Test Drive: Fiat Spider is an enjoyable date

It’s probably a bit unfair to dismiss the Fiat 124 Spider convertible as a Mazda MX-5 with an attitude, even though there’s some truth to that characterization. The Spider is assembled in Hiroshima, Japan — half a world away from Italy, its place of origin — and it contains numerous Mazda components. Still, its engine, body and suspension tuning are Italian products, and so is its personality.

In truth, we didn’t expect to like the Spider. For one thing, we’ve been there and done that; we even came close to buying an used MG Midget back in the day. For another, one of our drivers recently had knee surgery and figured getting into and out of the Spider would be even harder than it actually was.

But a funny thing happened on the way to and from our workplace in Waterbury, Conn. First, the driver with the bum knee figured out how to wedge himself into and out of the Spider fairly painlessly, thanks in part to the wide door opening. Second, the car lived up to its racy looks. The Italian turbocharged engine has more horsepower and torque than the 2.0-liter Four that was bolted into the 2017 Spider Lusso we drove last year. The 2018 Spider also had a 6-speed manual gearbox — truer to the original and much more fun than the automatic transmission in the 2017 model.

So, as our week with the Spider wore on, the little roadster grew on us, and we hated to see it go. That isn’t to say we’d buy one if we won the Powerball. Call it a deliciously enjoyable date, but one with no hope or expectation of a repeat.

The Spider’s limitations are obvious and barely worth mentioning. It seats just two, and its trunk comes up just short of 5 cubic feet. But on the plus side — thinking pragmatically now — its fuel economy is 26 mpg city, 35 highway; and Japanese reliability is built into it from stem to stern. Also, people who own Spiders also have to learn to accept compliments gracefully, always a useful skill.

In Abarth trim — named for the racing and road car company founded by Carlo Abarth in 1949, and now a subsidiary of Fiat Chrysler — the Spider had a base price of $28,295. At that price, it’s equipped with satellite radio, remote keyless entry, rear backup camera, heated seats, and quad exhaust with bright tips.

The Hypnotique Red test car had a fairly long list of options, including a broad, black, matte finish racing stripe across the hood and trunk. It added $1,995 to the price. All told, the options list raised the price to $37,410. That’s within $4,400 of the base price of the 332-horsepower Nissan 370Z roadster, a far more serious speedster.

Also competitive with the Spider are the MX-5, Subaru BRZ and Toyota 86. Sport coupes and roadsters from BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and Porsche are priced well above the Japanese models.

2018 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth

Price: $37,410

Engine: 1.4-liter turbocharged inline Four, 164 horsepower, 184 lb.-ft. torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Drive: Rear-wheel

Weight: 2,436 lb.

Suspension: Double-wishbone front, multi-link rear

Wheels: 17×7-in. painted aluminum

Tires: 205/45VR17 3-season performance

Seating capacity: 2

Luggage capacity: 4.9 cu. ft.

Fuel capacity: 11.9 gallons

Fuel economy: 26 mpg city, 35 mpg highway

Fuel type: Premium unleaded (recommended)

Steven Macoy ([email protected]) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn.

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