With the top down and the mid afternoon sun shining on an unseasonably warm spring day, the meandering highway along the east bank of the Hudson River might as well have been the Amalfi Coast from where I sat, behind the leather wrapped steering wheel of a 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth. An evenly balanced Bilstein suspension helped the 17inch radials confidently hug curves of mountain ridge while a turbocharged 4 cylinder propelled the feathery light convertible through the crowd of bigger, bulkier vehicles on the road. For a good 20 minutes, before gridlock of rush hour traffic in Greater NYC brought me unceremoniously back to reality, the 124 Spider Abarth was exactly what a drop top roadster is supposed to be, a vacation on wheels.
It is the antithesis to the mainstream. While the prototypical car of 2017 is an all wheel drive SUV with driver assistance features and smartphone projection, the 124 Spider sends its power to the rear axle, sits its driver about a foot from the pavement and eschews modern niceties in the cabin to, instead, maximize performance. Not to mention it still offers a manual transmission, which puts my test car in the vast minority of cars sold in 2017. During my week with the Fiat 124 Spider Abarth, I found the features that make it unique, its biggest selling points, were also the reasons Fiat Chrysler can barely sell 400 of them a month.
Modeled after the defunct 124 Sport Spider from the 60′, 70′ and 80′, Fiat’s front engine two seater is the product of a partnership with Mazda that puts Italian design language and engineering on top of a fourth generation MX-5 Miata chassis. When the deal was struck in 2012, the plan was to build the Alfa Romeo 4C Spider in Mazda’s Hiroshima, Japan plant using its ND platform but Fiat Chrysler later walked that idea back. FCA Chairman and CEO Sergio Marchionne reportedly said “Some things belong to a place. Alfa belongs to Italy.”
The decision might have been less rooted in national pride and, instead, more tied to Italian American company’s desire to make Alfa Romeo a proper luxury brand, one that wouldn’t want to sully its return to the States with a budget conscious convertible. Now Alfa’s 4C retails for $66,000 while the 124 starts at a shade under $25,000. Three-quarters of parts and components inside the 124 Spider are from Japan, including its transmission, while Italy accounts for about 20% of the car, most of which can be attributed to the turbocharged 1,4 liter straight four cylinder engine.
While the Fiat 124 Spider exudes a youthful exuberance and the price is right, with 3 year leases available for about $300 per month or less, this car is not targeting a millennial audience. A few young professionals in sunnier states will opt for it as a daily driver, but FCA’s primary target is the Baby Boomer generation and its weapon of choice is the combustion engine. Even as the United States exits the Paris Climate Agreement and the EPA considers rolling back the strict Obama era fuel economy standards, countries around the world are rebuking the use of fossil fuels and desperately to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That means the days of the gasoline power train are limited.
While other automakers are preparing for this inevitability by developing hybrid and all electric cars, FCA is indignantly doubling down on carbon based performance. Between the 500 plus hp Alfa Romeo Giulia and Maserati Quattroporte as well as reimagined versions of the Dodge Charger and Challenger (including the 840 hp SRT Demon), FCA’s portfolios on both sides of the Atlantic are resplendent with high-performance halo cars, many of which harken back to the glory days shared by these brands and the Boomers who grew up adoring them. For Fiat, the company’s Italian economy brand, the 124 Spider Abarth represents that same ideology, albeit with only 164 hp and a much more modest price tag.
Bearing the name and scorpion badge of the Fiat’s racing team turned performance tuner, the 124 Spider Abarth gets an additional 4 hp as well as the previously mentioned high performance Bilstein suspension. With stiff front and rear springs as well as a rear stabilizer bar and powerful shock absorbers, Fiat’s convertible sets itself apart not with blazing speed on the straightaways. But rather its ability to masterfully weave around curves and corners. Unlike the Miata, which is known for its more relaxed suspension that allows for drivers to kick the rear end out on tight turns, the 124 Spider’s Italian engineering keeps it firmly planted. The Abarth package also comes with a performance tuned exhaust system that features a unique and extra gratifying exhaust note.
Using the same 6 speed manual transmission as the Miata, the 124 Spider Abarth delivers most of its power lower in the rev range, with its maximum 184 lb-ft of torque kicking in at 2500 rpm. Downshifts are smooth and exhibit very little in terms of lag. If I had any issue with gearbox it was with a slight stickiness going in and out of first gear. Also, though I recommend sticking with the manual to get the most engagement out of the 124 Spider, a 6 automatic can be swapped in for an extra $1,300. As with any sporty convertible, the gawker factor is baked into the value of the 124 Spider. Of dozens of passersby who gave my test car a visual undressing, at least half appeared to be staring directly at the scorpion clad red and yellow badge on the hood, so for those who enjoy the added attention, the $700 premium for the Abarth package will be money well spent.
While a convertible that can be manually opened and closed with one arm during a traffic signal stop might be a lovely feature in the temperate climate of the Mediterranean, most of the continental US does not share that climate, making the 124 Spider a tough sell for buyers looking for an everyday car. Though I tried to make the most of my time with this sporty convertible, I was only blessed with two full days of top down weather, while the rest of week was a rain soaked slog and this was during one of the few months that’s supposed to be nice in NY. With the cloth cover in place, the roadster becomes cramped, outward visibility is cut to a minimum and there’s little mitigation for the roaring sounds of the highway or serenade of city horns and sirens. Cargo room is basically non existent with a trunk that measures fewer than 5 cubic feet, hardly enough room for a set of golf clubs and shoes, though just a pinch more than the Miata. I happened to be in the process of moving during the week of my 124 Spider test drive, so I decided to see if I could fit a 3 cubic foot box of stuff into two seater, but to no avail, the box was too wide for the narrow trunk opening and even a bit overbearing when placed on the passenger seat.
While it might be fun to zip around town in a low riding roadster, drives of more than an hour were taxing, even for my 25 years old knees and back, so I can not imagine it would be much more enjoyable for the typical Boomer more than twice my age. Nationwide, metropolises are expanding, traffic is getting worse and as more people get back to work in this post-Great Recession era, drivers are spending increasingly more time in their cars for work and pleasure. Car buyers are migrating toward vehicles that are comfortable and spacious and sports car sales, as a whole, are on the decline. Above all else, to purchase a car for everyday driving one should be confident in that car’s ability to run reliably without the need for constant maintenance. It requires a certain amount of trust that Fiat simply has not earned since its return to the United States in 2011. The brand ranks dead last in JD Power & Associate’s 2017 Vehicle Dependability Study, in which the research firm tracks the preponderance of issues during the first 3 years of a car’s life. Fiat also scored the lowest in the firm’s study of customer satisfaction.