Fiat 124 Spider Returns With Japanese Heart and Italian Soul

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

The new Spider faithfully channels the Pininfarina-designed 1966 original, one of the most beautiful sports cars ever built.

Fiat's beloved 124 Spider, along with the Alfa Romeo Spider, the MG MGB and Triumph TR series, constituted a sorely missed automotive category that raged throughout the '60s and '70s: the affordable two-seat roadster. By the time Fiat pulled the plug on the Spider in 1982 amid dwindling sales, the Italian carmaker had sold 170,000 copies in North America. It is a testament to the Spider's enduring appeal that 8,000 of them are still registered with DMVs across the land.

With the departure of Fiat — and later, Alfa, MG and Triumph — the affordable roadster category essentially ceased to exist in the U.S. until 1989, when Mazda's MX-5 Miata arrived and created a sensation. The streets of L.A. were suddenly teeming with adorable Japanese convertibles painted in gumball colors.

Hollywood embraced the plucky Miata as a reverse-chic fashion statement: Steven Spielberg presented Miatas to Holly Hunter, Richard Dreyfuss and John Goodman after they wrapped their roles in Always, the director's 1989 romantic fantasy, and later a pair of Miatas — named Mia and Pia — portrayed race car groupies in Pixar's Cars.

Fiat's revamped 124 Spider, which arrives this summer, quite literally owes its existence to the Miata — the new Spider is based on the underpinnings of the current Miata MX-5 and is manufactured by Mazda in Japan. But where the Miata gets a Mazda-spec 2.0 liter engine making 150 horsepower, the Spider sports the athletic 1.4 liter turbocharged four-cylinder from Fiat's 500, rated at 160 hp on the Classica and Lusso models and 165 hp on the Abarth.

Fittingly for a car with such a storied sporting tradition, a six-speed manual transmission is standard on the Classica and the six-speed automatic, standard on the Lusso, can be shifted manually. Prices start at $24,995 for the Classica, within the comfort zone of the famously car-diffident Gen. Xers and Millennials who account for 40 percent of Fiat's North American sales.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles was so confident that the new Spider successfully channeled the original that it unveiled the new model cheek by jowl with a classic Spider at the 2016 L.A. Auto Show and again last week at the Spider's press launch.

Virgilio Fernandez Hernandez, one of the new Spider's designers, recalled the challenge of translating the essence of what he characterized "one of the most beautiful cars in history." The old Spider's undercut front and swallowtail rear — hallmarks of legendary Italian coach builder Pininfarina's original design — were updated with a more aggressive fascia and headlamps and a horizontal character line that mimics the silhouette of the original Spider while respecting some of its quirks: the twin dimples on the old Spider's hood, a metaphorical manifestation of the car's then-cutting-edge dual-overhead-cam engine, were faithfully transposed to the new. "It's not enough to slap a badge on a car," says Bob Broderdorf, Fiat's North America brand director.

The original Spider was a benchmark of taut Italian sports-car handling and functional simplicity — "cruise control" was accomplished by yanking a lever under the dash and locking the throttle in place. The cabin was trimmed with varnished maple that recalled a vintage Chris Craft power boat (the finish cracked charmingly as it aged), the dash studded with gorgeous backlit gauges as handsome as a Panerai wristwatch with atmospheric Italian labeling (a crimson light would illuminate the gas gauge when the "benzina" ran low.) Finally, the convertible top, which was fitted with glass quarter windows for the benefit of passengers in the largely theoretical rear seat, could be raised and lowered with one hand while seated behind the steering wheel.

The new Spider's cabin owes more to the current Miata than the Spider of yore but delivers a premium feel far beyond its price point with surfaces swaddled in soft-touch materials and hand-stitched leather. Electronic and safety features inconceivable in the old Spider include adaptive front headlamps, blind-spot monitoring, backup camera, 7-inch touchscreen display, Bluetooth connectivity, navigation and a Bose sound system with speakers nestled in the driver- and passenger seat headrests. Like the classic Spider, the soft top raises and lowers by hand, this time with a spring assist, and is chamfered to reduce wind noise when raised. The insulated windshield and oversize headliner deflect noise away from occupants when the top is lowered, making for a remarkably quiet ride even at highway speeds, legal and otherwise, but allowing just enough breeze to enter the cabin to muss one's hair artfully.

But all the tech from Silicon Valley to Silicon Beach won't excuse a rebooted Italian sports car with such a thoroughbred lineage if it drives like a Prius. Having owned two classic 124 Spiders, I can say that Fiat has done an exemplary job porting the beauty and sheer sporting fun of the original Spider to the Spider 2.0. If anything, the new model feels more agile, alive and all-encompassing yet pays homage to its pedigree in dozens of small ways. From the view over the long, low hood with those snazzy twin dimples ("power domes" in Fiat nomenclature) to an exhaust note tuned, at least to my ears, to evoke the unmistakable growl that emanated from the tailpipe of the classic, the new Spider seems every bit as eager to please as its predecessor.

Fiat hopes the Spider will entice its core millennial/Gen X audience to embrace a modestly upscaled ride that doesn't break their meager bank, while appealing to Boomers as a second or third car to stash at weekend houses from Santa Barbara to Southhampton. Nearly 50 years after its predecessor debuted at the Turin Auto Show, the new Spider could be as transformative for Fiat's latest venture into the North American market as the original. But all of that is beside the point when considering a car this fetching and fun to drive. Tearing down a twisting back road with the top down and the proverbial wind in your hair, the new 124 Spider can make you swear you're driving through Sicily circa 1966 instead of Southern California circa now.