A real sports car should be nimble as a Ninja Warrior, happily and confidently capable of straightening out pretzel-shaped pavement.
The perfect sports car, in fact, is light and quick. The steering directly connects the car to the road. There’s power, but only just enough.
A sports car drains the driver of every last bit of skill and resourcefulness. The joy of a sports car is in managing gears and engine revs to keep up speed and agility. Driving a genuine sports car is nothing short of an athletic art.
Of course there are only two seats and the cabin is tight; there is room only for a driver and an entertained passenger. The instruments are simple and the interfaces for everything are clear and easy to read and understand.
The exterior design is a minimalist symphony. The lines are clean, the proportions balanced, to reflect 50-50 weight distribution. The trunk holds one overnight case. And the lightweight top is operated by hand, with a simple lift-and-stow operation. Done is three
This formula is true to history and every bit of it is there in the Fiat 124 Spider.
Sadly, roadsters are not so popular any longer. The world’s automakers don’t make a lot of roadsters now. BMW’s Z4 turned ended as a too-expensive failure. While you can still find the odd new Morgan and Lotus, most automakers have given up on roadsters and traditional sports cars in general.
Among the mass marketer car companies, well, you’ve got Mazda and its client, Fiat. Which brings us to the Fiat-tweaked version of Mazda’s M-5 (Miata), the 124 Spider.
This car starts with Mazda’s spine and bones, but the design gives us the look of a mini-Maserati. The cabin in my $43,585 tester (upgraded from the base $36,495 version) had the air of a Fiat, but the basics of a Mazda – including the slapped-on touchscreen mounted high up on the dashboard.
What we have in the 124 Spider is for the most part a nose and bum job on the MX-5, with some of Fiat’s own chassis work and FCA’s 160-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine (1.4 litres) as a replacement for Mazda’s own 160-hp 2.0-litre, non-turbo four.
Yes, Fiat’s north-south mounted engine is shipped to Hiroshima where it’s fitted into the Spider. I prefer the normally-aspirated four in the Mazda, but turbo lag in the Fiat is almost entirely unnoticeable.
However, the Spider weighs 47 kg more than a comparable MX-5. This is not a problem because the Fiat has more torque (184 lb-ft versus 148 in the MX-5).
And so the 124 Spider is a delight to drive. It’s quick (0-100 km/hour in 7.5 seconds) and if you drop that manual top, this little gem feels even faster. The six-speed manual gearbox is completely satisfying. The gear lever is short, as are the throws, and gear changes are absolutely precise.
As for looks, any association with the 1966 124 Spider is intentional. The deep-set headlights are familiar and nicely sit in the nose. The tail lights have a Fiat look to them; note the piece of body-coloured plastic within them. The wheels look expensive and, in my car, were fitted with fat 205/45VR Bridgestone performance rubber.
If your belly blocks the view of your toes, you will struggle to swing into the tight-fitting bucket seats. You won’t find a glove box or decent door pockets, either. But there is a little cubby atop the central tunnel and a larger storage space behind the seats, accessed through a flip-down plastic door.
A glance at the sticker confirms the obvious: the 124 Spider is dangerously close to being overpriced. A joyous romp in a roadster is, then, beyond the budget of almost everyone, including middle-class working types.
If, however, you find yourself among the few who end up owning this car – about 250 here in Canada – you will have a lovely romance in your hands. Literally and most likely for a lifetime.
2017 Fiat 124 Spider
Base price: $36,495. As tested: $43,585, including $1,795 for freight.
Engine: 1.4-litre four-cylinder, turbocharged (160 horsepower/184 lb.-ft. of torque).
Drive: rear-wheel drive.
Transmission: six-speed manual.
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.0 city/6.7 hwy using premium fuel.
Comparables: Mazda MX-5 Miata.