2017 Fiat 124 Spider: Sprezzatura On Wheels
For those of you that don't speak Italian (like me), that's the English definition of an Italian word that originated in Baldassare Castiglione's seminal work published in 1528 , Il Cortegiano, or The Book Of The Courtier. Castiglione defined Sprezzatura as "a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it." If Castiglione were alive today, he might use the term to describe the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider...or he'd have an aneurism the moment he saw the light switch operated. Nevertheless, the 124 possesses a certain sense of "sprezz" that makes it something truly unique.
Instead of prattling on about the appearance of the 124 Spider, I'm simply going to say that it looks fine when you walk up to it, and once you're behind the wheel, you don't have to look at it. So that's good. If you're the type of person who's more concerned with what other people think of the car you're driving, then the 124 Spider isn't for you, and that's your loss. It's a car that looks interesting enough to turn heads, and make any passerby curious. But not good enough to necessitate a walk across a parking lot for a few photos. Like I said, you don't see the surprised looking face up front, or rush job rear when you're behind the wheel. All you see is a lengthy creased hood chewing up asphalt at whatever rate you deem appropriate, all while sitting in some comfortable leather fitments. This was good news for me, as I was nursing a fierce hangover from the night before.
In an effort to fully embrace the Italian lifestyle which Fiat is pushing in America these days, I had enjoyed a bit of la dolce vita the night prior. Well, perhaps more than a bit. As far as places to be following a night when you've over indulged, inside a spry two seater convertible isn't exactly at the top of the list. There was, at least, plenty of fresh air at my disposal. In that same vein, you also get a lot of sunlight, and when you're running on fumes, the sun is your worst enemy. Good news is, the top on the 124 Spider is incredibly easy to raise and lower. Simply pull the shoulder-height lever between the seats to release the top, and with one hand, pull the top up and secure it using another lever. Quick and easy every single time.
As with the cloth roof, the interior is the same as that of the Mazda Miata, which is ok because the new Miata interior is the best Miata interior yet. There are, of course, a few key differences between the two, and fortunately for Fiat shoppers, they're all improvements over the Mazda. The steering wheel is thicker, the shift knob is larger, the seats are cushier—and that's all just in the base model "Classica" 124 Spider. Later in the afternoon I spent time in a "Lusso" trim level car, and found the brown leather on the dash, doors, and seats to be even more supple. On the subject of the seats, the best of the bunch are unquestionably the optional Recaros you can spec in the 124 Spider Abarth. They feature a suede like material on the ribbed-for-your-pleasure center sections, and have just the right amount of bolstering for a little roadster. Given that I'm a 'sample size' human being, I was more than comfortable throughout the day, but my lanky 6'4" companion struggled to find a driving position that worked for him. As is the case with the Miata, the steering wheel only tilts, it doesn't adjust fore and aft, which meant finding a position where his knees didn't interfere was a struggle. Eventually he managed to work it out and hustled the car through a section of twisties with aplomb for as long as I was able to tolerate sitting in the passenger seat, which wasn't very long given the state I was in.
With an in-line four-cylinder turbocharged motor putting out 160-horsepower and 180 lb-ft of torque, you might not think those rates to be all that exciting—but then you'd be wrong. It's throaty and torquey and happy to do a well enough job in the mountains of southern California. It was during this period of duress that I began to contemplate what the 124 Spider is. A grand tourer that can be occasionally be driven hard? Or a sports car that can occasionally be taken on road trips? When equipped with the 6-speed manual transmission as the "Classica" was, a clear answer isn't so easy to get. There are times when the car feels soft enough that you can imagine taking it on a leisurely cross-country adventure, and then there are times when you think about what installing a cold-air-intake, aftermarket exhaust, and set of performance tires would do for it. With an MSRP of $24,999 for a "Classica" with the stick, I'm not sure there's a definitive answer one way or the other, but with the automatic or in the "Lusso" trim, the 124 Spider absolutely feels more like a cruiser than a canyon carver.
But no matter what trim level you get, you still have to deal with a whole lot of wind noise at 80+ mph, even with the top up. And you're still going to have hard plastics scattered around the cabin. The stick shift will be the same C635 unit out of the last generation "N/C" Miata, which is ok because it's a good gearbox, and the automatic is the same sluggish B400 Aisin unit across the board. I have to imagine that Fiat will sell a ton of 124 Spiders equipped with the automatic to people who just want an affordable, luxurious roadster. But man are they missing out by not getting the stick, especially when it comes to the Abarth. Which I'm going to talk about right now.
Not wanting to be a walking cliche, I went into this experience hoping the Abarth wasn't the best. Because of course an enthusiast like myself would say that. Unfortunately for me, I had to embrace the cliche; the Abarth really is the best version of the 124 Spider. The base model is undoubtedly fun, but the Abarth is the one I want for myself, and I want it now. As soon as you fire it up, the raspy exhaust note gets under your skin, the red center-mounted tachometer goads you into sending the needle to redline time and again, and the Abarth specific shift knob falls into hand perfectly. Fiat only allowed us to drive the Abarth on an auto-x course they had setup in a parking lot, but as you'll see in the video below, it was a sizable one, where you could actually have some fun.
The period of time I spent at the wheel of the 124 Spider Abarth with the manual transmission was the best I felt all day. It got my adrenaline going, which helped put me back to even keel, if only for a brief spell. I quickly became comfortable with the car, and pushed it a bit harder with each successive lap, which in turn led to some highly enjoyable moments with the tail hanging out around a corner or two. At 164 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque, the increase over the standard base model is...barely noticeable. Four horsepower to be exact. But it's only on paper that you notice the difference (or even care). Sure, the 124 Spider and 124 Spider Abarth are not without their flaws. But at the end of the day, there is just so much room for reward that I'd say both are worth the risk. It's really a matter of how you spec the car out, and how honest you're willing to be with yourself about what you're looking for in a car. If you're an absolute track rat who values purity, get a Miata Club. If you're just looking for some top-down fun, get a 124 Spider. If you want the best of both worlds, get the 124 Spider Abarth with the optional Mopar exhaust (but without the Mopar blowoff valve kit because it sounds like something out of Fast and Furious). And always remember sprezzatura, the defining term that makes the 124, a 124.
Specs Engine: 4-Cylinder Turbo Horsepower: 160 (base), 164 (Abarth) Torque: 180 lb-ft (base), 184 lb-ft (Abarth) Price: $24,995 (base), $28,195 (Abarth) Photo Credit: Color by @RazKrog, B&W by Visual Vocab for BoldRide