With its lifecycle ending prematurely in 2020, the 124’s Spider 21st Century comeback hasn’t been as successful as FCA planned.
When Sergio Marchionne decided to resurrect the storied “124” nameplate, he hoped to tap on the USA market, the one that between 1966 and 1985 absorbed a whopping 75% of all the Fiat 124 Spiders made. But his decision tied the hands of Fiat’s designers, as bringing back the old “124” name forced them into making a retro-design, a reinterpretation of a much-loved Italian classic.
Were they successful in doing so?
To answer this question, we first need to go back in time to look at the source material…
Launched in November 1966 at the Turin Motor Show, the 124 Spider was actually designed by an American, Tom Tjaarda, and its design derived from the show-car Rondine he created in ’63.
Based on a Corvette C2 chassis and directly commissioned by General Motors, the Rondine owed its name to its peculiar rear-end design, which was reminiscent of a swallow’s tail: “Rondine” being the Italian for “swallow.” The long and swooping tail is actually the defining stylistic feature of the 124 Spider, as the front end was non-descript, made to look similar to the 124 Sport Coupé for costs and engineering considerations. The modern 124 Spider is famously based on the Mazda MX5, which has an excellent chassis, but proportions perhaps too far removed from those of the original 124.
The MX5’s cabin sits close to the rear axle, with a short, stubby back end volume. Its proportions are perfect… Unless you have to make a 124 retro design, as you don’t have enough length to work with.
Fiat’s designers added some centimeters to the tail, but it was never going to work, because of the different position of the passengers relative to the wheels.
So the designers did what they could, as they have done with the front end of the car. Modern cars are “bumper-breathers,” so the grille that mimics the one found on the original is fake on the new one.
I could go on, but I think my point is made: FCA would probably have been better off making a contemporary design rather than going retro, but that doesn’t mean the current 124 isn’t an enjoyable car.
First and foremost, its 1.4 turbo engine: its gruff noise and its strong mid-range torque give the 124 not only a performance edge over the MX5, but a completely different personality, as you have to drive the car differently compared to the Mazda. On the 124, a small throttle input anywhere above 2500 rpm will suffice to get the car to pick up speed nicely, while the Mazda thrives on revs and wants you to work harder on the throttle and gearbox to get the same acceleration. This also means that it’s somewhat easier to break the 124’s rear end loose if you overdose on the throttle… The steering feels less assisted compared to the Mazda, but of course, with no more feedback as we’re still talking about an electric rack that’s likely the same unit, just differently calibrated. The gear change also felt less “flickety” than on the Mazda, the lever needing some more effort to slot into place… Far from unpleasant, mind you, simply “meatier.”
The 124 is a different take on the small roadster theme, and it’s a pity that sales have proven so underwhelming…