Fiat uses assist from Mazda to revive its iconic 124 Spider

By Peter Hubbard 


(June 25, 2017) While test driving a silver Fiat 125 Spider convertible a few weeks ago I had more than one person stop me and inquire about the cute little car.  Most thought it was quite a novelty, since at this point in time there are so few on the roads.
Some folks said they’d never seen a Fiat before. Those who had were mostly under 40, and related that one of their friends had recently purchase one of the little Fiat 500 models.  Most I encountered were dimly aware that Fiat was an Italian automaker, and that in recent years Fiat had somehow become affiliated with Chrysler; but little else.

For those of you out there with a similar lack of knowledge about Fiat and its products, allow me to be a fountain of information for you, and bring a little enlightenment, OK? 

FIAT is actually an acronym for the company’s complete name— Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, which translates as“Italian Automobiles Factory, Turin.”  Turin, of course is where the company got its start, waaaaaay back in 1899. 

Now some of the folks in their 50’s and 60’s who remarked about the car were aware that Fiat sold little sedans and sports cars in the U.S. back in the late 60’s and early 70’s, but matter-of-fact, Fiat’s history in the  United States goes back much further than that.

The Fiat Automobile Co. was first established in the U.S. in 1908, and sold 4-cylinder and 6-cylinder luxury automobiles here up until 1917, when the U.S. entered World War I.  Those early models included the Fiat 60HP, and Fiat 16-29.  They were really a minor player in the emerging U.S. auto market, however, building fewer than 1,000 cars during that time. 

1969 and 2017 Fiat 124 Spiders at the beach

The company would not return to the states until nearly 40 years later, when they began selling the original Fiat 500 model, along with the 600 Multipla, Fiat 1100, 1200 and 1300. Most of the models disappeared by the mid-70’s except for Fiat’s two sports cars, the 124 Sport Spider and Fiat X1/9.  The car was built at a nearby Pininfarina factory which renamed it the 2000 Spider in the 80’s once Fiat withdrew totally from the American market.

The primary reasons for Fiat’s withdrawal were fairly simple — poor build quality, and lousy materials.  Built in a sunny, Mediterranean country without harsh winters, they came here with zero rust-proofing, which meant they turned into little rolling rust buckets within a couple of years in the Northern states where salt gets spread on the roads after even minor ice and snow storms. 

Mechanical reliability and electrical quality were also spotty, resulting in folks changing the meaning of Fiat from “Factory for Italian Automobiles, Torino,” to “Fix It Again, Tony.”  As a result, Fiat sales in the U.S. fell from a high of 100,511 cars in 1975 to 14,113 by 1982.   In 1983 Fiat finally left the U.S. market in shame, with its tail firmly tucked between its proverbial legs.

And Fiat probably would never have returned, either, had it not been for a series of financial difficulties faced by Chrysler, the No. 3 U.S. automaker, and the world financial collapse of 2008 brought on by shady practices in the home mortgage industry.

Following the dramatic turnaround engineered by Chairman Lee Iacocca in the 1980’s the next 20 years the company made great strides.  But in 1999, once again seeking financial salvation, the company inked a merger deal with Daimler-Benz, the German manufacturer of the Mercedes luxury line that resulted in the elimination of the Plymouth brand. 

However, it didn’t last long.  In 2007 DaimlerChrysler sold the Chrysler unit to the Cerberus investment firm.  Following the stock market crash and financial melt-down the following year, the Fiat Group acquired a 20 percent stake in Chrysler LLC in January 2009 — a deal arranged by the new Obama administration. 

The deal saw the return of the Fiat brand to North America after a 25-year absence.

The first Fiat-branded model to appear in the U.S. was the internationally popular Fiat 500 subcompact, designed from the start as an economical “city car.”  The Fiat 500 model sold in the US is built at Chrysler's assembly plant in Toluca, Mexico, which also assembles two crossovers – the Dodge Journey and Fiat Freemont for the Mexican market.

My apologies for the extended “Fiat History Lesson,” but since there seems to such mass ignorance about the brand and its presence in the US market, I figured a quick tutorial was in order. So let’s focus on our test vehicle, the delightful little Fiat 124 Spider. 

As noted earlier, it has a fairly long and convoluted history. 

Designed and manufactured by Fiat’s coach-building partner, Pininfarina, it made its first appearance at the 1966 Turin Auto Show as a front-engine, rear-drive 2+2 convertible. It was subsequently manufactured for over 25 years, from 1966 to 1982, before being discontinued. Pininfarina continued limited production from 1983 to 1985.     

So, when Fiat made the decision to re-introduce the 124 Spider, they made a series of quality decisions.  The first was NOT to build the car entirely by themselves. They elected to partner with Mazda, which since 1989 has been offering a similar little sports car that’s not unlike the Fiat Spider, a company which DOES have a solid reputation for building a sporty, reliable and economical little sports car — the Miata MX-5. 

So Fiat sculpted the body panels to evoke memories of the ‘80s model and provided Mazda the plans for stamping the sensuous sheetmetal … which actually winds up four inches longer than its Japanese cousin. Fiat also supplied its perky little 160-hp, 1.4-liter Turbo engine, and voila – a brand new Fiat 124 Spider. It’s built in the very same Yokohama factory as the MX-5, so new owners can no longer carp about poor Italian build quality.

Reason is simple enough — the Italians aren’t building it — the Japanese are!  

