When Fiat Chrysler and Mazda announced in 2012 a joint venture to build a sports car that would in time become Mazda's new Miata and Fiat's new 124 Spider, cynics dismissed the effort as nothing but a sneaky way to build one car and pretend it was two.
And when the two resulting vehicles were unveiled last year, auto journalists jokingly called them both "Fiata." This was one car, with two different nameplates, they said, built with the same drive train, on the same platform, in the same factory, with only slightly different styling.
Mea culpa! Mea maxima culpa! I was among them, and I was wrong. The Fiat 124 Spider and the Mazda MX-5 Miata are both great sports cars, and neither one is a Fiata.
Fiat was hoping, with the reintroduction of the Spider, to recapture past glory. The version the Italian company sold in the 1960s and 70s, a low-slung, two-seat convertible, is still the best-selling Fiat ever in the U.S. market.
But two-seat rag tops don't sell very well, and aren't economically feasible for most big car companies, unless they can find a way to build them in large enough numbers — by finding a partner, for instance, that also wants to recapture some past glory. Like Mazda, which was eager to relaunch its best-selling sports car, the Miata.
"Let's face it — these are not the most popular cars in the world," said Bob Broderdorf, Director of Fiat Brand North America. "The volume is not there."
The two cars share a basic platform. They share some interior elements. They are both built on Mazda assembly lines in Japan.
But the experience of driving them is quite different. I liked the Miata a lot, and I liked the 124 Spider even more.
The most obvious difference between the two vehicles is the styling. The Fiat is longer, with broader shoulders and bigger, bolder headlamps.
But the most essential difference is under the hood.
The Mazda is powered by a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine that makes 155 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. The Fiat uses a 1.4-liter MultiAir four-cylinder turbocharged engine, designed and manufactured in Italy, that while smaller produces 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. It is said to go from zero to 60 miles per hour in 6.7 seconds.
Run through a manual six-speed gearbox similar to the Miata's, the Fiat engine is peppy, powerful and responsive. It makes a cheerful, throaty roar when pushed hard, and delivers impressive performance throughout all six gears, from low in the powerband to near redline. It's not a massive powerplant, but it makes this light sports car feel fast.
The clutching is soft but sturdy, and the shifting has a tight, tidy feel. (A six-speed automatic transmission is also available. But, why?)
Like its Mazda counterpart, reviewed here last year, the overall Spider driving experience is very engaged. Meant to be an homage to the great two-seaters of previous decades, the new version is in many ways an old-fashioned, analog vehicle.
The convertible top goes up and down manually, with no motor to assist, but like the Miata top, and unlike the Fiat's brother Alfa Romeo 4C Spider, it requires only one person, two hands and minimal effort to raise and lower.
There's a cup holder, but it's placed so badly, behind the driver's elbow, as to be more or less useless. (The Miata has the same inconvenient cup cubby.) There is no glove box, in the traditional sense. The seats adjust manually. The entertainment, climate control and navigation systems are minimal. I was almost surprised to find power windows.
In other words, this is a precise, purposeful, driver's car — a car you are meant to drive attentively, alert and attached to the road.
That's even more true with the top down. The sound of the engine improves, and the sense of engagement increases. A small screen behind the seats cuts the breeze flowing into the driver compartment, but driving with the top down is still a nicely windy experience.
The cabin space felt ample to me, with lots of leg room and, with the top up, sufficient head room. But the seats are set quite low, and may make shorter drivers wish for a taller perch — or a pillow.
Trunk space? There's more than in the Miata, Fiat says, and room for a full-sized piece of carry-on luggage, but you won't be throwing a golf bag in there.
And, being a convertible, it's not a quiet car. Fiat added sound-deadening elements to the car — an acoustic windshield, and additional components inside the convertible roof — but engine noise, tire noise and wind noise, even with the top up, tend to accentuate the engaged drive experience.
The Spider is available in three trim levels. The Classica, which I tested, starts at $25,990. It comes with cloth seats and includes some good technology that improves the drive experience, like electronic stability control and a hill hold feature that helps with clutching and shifting on steep streets. Options include a back-up camera and remote keyless entry.
Spider fans who want a more luxurious roadster experience can have one. Fiat is selling a Lusso version that starts at $28,490, and an Abarth edition that starts at $29,190. Those models use the same MultiAir engine, but with more features and farkles.
The racier Abarth version offers different driving modes, and has been tuned for more dynamic performance, with special calibrations to the engine, steering and suspension.
But even in the base model, I was delighted by this car. The combination of power and handling made every errand an adventure. Out of milk? I'll go!
Will others be as charmed? Fiat's Broderdorf said that sales will depend upon how many baby boomers, nostalgic for the great two-seaters of their youth, are joined by millennials shopping for an entry-level sports car.
"The people that knew of the original are going to be attracted by this," Broderdorf said. "But so will the 27-year-old who wants good value."
The 124 Spider only hit dealerships this month. So far, Broderdorf said, response is positive.
"We're selling them as fast as we can deliver them," he said. "We're going to make one for everyone that wants one."
2017 Fiat 124 Spider Classica
Times' take: A timely return of a timeless classic
Highs: Fun to drive, affordable to own
Lows: Can its appeal overcome reliability concerns?
Vehicle type: Two-door, two-passenger convertible
Base price: $25,990
Price as tested: $27,285
Powertrain: 1.4-liter, 4-cylinder turbo
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Torque: 184 pound-feet
EPA fuel economy rating: 26 mpg city/35 highway/30 combined