Fiat resurrects 124 Spider roadster

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

Fiat is resurrecting a sporty icon from its past to draw attention to the Italian brand.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV will unveil the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider on Wednesday at the Los Angeles Auto Show. The new roadster is expected at U.S. dealerships next summer — 50 years after the original car debuted in Italy.

The 124 Spider was last sold in the United States in 1985. Its return to the market is an attempt to increase awareness of Fiat, which has struggled to drum up sales since returning to North America after a nearly 30-year hiatus in 2011.

“The most difficult thing when you start working with a car like this is how do you reinvent an icon?” said Felix Kilbertus, 124 Spider design manager. “Icon is something that gets thrown around very easily, but this is a car for the Fiat brand that represents one of the most beautiful Fiats we’ve ever done.”

The new 124 Spider is built on the same platform as the critically acclaimed 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata, which went on sale earlier this year. Mazda will build the 124 Spider alongside the Miata at its facility in Hiroshima.

The 124 Spider is aesthetically different than the Miata, including Fiat-designed front and rear fascias with unique lighting, badging and character lines. The Fiat roadster also features a more powerful Italian engine.

“We leveraged a partnership and a great proven platform,” said Bob Broderdorf, Fiat director of North America. “We did that. But it’s not enough to call it a Spider, just to slap a 124 badge on it and call it a day.

“We made the car our own. When you have a small brand — you’re building a brand — it’s important to do those things and make it truly unique.”

Aside from a complete overhaul of the design, the 124 Spider is powered by Fiat Chrysler’s turbocharged 1.4-liter MultiAir engine capable of 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. That bests the Miata’s 2-liter engine with 155 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque.

Both roadsters are available with six-speed manual or automatic transmissions, but Fiat’s manual transmission has lower gear ratios.

“The pleasure of driving was our main target to be achieved,” said Enrico Genchi, lead engineer for the 124 Spider. “The target was to re-create the core characteristics of the original car.”

The 124 Spider is slightly longer than the Miata and weighs roughly 100 pounds more, due primarily to the engine.

“We call this the ‘natural born spider’ because it is a type of styling that only works when you have real balanced proportions,” Kilbertus said.

The 124 Spider will be available in two trim levels: Classica and Lusso. Both models will be available in six exterior paint colors. Pricing and fuel economy will be announced closer to the launch of the two-seater, according to officials.

The Miata starts between $25,000 and $31,000 based on the model. It achieves up to 36 miles per gallon highway.

To celebrate the return of the classic nameplate, the first 124 vehicles will be offered as a limited-edition Prima Edizione Lusso, as shown at the 2015 Los Angeles Auto Show. Each will be individually numbered with a commemorative badge and available in exclusive Azzurro Italia (nlue) exterior paint with premium leather seats in Saddle.

Karl Brauer, Kelley Blue Book senior director of insights and senior editor, said he would have liked to have seen Fiat differentiate the 124 Spider more from the Miata.

“I think it looks fine, but I don’t think it looks distinctive or different enough,” Brauer said. “I thought the level of distinctiveness was going to be more like the Chrysler Crossfire versus the Mercedes-Benz SLK.”

The Crossfire was a hardtop convertible sports car from Chrysler in the mid-2000s. It shared the same platform as the SLK, but little else.

The 124 Spider is not meant to draw in huge sales for Fiat: The roadster market represents just 0.15 percent of the entire market, according to

The roadster segment peaked in 2003 at more than 98,000 cars sold, according to the automotive shopping and research website. Last year roadster sales were just over 22,200 vehicles, with Nissan capturing a 30 percent market share with its 350Z and 370Z.

“There’s room for everyone in this market, but it might not be as big as a slice of pie as some other automakers,” said Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst and director of pricing and industry analysis. “The U.S. market has migrated from these smaller cars.”

In terms of sales, Nissan has led the roadster segment every year since 2003 with the exception of 2008, when Mazda captured the top spot. Mazda is on pace to be No. 1 again in 2015.

Caldwell said Fiat could help drum up needed attention for the brand with a roadster. And sharing the platform with Mazda helps the company reduce costs.

“If they’re trying to be this fun brand, having a roadster — something truly fun in that segment — is going to help your identity,” she said.

Fiat Chrysler also is expected to showcase its Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio midsize sedan and two special-edition Jeeps at the Los Angeles show: the 2016 Grand Cherokee Night and 2016 Jeep Wrangler Backcountry. The Night edition is clad in stealth black, while the Backcountry is geared up for winter. The Backcountry is available in eye-catching Xtreme Purple.

The high-performance Giulia Quadrifoglio originally debuted in Italy in June for the brand’s 105th anniversary. The sedan delivers class-leading 505 horsepower and accelerates from 0-60 in 3.8 Seconds. It is expected to arrive in U.S. showrooms in the second-quarter of 2016 starting at about $70,000.

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