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Don Adair: Fiat 124 Spider: Italian beauty built on Japanese bones

Little-known fact: In 1909, the Italian automaker Fiat began building luxury cars at a plant in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Eight years later, with the outbreak of World War I, the company pulled out of the US and didn’t return until the 1950s, when it introduced a generation of small Italian cars to domestic buyers.

The best-known and best-loved Fiat of that post-war period was the 124 Sport Spider. The 2+2 roadster debuted in 1966 and was for nearly 20 years the most beautiful sports car within reach of the average buyer.

The 124 beguiled owners with its European styling (it was penned by the famed Pininfarina design house) and comfort-first ride-and-handling package. 

Finally, though, poor build quality and its cars’ disturbing tendency to rust destroyed sales here. Fiat left the US again in 1983, leaving behind a trail of broken-hearted 124 fans. (For the record, there’s no proof that the taunting acronym “Fix it Again, Tony,” played any role in Fiat’s decision to leave.)

But, now, the 124 Spider lives again. It’s campaigned this time by Fiat/Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), the Italian-controlled conglomerate that emerged from Chrysler’s 2009 bankruptcy. 

FCA chose not to develop this Spider on its own, but as a joint venture with Mazda. The new Spider is built on the proven platform of Mazda’s MX-5 Miata. 

Like the original, the revived 124 Spider is a beautiful car with an easy-going personality. It’s more than a half-foot longer than the Miata, but shares the Japanese car’s platform, right down to wheelbase, suspension mounting points and braking and steering systems.

Most of the added length is located forward of the cabin, as the Spider’s hood grows 5 inches to accommodate an engine transplant. Under that long hood, Fiat replaces Mazda’s 155-horsepower four-cylinder engine with its own turbocharged 1.4-liter four.

The extended hood-line visually moves the cockpit rearward, a nod to traditional roadster proportions. For visual balance, Fiat adds 3 inches behind the rear axle.

New halogen headlights and LED taillights and a hood sculpted with power bumps also recall the heyday of the 124.

The roadster shares the Miata’s tiny two-person cabin but adorns it with higher-grade materials and additional brightwork. Soft-touch plastics replace the body-colored plastics that top Miata’s door panels. Comfortable lateral seat ribbing resurrects the look and feel of the original’s seats.

Fiat fits the cabin with its own steering wheel and with proprietary shift levers and gauge faces. Extra sound-dampening materials add weight but reduce cabin noise, underscoring Fiat’s commitment to comfort.

Incidental cabin storage is a fiction, save for a phone-size shelf just ahead of the shift lever and a small cubby carved from the bulkhead just aft of the seats. Cupholder location poses similar problems; know that diplomacy will be your friend as you and your passenger wrangle for latte space. 

The 124 Spider inherits the Miata’s excellent infotainment interface, with its central rotary controller, and a head-up display that minimizes driver distraction. 

Also present is the Miata’s brilliant manually operated canvas top. The lightweight assembly is engaged with the release of a single latch and can raised and lowered inside the car. The Spider is not available with a power hardtop, <em>a la</em> Miata’s new RF.

For all their similarities, the Fiat and the Mazda are, from behind the steering wheel, distinct entities. The Fiat’s engine has a slight power advantage, but turbo lag and an abbreviated power band produce less aggressive responses.

The Spider’s suspension is retuned for a softer, more compliant ride. It settles better over rough surfaces and dials out a good deal of the Miata’s characteristic body roll.

Their rear-drive layouts lend both cars true sports-car dynamics. In both cases, steering is quick, precise and communicative. The Mazda earns higher marks for acceleration and handling, but the Fiat’s gentler ride and quieter cabin make it the better choice for weekend rambles and long-distance drives.

More sports cars is always a good thing; let’s hope Fiat can make this one stick.

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2017 Fiat 124 Spider Classica
Vehicle base price: $24,995 Trim level base price: $24,995 As tested: $27,285 (includes destination)
Options: AM/FM Bluetooth radio with 7-inch screen and voice command; Pandora, Aha and Stitcher apps; back-up camera; remote keyless entry
EPA ratings: 30 combined/26 city/35 highway
Premium unleaded fuel recommended

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Don Adair
Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer.