle performing an aerial ballet above a young, carefree, mountain-road-driving couple. With a target market of cash-strapped millennials and their more flush baby-booming counterparts, Fiat may well have struck a broad, cinematographic bull's-eye.
I gave away my bracket as I mamboed from the presentation—watch "Blue Pill"—to a fleet of top-down Fiat 124 Spiders. My co-pilot being a venerable automotive editor, I happily adopted him as best friend for the day. Amidst a selection of Classicos and Lussos, with six-speed automatics outnumbering manuals, the shifters went fast. My intrepid driving partner and I were left a Bianco Gelato-colored automatic Lusso with nero, or black, leather interior.
The 2017 Spider is available in three trim levels. Pricing starts at $25,990 for the entry-level Classico, with fabric seats and 16-inch wheels, possibly the most affordable entry in today's market. The $28,490 Lusso offers heated leather seats, 17-inch wheels, and the expected upgrades. Both the Classico and Lusso are good for 160 hp at 5,500 rpm and are available in a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission.
For $29,190, you get what most of us really desire: the Abarth option. Visually more aggressive in appearance and stance, the Abarth's typical focus on performance includes slightly more horsepower, sports suspension, limited-slip differential, paddle shifters, and Abarth badging.
Designed at Centro Stile in Turin, Italy, the 124 Spider carries echoes of the original design in the familiar sidelines, along with the proven front engine/rear-drive formula. The hexagonal upper grille and pattern, borrowed from the original's front air intake, adds just a hint of menace to that familiar, friendly face, perhaps due to the more oval shape of the recessed headlamps. The twin power domes mimic an optional upgrade to the second series 1,608cc model introduced in 1970.
While some may feel the 2017 Spider is missing some of the personality of its older sibling, the acknowledgement of the visual past is still strong, and the recollections of those owning the original 124 may fail to recall the actualities. As the current version of a wistful memory, this youthful counterpart is appealing in its upscale design.
Ready to move beyond the visual, I called shotgun as my partner and I clambered into our Lusso for the morning driving stint.
A couple of observations: Yes, it's a two-seater, but the interior felt cramped, particularly on the passenger side. For lack of legroom, extra belongings landed in the trunk. Speaking of which, trunk space is larger than expected, not enough room for luggage of the steamer variety, but road-trip ready for light packers, a couple of bottles of vino, and a corkscrew.
Envisioning a voyeuristic raptor as our mascot, a la the commercial, we enthusiastically headed out, only to spend the next 30 minutes traversing an impotent miasma of suburban Southern California traffic signals. Let's face it, for those living in a metropolis, this is a mandatory existence, and the crawl was instructional. Beyond navigating traffic gridlock, most commutes include bothersome chores like juggling coffee, or Bluetooth and navigation operations, all executed while dodging fellow drivers facing their own plethora of distractions. It's an automotive minefield out there, and throwing a clutch and stick shift into the melange might lead to a waning romance. As a daily driver, the automatic Lusso offers a quite civilized stop-and-go cruise, with zero drama.
However, the Sunday-only drive set might welcome a bit of esprit, and the intersection-free, twist-and-shout two-laners of San Diego County's scenic canyon back roads beckoned. While it wasn't quite Tuscany's Chianti wine country, my partner adopted the leisurely pace of a touring mode and I longed to pull a basket of wine and cheese out of that spacious trunk. Since a good portion of the proposed market will focus on those seeking a top-down, weekend adventure, this car does play nice.
Several of our fellow drivers were ahead and behind in a sort of journalistic convoy, and my bucolic reverie came to an abrupt halt when the leader of the 124 Spider pack pulled off for a photo op. Our tempo picked up exponentially and we blew past the roadside shoot—and soon the rest of the posse vanished from my sideview mirror. In spite of our haste, the 124 offered a smooth ride with little wind buffeting and only a slight increase in the conversation decibel level.
Descending at speed through a broad, sweeping, mountain curve, I can proudly say I did not grab the door handle or pump the imaginary passenger-side brake—standard in every model. I did, however, scan for black-and-white lurkers while crossing myself. My driving partner's face, on the other hand, exhibited the slightest grin of satisfaction.
To fully comprehend my supplications, I might mention that we exited the morning presentation dead last and skittered into the midway point to qualify for pole in the next leg—with time to visit the facilities, grab an espresso, and examine the top operation.
