Stick Shift: Fiat 124 Spider

I’ve been in a few convertibles lately. I’m not complaining. In Phoenix, the month of March is perfect weather for driving with the wind in your hair. While my latest topless Italian, The Fiat 124 Spider, may be over 400 hp shy of the powerful Lamborghini I just enjoyed the southern California coast in, it’s still hitting lots of important points of the convertible formula. Most important of all, putting a big goofy grin on my face.

2017 is the first year for the Fiat 124 Spider, and I was eager to get behind the wheel and answer a few burning questions I had about it. Many people forget that the Fiat 124 has already called the United States home, back in the 1960’s. Not only did it have a residence here, it was the most popular Fiat model on the block. When it departed our shores in 1983, the general public only had to wait six short years before Japan brought us the Mazda MX-5 Miata. A car that proved to be a more than adequate replacement.

Fast forward to today and we find that not only has the Fiat 124 Spider returned, but it shares many of the same underpinnings and chassis characteristics of the current generation Miata. However, while Mazda has fitted the newest version of their two door sport convertible with a 2.0L naturally aspirated 4-cylinder, Fiat has opted for a 1.4L turbo engine. This configuration is good for a healthy 160 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque. Acceleration is punchy given the light weight of the car and short gear ratios. Do yourself a huge favor and get the 6-speed manual transmission. Anything else wouldn’t be doing the little Fiat justice. Shifts are precise and the clutch seems intentionally designed for effortless heel-and-toe shifting. I wish the engine had a more aggressive exhaust note, but I did enjoy the quite sound of the spooling turbo followed by the sigh of the blow-off valve when you lifted off the throttle for gear changes.

In addition to the strength of the little turbo four, I was impressed by a cabin design that is attractive and straight forward. Ample use of sound-deadening with soft touch interior panels help keep noise down while driving on the highway. It also gave the interior a visual quality that I appreciated. The black and metal theme works well together and the use of leather to wrap the steering wheel and shift knob/boot really add an extra element of polish.

Photo by: Brandon Randall

Photo via Fiat

Rotary dials and knobs do feel plastic and cheap, as do other elements like the door handles and sun visors. On the whole though, the Fiat 124 Spider has an interior that is comfortable, sporty and more upscale looking than it actually is. Most impressive of all was how utterly simple the convertible top was to operate. If you have a spare 10 seconds at a stop light you’ll find that it’s more than enough time to manually raise or lower the top with just one hand. Tall drivers be warned though, like the Miata, this Fiat is a tight fit.

the suspensions is of the double wishbone variety. With a stiff chassis, the Fiat corners as if on rails, with upmost confidence and composure. Especially when the bends are tight and the speeds are down. Some movement destabilized the car under high speed cornering loads though. The suspension setting is firm enough to minimize body roll as much as possible without punishing the driver too much. The Fiat 124 Spider has achieved a nice balance that makes daily driving, especially on the highway, a relatively comfortable experience. All this has helped to create a well rounded vehicle, enjoyable for more than just days at the track.

Visually, the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider has taken a very different direction than Mazdas’ newly redesigned Miata. With wide set projector headlamps, LED tail-lights, dual exhaust, 16-inch silver aluminum wheels and a large front grille, the Fiat 124 Spider is the automotive equivalent of Benedict Cumberbatch. Some people will think it looks great, others won’t. I’m still working it out for myself. Regardless of what side of the fence you fall, Fiat faced a big challenge given how undeniably good the Miata is looking these days.

Photo by: Brandon Randall

Photo by Brandon Randall

If you are one of those who happens to love the way that the Fiat 124 Spider looks, you’ll find that it offers a fresh faced, turbo-charged alternative to the popular Miata. After all, Fiat has been doing this whole convertible thing for a lot longer. The 124 Spider is a cinch to drive, offers super responsive steering, great handling, a spirited little turbo engine that delivers plenty of punch, and a handsome interior with a convertible top that’s a breeze to operate. With a combined 30 mpg, a bevy of trim levels and features, relatively soft and quite ride when reigned in and a price tag well under 30k, the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider just may be the most affordable and direct way to have a ton of fun in the Arizona sun.
By: Brandon Randall
Price as tested: $25,990

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