“Is it really possible to go faster than this on these roads?” my poor mother asks me, very clearly terrified by the way I’m driving. She doesn’t like it when I (or anyone for that matter) drives too fast, and I’ve already adjusted to “Mother Approved” speed, for her sake.
“Would it make you feel better if I said no?”
“Then no. It isn’t.”
She’s mistaken her ride-along in the new 2017 Fiat 124 Spider for a leisurely jaunt through the countryside. We’re on my favorite driving loop in the Kettle Moraines, out to see how fast I can really take it. But we’ve been down this road (literally and figuratively) — about four years before, when I brought home my 1982 Fiat Sport Spider.
That was a proud day. Naturally, it had seemed like a fun idea taking my mom for a drive in my new pride and joy. I saved up, worked extra shifts and finally bought my first fun car. I learned quickly how to drive a manual, and I could already tell that this was what driving should be: twisty back roads, a light car, responsive steering. The Fiat wasn’t particularly quick, but speed didn’t matter. My mom also wasn’t terrified.
Years have passed. I graduated and moved to New York City, leaving my beloved Fiat back in the Midwest. If I’m lucky I get to drive it a couple times a year, but my dad has taken care of my Fiat, and driven it and used it like it was his own in exchange for garage space.
If you don’t mind driving with gusto you can effortlessly take the 124 Spider to the limit without getting in over your head.
Naturally, when Fiat announced last year it would be reviving the 124 Spider, I was ecstatic. Mazda and Fiat-Chrysler originally intended to revive the vaunted Alfa Romeo Spider on the MX-5 Miata platform, but Alfa shut down those plans, essentially saying an MX-5-based Alfa wouldn’t be Italian enough. So Fiat got the platform, and the 124 Spider nameplate returned.
The Miata has always been a spiritual successor to small, British and Italian roadsters. The new 124 Spider takes the basic chassis of the MX-5 and adds Fiat’s exterior styling, suspension tuning and a turbocharged 1.4-liter engine.
After I dropped my mom back home (sorry, Ma), I went out for another loop in the Kettles to really wring out the new 124. If you don’t mind driving with gusto, you can effortlessly take the 124 Spider to the limit without getting in over your head, but when you get there it still is intense. Step on the throttle and response is sharp, the torque swelling fairly low in the rev range to deliver punch until you nearly hit the rev limiter. Rowing though all six gears in the Spider’s manual gearbox is a dream — each gear change lands smoothly and precisely with a satisfying “click-clack.”
2017 Fiat 124 Spider Classica Specs
Engine: 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Torque: 184 lb-ft
Weight: 2,436 pounds
As the flickering sunlight through the trees above me passes by faster and faster, it becomes apparent that the new 124 can bomb through back roads with aplomb. Its steering is responsive, quickly and capably tackling tight corners. There is a hint of body roll and drama when I take corners at speed, but if anything it makes the experience feel more visceral. Drive something with wider, stickier tires and a stiffer suspension, and it would feel sterile. Here you still feel alive and on edge.
This new Fiat is enough to ignite an iota of panic within me. I’m worried I might like it more than my Fiat. After two loops in the new car, I step out and slide into the driver’s seat of my Sport Spider, taking a moment to breathe in the familiar smell of oil and dust and wood that fill the cabin. I put my feet on the clutch and the brake and turn the key; the Spider rumbles into life on the first try.
If there’s a prevailing theme in my old car, it’s “more effort.” More effort to turn the wheels with unassisted steering, more effort to shift with the heavy clutch, and an old engine puts in more of an effort just to get up to speed.
This is, at least from my point of view, all vital to the driving experience. The modern car is incredibly fun, faster, and may handle better, but its lighter steering and clutch, and the more sensitive throttle and brakes, somewhat take away from the driving experience.
1982 Fiat 124 Sport Spider 2000 Specs
Engine: 2.0-liter fuel-injected four-cylinder
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Torque: 110 lb-ft
Expect to Pay: $4,000+
To the new car’s credit, that’s all difficult to replicate in a modern car. Electrically assisted steering is the norm, stability control systems are required and with today’s crash regulations you can only make a car so small. But I believe what Fiat did with the 124 is nothing short of incredible — as close to the original as you could get today.
The new car’s interior is delightfully spartan — cloth seats, no digital screens, no power seats and the cupholders are removable. Ditch the cupholders and the only difference between this and my Fiat is an electronic push-button start. Which is refreshing.
The car’s styling has been a point of contention, but in person the car’s seemingly gawky overhangs, angles and proportions are more subtle. It isn’t perfect, but again, you can only do so much in the modern era to recapture the look of a classic.
Hell, it briefly made me doubt my most prized possession in the entire world.
In the context of the original, however, it simply can’t compete. The Pininfarina bodywork on my vintage Spider is a representation of everything that was right with Italian car design in the 1960s. And no modern car interior can compete with a cockpit complete with a full-wooden dash and Veglia gauges.
And that’s the only problem with the new car: it doesn’t stir my soul or tug at my heartstrings in quite the same way. Incidentally, my mother, a decidedly non-car person, was enamored (despite my driving). But we hardcore enthusiasts are persnickety, and old car clichés about character and tactility ring painfully true. But the new 124 is still a fantastic machine, a wonderful driver’s car. Hell, it briefly made me doubt my most prized possession in the entire world.