By Derek Price
If you love Italian sports cars, one name stands tall for affordable, simple, fun transportation: Fiat 124 Spider.
The original 124 was launched in the mid-1960s as a small roadster with a gorgeous body by Pininfarina, the design firm behind some of Ferrari’s most iconic models. It brought smiles and high style to the masses at a low price point.
Now Fiat is reviving the 124 Spider name to bring back a car that it hopes will be the spiritual successor to the original. And while it’s based on the Mazda MX-5 Miata and built in Hiroshima, Japan, Italian designers played a big role in giving it a more European look, sound and feel.
To be clear, starting with Miata bones is no sin. The MX-5 is one of the best roadsters ever made, so using its platform as a starting point for an Italian-styled sports car is a genius move on Fiat’s part.
Heck, German- and British-looking versions of the Miata would be awesome, too. The more Miata flavors, the better, as far as I’m concerned.
Fiat made enough changes to give this car its own distinct vibe, most noticeably by putting a Fiat turbocharged powerplant under the hood in place of the Miata’s normally aspirated, and slightly less powerful, Mazda engine. That gives it the “most affordable turbocharged sports car in America” crown.
And boy, is it fun to drive.
The 1.4-liter MultiAir Turbo is a hoot under acceleration, making 160 horsepower and emitting a resonant, politely snorting note from the tailpipe. Its suspension is tuned to allow for less body roll than its Miata cousin, giving you a firmer, flatter feel that’s more closely in line with what many drivers expect from a roadster.
You can order it with an automatic transmission, but if I were a dictator I’d send you to jail for doing that. Please don’t.
The much better fit for this car is the six-speed manual, offering short, direct, toggle-switch-like shifts that make you feel much more in control and engaged with the vehicle, which ought to be the reason you consider a car like this in the first place.
If you just want a cute little runabout, though, you’re in luck. The 124 has some of the nicest, most attractive styling you can buy today, especially for its starting price of $24,995. What other car lets you put on Ray-Bans and look like a Hollywood star for that kind of money?
That price will put you in the Spider Classica, the base model with 16-inch wheels and cloth seats that serves as a good starting point.
From there, you can move up to your choice of two models: the Lusso ($28,845) with a more luxurious atmosphere and driving experience, or the Abarth ($28,195) with a sportier, more aggressive personality.
Being a car-crazed automotive writer, my favorite of the three is the Abarth. No question. It’s brilliant fun with a harder suspension and slightly more power, and it’s available with firm Recaro sport seats and larger brakes from Brembo for an autocross-ready setup from the factory.
I wish the Abarth treatment went farther, though. Even though it’s got the same engine, it sounds and feels mild compared to the Fiat 500 Abarth, which comes with ridiculously loud wake-up-the-neighbors exhaust pipes. With only four extra horsepower and a slightly different exhaust note, I’d love to see the Abarth package get a bit crazier on the 124 — perhaps an Abarth Plus version for hardcore enthusiasts.
Designed in Turin, Italy, all versions of the new 124 have timeless styling cues that pay homage to the original. An elongated hood, neatly tucked rear and sleek character lines give it a low-slung, crouching pose that makes it look fun from every angle. It’s a car that makes you smile just staring at it.
And the smiles only get bigger once you start the engine, just like its sports-car forefathers.
At a Glance
What was tested?
2017 Fiat 124 Spider Lusso ($27,495). Options: None. Price as tested (including $995 destination charge): $28,490
Wheelbase: 90.9 in.
Length: 159.6 in.
Width: 68.5 in.
Height: 48.5 in.
Drivetrain: 1.4-liter turbocharged MultiAir (160 hp, 184 ft. lbs.)
Transmission: Six-speed manual
2017 Fiat 124 Spider
Why buy it?
It’s intended as the spiritual successor to one of the most beloved, affordable Italian sports cars of all time. It’s a blast to drive and is based on an outstanding, proven platform: the Mazda Miata.