Unlike its more complex forerunners, the Spider's convertible top is surprisingly easy to manage; just reach back, pull forward, and lock into place, all executed from the driver seat with minimal effort. Top up or down, the 124 proved quieter than expected, with minimal wind or road noise.
Top up, we struck out. The MultiAir turbo, while offering 160 hp at 5,500 rpm and 184 lb-ft of torque, has obvious turbo lag, resulting in weak low-rpm power. Actually, I find it rather endearing having to rev it up to 3,000 or get on the gas a half second earlier to build up the boost.
The six-speed automatic includes an electronic manual mode, a gimmick I've never cared for when compared to a true manual gearbox, especially with turbo lag. I tried it for a time with the Spider and opted to stay in automatic. For me, a manual is a sports car's heritage, and shifting through an honest-to-goodness set of gears is part of the overall experience.
With the top up, I expected blind spots, but visibility remained remarkably...visible. Plus, the blind spot monitoring system chimes in like an overzealous back seat driver whenever a car, or anything else, enters the safety bubble. I had to suppress the urge to yell, "I see it! I see it!"
The usual electronic accouterments are standard on the Lusso and available for the Classica, with the FIAT connect 7.0 system. Personally, I prefer the freedom of turning knobs, but I'm sure the expectations of tech-heads will be met.
Fuel economy is decent at 26/city, 35/highway for the manual and 25/city, 36 highway for the automatic.
The memory of a great drive begins with the comfort of a good seat or ends with the pain provided by one belonging in a go-cart. On that end, the Spider's well-bolstered seats provided plenty of support.
Nimble and Well-Planted
From the hinterlands, we traveled to central San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium for a bit of autocrossing on a course laid out with 14 corners and a long back-straight.
A pair of Abarth models stood at the ready, one automatic with paddle shifters, the other a manual. The Abarth's distinctive attire includes a flat-black hood and trunk, Brembo calipers, and unique scorpion badging. This high-performance edition can be modified with Mopar extras, including a strut tower brace, tunnel braces to stiffen the rear end, and a snarling Record Monza dual-mode performance exhaust created by Magneti Marelli, along with a catalog of other customizing options.
On the course, I was able to switch off the driver aids, and here I really appreciated the rear-wheel drive and the directness of the short throw shifter. The narrowness of that shift gate was evident when I initially missed First and went to Third, and promptly killed the engine. Once in the proper gear, the dexterous Abarth traversed the course like an eager newcomer transported to a time when Abarths roamed the old Pescara Circuit.
Contemporary roadsters are predictable, and the Spider meets the expectations of an up-to-date, two-seater in its own way, and based on proven fundamentals.
Comparisons to the 124 Spider's Japanese fraternal twin just might be moot, the linchpin being Eurocentric romanticism. The Fiat badge brings to mind Sophia Loren, Armani suits, and a romantico cruise down the Amalfi Coast. Indeed, Fiat's "Blue Pill" commercial plays on the idea that we'd rather live on a farm in Tuscany than in an apartment in Tokyo. It comes down to perception, or illusion, but that's how some "purists" mambo.
When the Fiat Spider crossed the pond in 1968, the sporty little roadster hit an instant chord. More than 170,000 of the cheerful-looking two-seaters eventually immigrated to U.S. shores, over a 16-year time span, and today, 8,000 remain registered, with many convalescing in dank or dusty garages.
Seeing the Spider displayed at the media launch prompted the search for a runner.
Turns out, I didn't have to look farther than an extended family member. My car- collecting brother-in-law discovered a 1979 metallic silver example in a Laguna Beach, California, driveway and promptly made the purchase, installed a new top, and parked it in his garage—where it now gathers a bit of dust, among other things.
After driving the newest offering of the Fiat 124 Spider, what better way to revel in a blast from the past than by hopping in the driver seat of an original for a little country road cruise? The car had not seen asphalt for several years, but my brother-in-law dutifully hooked up the battery charger. The next day, ready to fire her up, he opened the driver's door to find that the car was serving as a colossal wasp nest. Moreover, for my driving comfort, the seats were well cushioned by the now dry and crunchy leaves that had wafted in before said new top was installed. He dispatched the irritable, yellow jacket-clad stingers, swept off the leaves, and climbed in.
The little car fired up immediately, ready to roll. However, what wasp in its right mind would vacate such an airy, rent-controlled domicile without a fight, particularly a home with such lovely Italian ambience? Seriously, would you? When two of the intractable winged predators fell from the steering wheel into my lap, I feared retribution, and with deadline looming, the drive was put on hold.