by Frank S. Washington
CARLSBAD, Calif., — The 2017 Fiat 124 Spider was a two seat convertible or in the proper automotive lexicon it was a roadster. It was small, rear-wheel-drive, lightweight, and it had a turbocharged four cylinder engine.
That 1.4-liter engine made 160 horsepower or 164 horsepower, depending on the trim line, and it made 184 pound-feet of torque. The Spider 124 could be equipped with either a six-speed automatic transmission or a six-speed manual gearbox.
The manual transmission gets 25 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway, while the automatic gets 25 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway. No doubt a great deal of its fuel efficiency comes from the Fiat 124’s light weight. It tips the scales from 2,436 lbs. to 2,516 lbs. depending on trim and transmission.
When it goes on sale this summer, there will be three trim lines: the Classica started at $24,995, base price for the Lusso was $27,495 and the Abarth, the racing version, goes on sale in the third quarter starts and at $28,195. None of the prices include the $995 freight charge.
There is also a Fiat 124 Prima Edizione. It is a special edition and only 124 will be made. It will have an exclusive Azzuro Italia (blue) exterior paint and premium Saddle colored leather seats. For $35,000, purchasers will receive branded merchandise and each car will be individual numbered.
That’s the relevant numbers but let’s look at the intangibles. Fiat returned to the U.S. market five years ago. And even though it has sold 250,000 units, automotive wags think that is not enough to consider the Italian automaker’s re-entry here a roaring success.
The 124 was Fiat’s most successful model in the U.S. First introduced in 1968 and on sale until 1983, it sold 183,000 copies. Although sales of any roadster are incremental, Fiat expects the 124 to increase its brand awareness in the market and to bring more millennials and Gen Xers into its 200 or so showrooms. They already comprise 40 percent of the automaker’s customer base.
Every product launch is important to any automaker, but Fiat has no room for failure with the 124. It is based on the Mazda MX-5 or Miata. That is a good start, the Miata is highly regarded.
What did Fiat change? Just about everything, only the underbody or chassis remained. “We put a (new) top hat on that platform,” said Leia Horton, the Fiat 124’s program manager.
In addition to a different engine, the 124 is five-inches longer than the MX-5, it had a honeycombed grille and Fiat designers wanted the headlights to be eyelids. Along with the grille, designers wanted the roadster’s grille to look like an alert friendly face.
Flowing graceful lines accentuate the extra length and made the car appear longer. There were power domes on the hood and sharp horizontal rear lamps which made the car look wider from the rear. The back fenders were shaped so that the upper surface fell inward toward the decklid. And there was an integrated spoiler. This was a good looking car.
Inside, it was ergonomically correct. The steering wheel, pedals and shifter were easy to reach and to use. Climate controls were a three-dial affair beneath the touch screen. Fiat tried to put a little Italian elegance into the interior which was loaded with soft touch surfaces. It didn’t feel like some of the country’s supercars but you could tell that the effort was there.
About the only thing to quibble over was the power side-view mirror control. It couldn’t be reached comfortably because of the door handle, there was just not enough room between the handle and the control itself to get to it without contorting your hand, and we’ve got small digits.
Still, this was a great driving car. Fiat only brought four manual 124s, the rest had automatic transmission. We were supposed to trade off at driver changes so that everyone had a chance to drive a manual. It didn’t happen. We ended up driving a Fiat 124 Lusso the entire route and that was just fine.
We opted to put the top up and found the 124’s manual convertible top easy to use. In fact, it took just one had to unlatch it and put it up. You needed that second hand to secure the top to the windshield frame but that took little effort. To put it down was just as easy with one hand when after it was unlatched. We’re talking five-seconds, if that long.
We bumped elbows with our driving partner a couple of times on the center armrest until we got used to the space. And we had to remember that the 124 is a classic roadster. That meant that the passenger compartment was small but the car didn’t drive that way. It seemed bigger.
The front suspension used a double wishbone layout. The Spider’s rear suspension was a multilink setup. The dampers were connected directly to the hub supports. And the axis of wheel deflection was set behind the point of contact with the road in response to lateral input from the tires. The bottom line is that the car stayed flat while we aggressively drove on twisting two lane mountainous roads.
The 124 stuck to the pavement like it was flypaper. It had dual pinion electric assist power steering. The feedback wasn’t bad but we could have stood a little more. Still, the car responded well to driver input and surprisingly we didn’t come close to oversteering or understeering in the hairpin turns.
The transmission was sure through the mountains. Gear selection was quick and the 124 automatic always selected the right gear. It was a fairly effortless rive and we were not worn out when done even though we were on unfamiliar mountainous roads with lots of places for disaster.
Engineers worked hard to minimize noise. They adjusted space between the engine mounts, suspension components were placed to avoid generating resonance with one another, acoustic glass was used for the windshield, and thicker rear glass was employed. The soft top which we kept up had a sound absorbing headliner.
That was just some of the adjustments they made to reduce noise, vibration and harshness. The 2017 Fiat 124 was relatively quiet with the top up, it let you feel the road without being harsh, it handled well without feeling like a Go-kart and because of its small size and light weight maneuverability was great. The 124 Spider is an admirable addition to the Fiat’s U.S. lineup.