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Small-car giant Fiat rolls out a classic retro sports model

Chic 21st-century Fiat Spider 124 retains many of the features seen in its pre-Woodstock ancestor without being shabby or cheap

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 December, 2016, 2:58pm
UPDATED : Friday, 16 December, 2016, 8:43pm

Here’s something of a shock: it’s a sports car from Fiat. Now Fiat may be Italian – and we all know just how much the Italians love their sports cars – but, yes, this is the very same Fiat that over recent years has had a runaway smash hit with its tiny Fiat 500, small on proportions but big on personality.

In its short life, the Fiat 500 has become something of a cult object, replicating the love felt for the original of 1957 in the way that the re-imagined Volkswagen Beetle did but, perhaps, the new Mini hasn’t quite. Maybe that’s payback for having its offer of limitless Fiat 500s declined by the producers of the 1969 hit movie The Italian Job, who chose instead, at the maker’s insistence, to actually buy those Minis, giving the car endless glory as a consequence.

Just how Fiat has pulled off making the 500’s undeniable cuteness so desirable is up for debate. Maybe the zeitgeist – to use a very un-Italian word – was just in the Turin manufacturer’s favour: Anthony Sheriff, the former boss of McLaren, has only half-joked that the only car anyone really ever needs is a Fiat Panda. Small makes sense on congested roads with parking spaces at a premium. Or maybe Fiat has just found a knack for it – because it seems like the lightning of inspiration may indeed have struck twice with the new Fiat Spider 124.

It too has a famed ancestor – the Pininfarina-styled 124 Sport Spider that debuted in 1966 and which remained in production until 1985. And like the 21st century Fiat 500, the modern Spider manages to retain all the spirit of the original. If revisiting a car that’s 60-plus years old might sound like a dumb move in a consumer market that fetishise the new, the Spider has instead tapped into a more niche, but no less resonant, mood for nostalgia. Sure, the Spider has the touch-screen, the rear-view camera, heated seats, powerful sound system and shiny alloys – or at least its top-spec Lusso version does – but it’s defiantly not a supercar. If you’re after that pumped up, aggressive race-track experience, look elsewhere. And be ready to pay a lot more for it.

Rather, like baby bear’s porridge in Goldilocks, nothing about the Spider is too hot, or too cold, but just right. The engine resounds but it doesn’t roar. The acceleration is exciting but not terrifying; it potters up to 100km/h in about 7.5 seconds, by which time a Ferrari would have been there and back. It’s comfortable enough, at least for small people. And the most reclined seat position still leaves you properly upright, like a schoolboy seated in the headmaster’s office.

Indeed, the Fiat Spider 124 is, in many respects, an old-fashioned car, and all the better for it. Its lovely lines are straight out of the 1950s. Put white-walled tyres on it, and a headscarf on its driver, and it would make for a similarly evocative car as the Sunbeam Alpine driven by Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief. Her passenger – the suave, cat burglar Cary Grant – would be just as happy driving this car, snaking his way down those winding French Riviera roads, the kind of drive and scenery that the Spider demands. Quite how anyone thought this was the kind of car best fronted by Charlie Sheen – as in a filmed and then shelved United States ad campaign – boggles the mind.

Work it hard and the Spider, with its six-speed manual transmission and rear-wheel drive, is a car that brings the simple pleasures of nippy, open-top driving without all the guff about torque and horsepower.

To this end, there are shades of Mazda’s MX5 roadster about it. And, in fact, it’s a result of a collaboration with the Japanese car company, and uses the MX5 platform. It’s even made in Japan. That could be regarded as only being a good thing given Italian manufacturers’ reputation for prioritising style over reliability.

Unfortunately – depending on how you look at it – the 1.4 litre turbocharged Multiair engine is still made in Italy. Indeed, at some point the planned car might well have turned out badged as an Alfa Romeo, had not Fiat Chrysler chief executive Sergio Marchionne then insisted that marque had to be all-Italian.

Well, that’s all to Fiat’s benefit. And the big badge on the boot takes ownership loudly and clearly. Of course, you can take the Italian out of Italy ... and the Spider retains many Italian-friendly touches, not least the instrument panel’s privileging of the rev counter over all other dials, slap bang in the centre and bigger than everything else around it. Why carmakers continue to place so much emphasis on providing this information is a puzzle, especially when just about anything else – navigation, sensor feedback, even what’s on the radio – is that much more useful in the real world. It’s an affectation, to be harsh, or a tradition, to be kind.

Fiat gets away with it because the Spider is so appealingly retro. That’s a word that sounds damning these days, like “shabby chic”, suggestive of kitsch and poor taste. But the Spider is anything but naff; just look at the occupants’ view over the sweeping bonnet, inviting you onwards. It’s classy. It’s sassy, elegant and refined, the choice of the gentleman or woman, rather than the boy or girl racer. It’s fantastic fun. And it is, I’d wager, an instant classic.