Modern slants on retro cars have proved quite popular in recent years; Fiat’s own incredibly successful 500 being a prime example. So then it is not too much of a surprise that its new sports car also harks back to the brand’s heritage. The original (now classic) 124 Spider - designed and manufactured by Italian Pininfarina - saw the light of day back in 1966 at the Turin Auto Show. Fiat later marketed the car as the 2000 Spider (1979 to 1982), and Pininfarina marketed the car at the end of its production as the Pininfarina Spider Azzura (1983-1985).
At the time it captured the imagination of the yuppies and sold in huge numbers across Europe, and mostly in the U.S. The original car used Fiat’s legendary twin cam engine – initially a 1438cc unit developing 90 horses and ending up production with a 2 litre developing 135 horses.
While carrying over a lot of the classic lines of the original 124 Spider in its design, the new car tested here has all the underpinnings of a modern day sports car, albeit with refreshing simplicity. For example the proper hand-brake, analog dashboard meters and the fully manual retractable hood.
The car is the embodiment of the research and development cost-sharing model favored by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne. FCA developed the body and styling for the new two-seat convertible sports car and combined it with the mechanical architecture of the fourth-generation Mazda Miata.
How I got to test drive this 124 Spider is also a sort of retro arrangement. It is usually the editor who asks a tester to drive a car; but in this case it was long-time Motor writer/tester Gishanka De Silva who spoke to his friend Mahen Karunaratne, the owner of the car; and arranged for me specifically to test drive it! And those of you (including Gishanka) who have known me for a while would know that I have owned and/or driven mostly Italian cars (and that too mostly Fiats) ever since I was a teenager. Yes I have driven a classic 124 Spider as well, but that’s another story.
Fiat’s newcomer though is modern, fast and most importantly great fun to drive, with a sportingly raspy exhaust note to encourage you to work its 1.4-litre turbocharged engine which rewards the driver with entertainingly lively performance. I bet it’s just a matter of time until this car too will be considered a classic.
The 124 Spider has design cues from the past that make it remarkably like the classic model – particularly the front and side profiles. The wide front grille gives it remarkable road presence as does the wide, low look. The standard “Classica” that I drove had the 16 inch wheels that made the car look a tad under-wheeled. However both the higher trim level “Lusso” and the Abarth comes with 17 inch wheels that make it look so much better.
The red paintwork really brings out the design of the car while the doors open wide and shut with a nice clunk. The cloth roof and its retracting/closing mechanism is one of the best I have ever seen. No motorized ballet dance here. To open the roof, simply open the locking mechanism and pull back. With that simple one-hand operation, the roof retracts and fits neatly in to place behind the seats. To put the roof back on, it’s a similar easy one-handed operation – one pull, and the latches on top of the windscreen click in place.
MECHANICALS / TECHNOLOGY
The 124 Spider is powered by Fiat's 1.4 litre MultiAir turbocharged inline-four, producing 140 BHP and 240 Nm of torque. The manual transmission of our test car, is from the previous generation Miata’s six speed gearbox which seem to match it perfectly especially at higher speeds.
The engine has hydraulically actuated variable valve timing (VVT) engine technology enabling "cylinder by cylinder, stroke by stroke” control of intake air directly via the engine's inlet valves. All that translates to above average fuel economy, and indeed lesser pollutants added to that wind that blows in your hair when you drive with the hood down.
The Spider's suspension uses a double-wishbone layout in front and a multi-link in the rear, specifically tuned for greater stability while braking and turning. Steering is light and responsive, with the use of an electric power assist (dual pinion) system.
Noise vibration and harshness (NVH) enhancements, including an acoustic front windshield and insulation treatments, help to deliver a refined, quiet ride.
Storage space is pretty much limited to the boot, which is big enough for a couple of weekend bags only and probably not much else, but then, you don’t buy a two-seater sports car for its practicality!
The 140bhp engine pulls strongly through the gears, hitting the rev limiter at around 7,500rpm, by which time the exhaust note is on full song. The gearshift is fantastically precise and the brake pedal feels reassuringly substantial. On the down-side though is the fact that the car has an annoying turbo lag. Of course if you do a spirited drive and make sure that your revs are above 2,500 rpm always, you will not notice it. So let’s say you will get used to it… hopefully very quickly.
With its rear wheel drive layout, the handling is excellent, giving you plenty of grip when you turn into a corner at speed. Our test was on a fine day with not a hint of rain; so I can’t tell you how it handles in the wet; but all indications are that the traction control system will make sure that you are not out of shape… unless you do drive like a lunatic that is!
LIVING WITH IT
Lower yourself in to the car (yes you have to literally half lie down to get in) and the seats grab you in place, and gives you a feeling of confidence. Moreover, on a long journey it will surely give ample support to your back. Needless to say, being a strict two-seater, the seat adjustment is limited, and I would say a very tall person would have some issues getting in to a comfortable driving position.
All the controls, the multi-media display which sits atop the dash and the steering wheel buttons come straight from its Japanese rival/stable-mate. Indeed the only real differences are the engine and suspension set-up. While the Italian purists might say that this is not really an “Italian” car, the upside would be the fact that the car would have acquired the almost indestructible build quality of the Japanese. Living with this Fiat then could be mostly niggle-free.
The Spider is available with an array of safety and security features, including adaptive front headlamps, Blind-spot Monitoring, Rear Cross Path detection and ParkView rear backup camera. A high-strength body helps to dissipate energy while optimizing occupant protection.
There are 4 airbags – two in front of driver and passenger, and side impact airbags on both sides – as standard. There is no spare wheel, but there is an inflator kit.
The 124 Spider still has a rawness about it compared to most vehicles. The fact that it lacks a comprehensive package of driver-assistance features would please the purists, and at least anyone seeking the modern-day escape provided by a small, two-seat roadster made for driving.
FUEL ECONOMY & PRICE
As you know, this car, like most unique cars arriving here, have not been imported to the country by an official agent. Rather, these cars are hand-picked mostly from the UK. The guys at Italian Thoroughbred Motor Company (ITMC) tells us that they can import a 124 Spider like this one – with very low mileage on the clock - for around Rs 8.5M. Considering the prices of cars around, this seems to be good value for something that you can have a lot of fun with.
Although not tested during our brief test, being lightweight and small, and powered by a tiny high tech engine, it’s no surprise that the Fiat is supposed to return fuel-economy estimates of 14+ km/l.
Where the Fiat excels, is out on the highway when its engine is spinning in the strong part of its power-band. At these speeds it does an admirable job of canceling out bumps and road imperfections, and indeed is a lot of fun.
Although (at least in this iteration) it started life as a Mazda, there’s enough uniqueness left in this car to call it a true Fiat.
Overall Handling & Steering
Manually operated Soft Top
Quick Power on Demand
Delightful Gear Shift
Doesn’t quite sound like an Italian
1.4L MultiAir Turbo
140bhp @ 5,000rpm
240Nm @ 2,200rpm
Six speed manual
Rear wheel drive
Suspension – Double Wishbone
Brakes – Ventilated Disc
Suspension – Multi Link
Brakes – Disc
0-60mph in 7.5seconds
Max speed 215km/h
Length – 4,054mm
Width – 1,740mm
Height – 1,233mm
Kerb Weight – 1,050kg
Boot Space – 140L
Fuel Tank – 45L