The United States currently knows Fiat for the petite 500 coupe and the 500L and 500X small crossovers.
But from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, the snappy little 124 Spider roadster was Italian automaker Fiat’s best-selling vehicle in the States.
The Spider is back, this time with underpinnings from the Mazda Miata, but with a Fiat 1.4-liter MultiAir Turbo four cylinder engine replacing the Miata’s 155-horsepower 2.0 four-cylinder engine.
It’s assembled in Japan on the same line as the Miata.
The new engine features twin intercoolers, an air intake system and an available sport-tuned exhaust, produces 160 horsepower in the Classica (Classical) and Lusso (Luxury) trims and, with a less-restrictive exhaust, produces 164 horsepower in the Abarth trim.
Abarth (from Carlo Abarth, Turin racing car maker) has a distinctive badge consisting of a shield with a stylized scorpion in a red and yellow background.
Although based on the Miata, the new Spider has its own styling with unique bulging projector headlights (with daytime running lights, time-off time delay, and a black lower ledge) scooped out of the front fenders and flat trapezoid taillights with body-color inserts surrounded by LED lights. Front fog lamps and are set in black, carved into the outer bumper.
It has a longer, flatter rear and a more-upright black six-sided upper grille, much like the original, sitting farther from the windshield, with a gaping lower intake. A distinctive Premium Silver Header Trim outlines the front windshield.
Twin bright exhaust tips peek out of the black lower bumper trim, while a chrome and red Fiat badge sits on the upper edge of the trunk lid.
Spider has three extra inches in the front and two in the rear, increasing the trunk slightly from 4.6 cubic feet to 4.9 cubic feet. Although the trunk is small, it is deep to accommodate larger items such as luggage or golf clubs. In place of a spare tire, Spider comes with a tire repair kit, kept in the trunk.
The cabin is the same size at the Miata’s, as the wheelbase hasn’t changed. Spider’s cabin has been updated with soft-touch plastic on the upper doors and upper dash, in place of the body-color plastic used in the Miata, for a better feel. Thanks to extensive use of sound-deadening materials, the cabin is quieter, even on the highway.
Seating materials are more upscale, whether the cloth of the Classica, or the leather of the Lusso and Abarth. The specially tuned Touring suspension means Spider’s ride is very comfortable and smooth, even on rough surfaces.
Pricing starts at $24,995 for the Classica, $27,495 for the Lusso – the model I drove – and $28,195 for the Abarth. All models have rear-wheel drive and come standard with a six-speed manual transmission, which can be exchanged for a six-speed AISIN automatic with leather-wrapped shift knob, a $1,350 option.
A very limited – 124 units – Prima Edizione (First Edition) version, based on the Lusso trim, adds special blue “Azzurro Italia” (light blue ) paint, a two-tone interior and a numbered production plaque, and goes for around $35,000.
EPA estimates for the Spider are 26 mpg city/35 highway/ 30 combined with the manual transmission, and 25/36/30 with the automatic. My tester had an automatic transmission, and I achieved 30 mpg combined, mostly driving on the highway.
Spider’s soft acoustic-lined convertible top is the easiest manual I have ever operated, opening and closing in mere seconds. A quick pull on the latch at the windshield header, push the top back with one hand until it clicks into position. To close, pull the release handle behind the right shoulder, the top springs up, then pull forward and latch. With the top down, Premium Silver-covered rollbars are visible behind the headrests.
Entering and exiting were easier than most low-to-the-ground sports cars, with narrow door sills and shallow side bolsters. The only thing to hang onto, however, was the door frame.
The cabin is snug, no surprise in a two-seater, but otherwise comfortable. Anyone over six feet may disagree. Although the passenger foot well was compromised by the transmission tunnel, my five-foot, seven-inch passenger was not uncomfortable.
The seats were close together, divided by a very small console with a tiny storage compartment under the armrest. Seats were manually adjusted – six ways for the driver and four ways for the passenger – with a slight height adjustment for the driver.
A lockable storage compartment/glove box was between the seat backs, above two removable cupholders – all of which were difficult to reach from a seated position. A cupholder receiver near the passenger’s left knee made it easier to reach at least one of the cups. Cubbies behind the seats, accessed by folding the seatback forward, were a good place to stow a purse, mobile devices, etc.
Spider’s interior is simple, with easy-to-use controls for the air conditioning and audio functions, and an easy-to-see and -use seven-inch touch screen mounted on the mid dash above the center stack. The menus were intuitive, operated either by a control knob below the shifter, or by the touch screen, which was locked while the vehicle was in motion.
My Spider had a four-speaker AM/FM Bluetooth radio with integrated voice command; Pandora, Aha, and Stitcher apps; ParkView backup camera; Remote Proximity Keyless Entry; one 12-volt power outlet; and navigation capability. Navigation comes in an optional package, which also brings a nine-speaker Bose audio system with satellite radio.
Besides the standard safety equipment – air bags and active head restraints, cruise control, tire- pressure warning – Spider has an Enhanced Accident Response System. In the event air bags are deployed, the system cuts off fuel to the engine, flashes hazard lights as long as the battery has power or the ignition is turned off, turns on the interior lights (as long as the battery has power or the key is removed), and unlocks all doors automatically.
The optional Safety and Comfort Collection ($1,495) brought Blind Spot and Cross Path Detection, ParkSense Rear Park Assist, heated auto-dimming exterior mirrors, auto-dimming rearview mirror, universal garage door opener, and a security alarm.
The reborn Fiat 124 is fun – and easy -- to drive, with precise steering for confidence in any turn, compliant suspension for a smoother ride, sound damping material for a quieter cabin, easy open-and-close soft top, comfortable bolstered seats, reasonable prices, punchy acceleration, and a sweet exterior.
Delivered price for my Spider, including the $1,495 option, $595 for paint, $1,350 for the automatic transmission, and $995 destination charges, was $31,930.
The automotive columns of Emma Jayne Williams have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 2007. Contact her at email@example.com.