Fiat 124 Spider returns; tied to Miata

The 2017 Fiat 124 Spider has arrived for sale in the U.S. (Bud Wells photos)

The 2017 Fiat 124 Spider has arrived for sale in the U.S. (Bud Wells photos)

Remember the old Fiat 124 Spider Convertible?

After an absence of almost 40 years, it has returned.

It showed up at my home early last week, and it’s a 2017 model.

What an Italian beauty it is.

“Che bellezza!”

The two-seater, though, has done some wandering, and has found other parts of the automotive world to its liking.

The assembly line for the revived ’17 model is not in Italy, it is in Japan.

In an ironic twist for the iconic sports car, the new 124 becomes chief rival for the famed Mazda Miata, yet the Fiat is being built by Mazda on the same assembly line as the Miata – in Hiroshima, Japan.

For Mazda, you might say, the faster it builds the cars, the more competition it has.

The Spider’s interior, trimmed in leather, is attractive and relatively comfortable.

The Spider’s interior, trimmed in leather, is attractive and relatively comfortable.

The Fiat/Mazda production agreement gives the Italian company a shot at owning a strong-selling sports car again, without undergoing the costly necessity of new factory construction. It re-emphasizes the intention of FiatChrysler Automobiles’ (FCA) boss Sergio Marchionne to seek global sharing of car production lines to pare costs.

The Fiat and the Mazda share a common wheelbase, yet the Fiat comes off the line somewhat distinctive, with a low-riding grille, hood bulges and a chrome finish around the windshield, all drawn from the old 124.

The Fiat, let’s just one time call it the Fiata, is 5 inches longer than the Miata in overall length and 100 pounds heavier. Interiors of the Spider and Miata are near identical.

To clearly cite differences in the two, Fiat supplies a small turbocharged engine for the Spider, while Mazda uses a 2.0-liter, 4-cylinder naturally aspirated block. Fiat’s 1.4-liter turboed 4-cylinder generates 160 horsepower and 184 lb.-ft. of torque.

The Spider, with turbo kicking in, is slightly quicker in low-end acceleration, though the two run very close through the mid- to upper range. The review model was mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission (a 6-speed manual is available). The Spider’s overall average was 31.9 miles per gallon (EPA rating is 25/36/29). I tested the ’16 Mazda Miata in November and averaged 31.5 with it.

The 124 Spider is offered in three levels, the base Classica, the sporty Abarth and the better-equipped Lusso, which is the model I drove. The Lusso, with leather seats and 17-inch aluminum wheels, was sticker priced at $31,335.

The Spider, with very tight steering, maneuvers quickly and delivers a good ride. Put the shifter over into manual-mode, then remember the trick is pull the shifter down to upshift and move it up to downshift, like Mazda and BMW and unlike most other systems. The Spider’s soft top is released up front with one latch, dropped into recessed area and latched down at the back with ease.

I remember the fun of driving those old 124s back in the ‘70s. I mentioned this to Richard Husted, who delivered the new Fiat to me from Rocky Mountain Redline last week. “I remember,” Husted said. “I bought a 1975 124 Sport Coupe in the early ‘80s and soon replaced the timing belt myself at approximately 90k miles on that 1.8-liter DOHC engine, because of the danger of destroying the engine if it broke. After my sons drove it, I also replaced the clutch, but when the right front ball joint gave way, while my middle son had it at Kansas State, I replaced it with another $500 car.”