Fiat is driving forward into the past, hoping it can build some much-needed momentum by reviving the once-iconic 124 Spider nameplate.
Nearly a half century after its introduction, an all-new version of the Fiat 124 Spider is making its debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show. The debut also comes five years after the Fiat brand itself formally launched its return to the U.S. market at the annual L.A. show.
“There’s no better way to celebrate 50 years of the Fiat 124 Spider than to bring back this iconic roadster, pairing its Italian styling of the past with all of the modern performance and technology of today,” said Olivier François, global Fiat brand boss.
Though it’s no retro-car, the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider clearly picks up on some of the distinctive design cues of the original roadster, starting with the “vintage Ferrari” nose and hexagonal grille, suggests Bob Broderdorf, who runs the Fiat brand in North America.
The new 124 Spider sits low, with a long nose, short deck and relatively simple yet elegant lines. That includes the slant nose and kick-up over the rear fenders that the design team has borrowed from the original.
The roadster gets some decidedly modern touches, such as full LED lighting, headlights, daytime running lights and taillights included.
Subtle styling elements, such as the integrated rear spoiler and higher deck lid are meant to improve aerodynamics, a critical element in any modern design.
The twin tailpipes, meanwhile, are part of a carefully tuned exhaust system intended to deliver the sort of performance soundtrack one would expect of a car like the Fiat 124 Spider, notes Enrico Genchi, the program’s chief engineer.
“The pleasure of driving was a main target,” Genchi explains.
He and his team had a good foundation to work with – though it also came with some clear constraints. If the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider provokes a subtle sense of déjà vu it’s because the roadster shares the same underlying platform as the fourth-generation Mazda Miata which came to market a year ahead of the Italian two-seater.
(Fiat Chrysler earnings slump in Q3. Click Here for the story.)
The two companies partnered on the basic architecture but then took the platform and tried to come up with their own unique interpretations. The Fiat Spider, for example, is several inches longer than the Mazda roadster.
Perhaps the closest resemblance is in the interior, where they share a nearly identical layout. But Fiat’s new roadster opts for a more lavishly finished cabin, enhanced by a more significant push to reduce wind and road noise.
Engineers with both vehicles did try to emphasize that classic roadster engine note, but even here Mazda and Fiat went off in different directions. The Miata uses a baffle system to literally pipe intake noise into the cabin. Fiat focused, instead, on channeling the exhaust sound. That’s no surprise considering each maker took a very different approach to its powertrain.
Where the Mazda roadster got a naturally aspirated, 2.0-liter inline-four, the new 124 Spider is motivated by a turbocharged MultiAir 1.4-liter four-banger. It turns out 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, compared to 155-hp and 148 lb-ft for the Miata. Slightly heavier than the Miata, it remains to be seen if the extra power will give it a performance advantage.
Like the Miata, power is channeled to the rear wheels through either a six-speed manual – sourced from Mazda – or an Aisin six-speed automatic.
To mark its sales debut next spring, Fiat will offer 124 copies of a limited-edition model dubbed the Prima Ediziona Lusso. Each will be done up in a unique Azzurro Italia blue paint, carry numbered commemorative badges, and feature distinctive Saddle leather seats. Buyers will also get wearables to show off once the top comes down.
The 2017 Fiat 124 Spider will feature a manual top, but Fiat officials claim it will require just one hand to raise or lower it.
The new roadster is clearly meant to serve as a halo car, and Fiat could use the help. After a painfully slow start-up, the brand hasn’t developed nearly the momentum parent Fiat Chrysler Automobiles had hoped for when the brand made its splashy return to the U.S. market.
On the positive side, several analysts have suggested, the use of a Mazda platform could help Fiat overcome some of the quality problems it has experienced with its current line-up, the brand landing at the bottom of the latest Consumer Reports Automotive Reliability Study released last month.
(Fiat named most unreliable brand by Consumer Reports. Click Here for more.)
To help give it a kick, expect to see an outsized marketing campaign. Fiat officials offered a hint of what’s in store during a pre-LA backgrounder. A key TV spot will feature perennial bad boy Charlie Sheen tearing up the highway in one of the new Fiat 124 Spiders.
Whether Sheen still has the star power of a few years ago is uncertain, but the Italian maker is clearly betting that the Fiat 124 Spider has the sort of flair and drawing power to bring shoppers into its showrooms.
(Fiat adding new compact pickup to European line-up. Click Here to check it out.)