US-market cars will get a 158bhp version of the 1.4 MultiAir but there’s no indication yet on whether it will be offered in Europe. Fiat is also likely to offer the car with an automatic transmission in the US - as Mazda does with the MX-5 - but it’s unclear if the 124 will be offered in auto form in Europe.
The 124 Spider is slightly longer than the MX-5, but this is entirely due to slight increases in the front and rear overhangs; the wheelbase of the car remains the same. All of the main body panels have been changed, but the windscreen, header rail, manually operated fabric roof and the rollover protection are carried over from the Mazda.
The same can be said for the cabin; much more than the exterior, it is clearly derived from the MX-5’s with a very similar architecture that even incorporates a reskinned version of Mazda’s 7in touchscreen infotainment system on higher-end editions.
Fiat has tried to mix elements of the original 124 Spider’s styling with the new car’s looks, without it becoming overtly retro. The end result is a car that looks a little more style-focused and sophisticated than the needle-nosed MX-5. There’s a bluffer front end, incorporating a hexagonal grille and three-piece LED rings designed to echo the original car’s round headlights. The bonnet has a pair of ‘power domes’ - again, a nod to the later versions of the original 124 Spider.
The flanks have one of the biggest shifts away from the MX-5; instead of that car’s crease, which falls away towards the back wheels, there’s a pronounced kick up over the rear wheelarch. The rear gets rectangular tail-lights which incorporate reversing lights in their centre - another recent Fiat styling trend - and in another neat reference to the original car, the Fiat badge is mounted on the top of the boot instead of hanging from its vertical edge.
The 124 Spider line-up is bolstered by an Abarth version. It gets more aggressive front and rear bumpers, possible blisters on the wheelarches and a more powerful version of the MultiAir II engine, with around 170bhp. Following Abarth’s desire to produce more ‘extreme’ vehicles, the hot 124 Spider also gets the MX-5’s limited-slip differential as standard, as well as revised spring and damper settings that will prioritise agility and cornering stability over cruising comfort.
Q&A with Fiat brand director Olivier Francois
These are US-market cars. When will we see European versions of the 124 Spider and will they be much different?
You’ll see them at Geneva motor show in 2016. And yes, they will be tailored a bit more towards the European market. There are some differences, but I don’t want to get into details just now.
Why did you choose to bring back the 124 Spider? You could just as easily have chosen the X1/9, couldn’t you?
That’s funny, because we did indeed consider the X1/9. It’s another classic Fiat, and it offers the open-top experience as well, of course. But we decided that the brand equity was a bit stronger with the 124.
The launch cars in the US and Europe have relatively modest power outputs. Will you consider encouraging tuning of 124s? Are we going to see extreme versions of this car at SEMA next year, for example?
We already know there’s appetite for that. About one in five 500s sold here is an Abarth version, so we know the customer base is there. We might well look at doing a tuned version of the 124, therefore.
Would that have an Abarth badge?
It might have an Abarth badge, yes.
How have you tried to differ the driving experience of this car from the MX-5’s?
I’ll leave the details down to the engineers but believe me, the experience is very similar to what made the original 124 Spider so popular. By that I mean it’s fun to drive and has a perfect power-to-weight ratio.
What about pricing - will it match the Mazda’s prices?
It will be in the ballpark for the sector, for sure.
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A short history of the Fiat 124 Spider
1966 The 124 Spider makes its debut at the Turin motor show. Designed by Pininfarina stylist Tom Tjaarda, who worked on the Ferrari 275, the car goes into production with a 1.4-litre twin-cam motor producing 89bhp. It reaches the US market in 1968.
1970 The first major upgrade to the Spider brings a 1.6-litre engine producing a heady 109bhp - pretty decent for a car that didn’t weigh much over 900kg.
1973 An Abarth-tuned, 1.8-litre motorsport version of the Spider (backed by a homologation-special production version) wins the Polish and Acropolis Rallies as Fiat gears up the car for a full World Rally Championship campaign. It never quite fulfils its potential, though - and within three years it’s dropped in favour of the 131 Abarth.
1975 Fiat tweaks the Spider to comply with American crash regulations - and decides that it’s not worth making it similarly compatible with European rules, so a decade after launch, the car becomes a US-only model.
1979 The Spider’s transformation to an American model is complete; Fiat does a deal with GM to offer the firm’s three-speed automatic transmission. It also increases the engine size to 2.0 litres and changes the name to Spider 2000.
1980 Fiat switches the 2.0-litre engine over to Bosch fuel injection and introduces a catalytic converter. This set-up, with 102bhp, is designed for the Californian market but it’s offered as an option across the rest of the US.
1981 A turbocharged version of the Spider is sold as a joint development between Fiat USA and Legend Industries. It brings 120bhp and a 0-60mph time of under nine seconds, but many owners subsequently revert to normally aspirated specification after Fiat’s US dealer network is wound down in 1983.
1983 As part of its withdrawal from the American market, Fiat drops the Spider and hands production over to Pininfarina. The Italian design house brings the car back to Europe, as well as continuing to sell it in the US as the Spider Azzura.
1984/1985 The final couple of years' production at Pininfarina add just 4000-odd cars to the total number (taking it to nearly 200,000 units) but bring the most powerful edition of the Spider Azzura yet, with a supercharged version of the 2.0-litre engine producing 133bhp. The car’s engine would live on in other classic Italian cars, though; a further turbocharged development of the unit was used in the Lancia Delta Integrale.