In addition to supplying the assembly line, Mazda’s Miata donated additional bits from its parts bins as well.  Among the donated “organs” include Miata’s steering and braking units plus the entire chassis for the car. 

Fiat offers the resurrected 124 Spider in three trim levels, Classica, Lusso and Abarth. The turbo four-banger can be mated with either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic. The racy Abarth model adds special graphics and badging, a sport-tuned exhaust, a limited-slip differential, and a power boost up to 164 hp. Our test model happened to be a little Lusso in Grigio Argento Aluminum, which translates as metallic silver gray. Strangely missing from all trims levels is a spare tire.  To save truck space, Fiat includes a tire repair kit, instead

To be honest it had been awhile since I’d driven anything with a manual transmission — actually since driving my Miata — an original white 1990 model that served me faithfully for 18 memorable years. 

So when I punched the brake, hit the start button and nothing happened, I scratched my head for a second; then I remembered.  Oh yeah, there’s a third pedal down there!  Flushed with a tinge of embarrassment, I hit the clutch, shifted into reverse, hit the starter again, released the clutch and away we went. Just like old times. 

While the base Classica rides on 195/50R-16 three-season Yokohamas, our Lusso was shod with the more aggressive 17-inch wheels and tires — 205/45R17s.  The extra rubber was greatly appreciated.

The little Italian Spider comes with a host of thoughtful safety, convenience and luxury features.  These include a full complement of air bags, rain sensing wipers, a back-up camera, electronic stability control, 4-wheel ABS brakes, an AM/FM Bluetooth radio with 7-inch video display and heated front seats.  Base price is $27.495.

Our test unit came with Option Package 21S, which adds $3,795 to the sticker.  The key features you get include the SiriusXM satellite radio, 9-unit Bose speaker system, GPS navigation, blind spot and cross-path detection, automatic headlamp leveling and washer system, heated sideview mirrors, universal garage door opener and LED daytime running lights, among others. Our little Lusso wound up with a final sticker price of $32,385.


Fiat’s Spider has been carefully sculpted to remind the public of the classic shape of the original Spiders from the 60’s. The bodywork includes square taillights, round headlights, fog lamps, an open-mouth front grille and a low-mount air intake.  As noted earlier, the end result is a convertible that adds four inches in length and more 100 pounds to the Miata’s shape and weight, yet with no noticeable penalty in terms of either looks or performance.

The car looks sensuous without being overdone.  It has the look of a sports car, without trying to imitate the lines of an Alfa Romeo 4C or a Lotus Exige.


Inside, the Spider is quite comfortable, with the seats fitting like a fine pair of Italian leather gloves. The high-end Abarth adds red piping to the black seats for a nice custom touch. Take a look at the gauges and you’ll find a large center-mounted tachometer dominating the three circles in front of you.

The interior is clad in jet black accents, contoured leather seats and leatherette trim. Top-up headroom is quite good, even for taller folks, but limited legroom is a legitimate concern.  In that regard, a flat-bottom steering wheel would certainly be a welcome addition.  However, the steering wheel telescopes to accommodate a variety of driving positions. 

Raise the top and interior noise is hushed enough for comfortable conversations and commutes.  Most of the time was spent driving with the top down, but even then road noise is manageable.  Fiat made a conscious effort to addresses noise issues by adding an acoustic windshield, thicker rear glass and extensive sound insulation making it the smart choice for extended road trips on the kinds on the curvy roads this car adores.


We decided a topless trip out of town was required in order to reacquaint ourselves with what Italian motoring is really like, once again.  Ah yes … now I remember; perky and passionate.  Of course, passion tends to permeate all that the Italians do … so no surprise there.  The car moves with confidence, the tuned suspension encouraging the driver to ever more daring maneuvers and aggressive cornering.  All the while, it remained agile and responsive to every input of tiller and throttle. Handling is absolutely top rate.

Extra weight is usually the enemy of performance. But despite weighing roughly 100 pounds more than the Miata, the Fiat 124 Spider seems equally nimble and entertaining to drive. Light steering effort gives the Spider a relaxed feel.  Pick up the pace and Fiat’s little roadster not only looks foxy, it’s just as quick.

Key to the Spider’s distinctive Italian character is the company’s turbocharged engine, which produces slightly more power than the Miata’s naturally aspirated unit (160 hp versus 155 hp).  We found the power delivery to be quite acceptable, yet perhaps less responsive by milliseconds than the throttle in the Miata. 

EPA mileage is pegged at 26 city, 35 highway, for a very welcome and economical combined average of 30 mpg.  


So for those for whom ONLY a convertible will do you could certainly do worse than the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider. It not only revives an iconic little convertible from the past — which we wholeheartedly applaud — Fiat has managed to craft a partnership with Mazda that blends the best of both manufacturing cultures — the style and passion of the Italians and the attention to detail and rigorous build quality of the Japanese.  The result is the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider. We certainly applaud the collaboration. 

Other small convertibles, such as the Mini Cooper and VW Beetle come close but don’t have quite the same pizzazz. Of course there’s the Miata, too, the Spider’s cousin.  Being a bit biased, I’d probably head that direction given my long history with the car, but that’s a personal choice, and not an actual recommendation. 

Both cars possess the kind of charm and charisma that will make you delighted one or the other is sitting in your garage.  But Fiat adds a touch of Italian style. So what you get with the Fiat 124 Spider is basically a Mazda Miata in a nice Armani suit.