Fiat Chrysler boss Sergio Marchionne has made no secret of his desire to hook up with another major automaker in pursuit of massive economies of scale. When General Motors CEO Mary Barra rebuffed his initial overture, he memorably (and creepily) quipped, “I can hug you nicely, I can hug you tightly, I can hug you like a bear.” While the new Fiat 124 Spider is the product of cooperation with another automaker, it’s a far cry from whatever sort of hug Marchionne has in mind.
The 124 Spider springs from a tie-up not with one of the world’s largest automakers, but with Mazda, one of the smallest. It’s a reworked MX-5 Miata, although every exterior body panel is new and the Fiat looks nothing like the Mazda. Instead, it recalls the Tom Tjaarda–designed and Pininfarina-built original Fiat 124 Spider, which sold more than 170,000 copies over its 16 years here, reigning as Fiat’s all-time bestseller in America.
The Spider’s nose ends in an updated version of the original’s flattened hexagonal grille, and the LED headlights are scalloped into the bodywork, much like the original’s. The old model had twin bulges on the hood to telegraph the dual-overhead-cam engine underneath—a big deal in an inexpensive car back then. The new one echoes this theme. From the side, the 124 Spider’s hood doesn’t have the Miata’s downward slope. Instead, it extends farther and straighter and is, in fact, about three inches longer than the Miata’s. The trunklid is also a couple inches longer, stretching the 124 Spider five inches more than the Miata overall and giving it a slightly classier and less aggressive profile. Luggage capacity increases only 0.3 cubic foot (from 4.6 to 4.9), though, so your golf bag will still be riding shotgun. A prominent character line that starts behind the front wheel, kicks up near the door handle, and continues rearward mimics a similar line on the original Spider.
Under the hood lies the 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder from Fiat’s 500 Abarth, modified for longitudinal mounting. With 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, it is up five ponies and 36 pound-feet—at 2050 fewer rpm—compared with the naturally aspirated 2.0-liter in its Mazda sibling. But its 6500-rpm redline is 300 revs lower than the Miata’s.
The engine is coupled to a six-speed manual that comes from the previous-generation MX-5, the taller gearing of which better matches the output of the turbocharged four. The six-speed automatic is an Aisin unit, similar to the one that has been used in the MX-5 for several years. Those hoping for the much more powerful engine from the Alfa Romeo 4C will be disappointed that it doesn’t fit. Besides, FCA wants to reserve Alfa engines for Alfas. Fiat isn’t talking performance yet, but expect the 124 Spider to be very close to the Miata in straight-line speed. Its engine is slightly more powerful, but we’re guessing it weighs at least 100 pounds more than the Mazda, given the additional sheetmetal, turbocharger, intercooler, and older, 15-pound-heavier gearbox.
The running gear is very closely related to the Miata. The Spider has an additional brace in the front subframe and uses its own suspension calibrations with different springs, shocks, anti-roll bars, and electrically assisted power steering, but you’ll find the same control arms up front and the same multilinks out back. Even the bushings and tires are MX-5 carry-overs—a standard 195/50R-16 and an optional 205/45R-17, both summer tires.
This suspension will be common to the 124 Spider in all markets, but Enrico Genchi, the team leader for the 124 Spider program, declined to say whether the car would be sportier or more comfortable than the MX-5. He did say that it would have “a good level of comfort with very low body roll.” The latter characteristic definitely does not apply to the Miata. Mazda won’t comment on the Fiat’s performance and design, other than to confirm that it did, in fact, lead development of both vehicles.
Inside, the 124 Spider looks like a Miata in nicer clothing. The seats’ shape, bolstering, stitching patterns, and cloth upholstery are different. While the overall dashboard shape is the same, the upper part is covered with a soft-touch material, also used on the upper door panels. Extensive use of satin-chrome finish lends an upscale zing to all trim levels. The manual convertible top on all models has acoustic insulation and a nice inner liner, which Mazda provides only on the Grand Touring version of the Miata. Chrysler’s Uconnect infotainment system isn’t compatible with Mazda’s hardware, so the 124 uses Mazda’s user-friendly system with Fiat graphics.
The 124 Spider will start rolling off the assembly line at Mazda’s Hiroshima, Japan, plant in the summer of 2016 as a 2017 model. It will initially come in two versions, Classico and Lusso. Production will start with 124 copies of the limited Prima Edizione, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the original 124 Spider. They’ll be solely for the U.S. market, with special blue paint, badges, and a premium leather interior.
Fiat’s intent seems to be to sell a more luxurious Miata though not necessarily a less sporty one, suggesting pricing a few grand higher. But the car is undeniably pretty, and we welcome any rear-drive roadster that won’t break the bank. You might even say we embrace it.
Most of us, if we took a nap for 35 or so years, would just wake up tired. The Fiat 124 Spider, on the other hand, returns improved and invigorated.