“Hey, that’s really nice,” said my neighbor when he spotted the Fiat roadster in the driveway. “My wife had a Miata that she loved — I bet she’ll like this, too.” I assured him that she would, because it nearly IS a Miata. Fiat arranged with Mazda to make a few changes to the interior and the sheet metal of the Miata, drop in its own engine, tweak the suspension, apply 124 Spider badges and then sell the result as an Italian mini-exotic. My wife, on the other hand, had an original 124 Spider, back in the 70s, and she wouldn’t even get into this 2017 model until I explained that it was really a Mazda, built in Japan. “Oh, so it’ll start in the rain?” she said.
When the MX-5 Miata debuted — 27 years ago — Baby Boomers hailed it as an MG or Triumph that didn’t leak oil and wouldn’t set itself on fire (experiences I enjoyed with British roadsters, back when LBJ was President). Fiat may have had the same thought: Let’s reach out to people who loved the old car, this time with one that’s not only fun but reliable too. And, BTW, this year is the 50th anniversary of the 124 Sport Spider — which, for all its hit-or-miss mechanicals, was Fiat’s bestseller in the US.
That car sold briskly because it was eye-catchingly trim and, on good behavior, lithe and lively. For its time, it offered decent performance, but today’s car would leave it for dead. FCA, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, replaced the 2.0-liter Miata engine with its own Four, just 1.4 liters in size but turbocharged to 160 horsepower and 184 lb.-ft. of torque — way more than the original. Still, don’t go annoying Porsches or Corvettes, even though this car weighs only about 2,500 pounds. The high-boost turbo’s torque is nice when it’s on tap, but the motor comes off the boil easily. The sportiest Spider, the $30,000 Abarth, delivers 164 horses, but the only noticeable difference is going to be the noise from that model’s quad exhaust pipes.
Two other 124 Spiders are available — the basic Classica and the more toney Lusso; they start at $26,000 and $28,000. Ours is a Lusso with the Safety and Comfort packages and a sticker price of $31,335. It has 17-inch wheels, automatic climate control, blind-spot monitors and rear crossing alert, a backup camera, keyless lock/unlock and starting, seat heat, a Bose stereo with nine speakers (in this little cabin?), Bluetooth connectivity and a mid-size touchscreen with the usual apps. The Lusso also comes with an automatic transmission, while other Spiders get a proper manual gearbox to go with this feedback-rich steering and sporting-yet-civil suspension. Still, the automatic works fine, especially for drivers who want sunshine without FOC, fear of clutch.
Speaking of sunshine: This thick, taut cloth top is entirely manual, so it goes up and down as fast as you can move it. Undo one latch at the windshield, throw the top back over your shoulder and then reach around to press it down until it locks away. Behind that is a surprisingly deep and commodious trunk.
Everyone loves a ragtop in bluebird weather; the trick is to see how livable it is with the top up and the cabin reduced to its real dimensions. The saddle leather trim and bucket seats in our car are lovely, and the gauges and controls are similarly pleasing, but these are tight quarters. Your companion’s hygiene becomes a concern, and there’s barely room for a phone. The glove compartment is a wee box in the bulkhead between the seatbacks.
The Fiata’s window of utility is narrow: The driver should be medium-size, probably single, and live in a benign climate. (That’s getting harder to find; six inches of rain is worse than six inches of snow.) As a commuter, the Spider is acceptably comfortable, takes up little pavement and can hit 36 MPG — but pickups and SUVs loom over this car, and 18-wheelers take on the ominous immensity of the Death Star. As a weekender, though, the 124 Spider is hard to beat, at least without getting really spendy, and the Lusso in particular is quieter and more composed and relaxed than a Miata, qualities that I appreciate more and more.
—— Silvio Calabi reviews the latest from Detroit, Munich, Yokohama, Gothenburg, Crewe, Seoul and wherever else interesting cars are born. Silvio is a member of the International Motor Press Association whose automotive reviews date back to the Reagan administration. He is the former publisher of Speedway Illustrated magazine and an author. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Italian panache, Japanese build quality
— Handsome Lusso cabin
— Best manual convertible top ever
— One size does not fit all
— Delivery-van exhaust note
— More power, please