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Fiat: Affordability, Heritage Spider Strengths

Executive Summary

A new version of an old Fiat nameplate mixes heritage design with modern technology and updates the car from its Mazda cousin.

CARLSBAD, CA – A starting price for all three grades under $30,000 and nostalgia for the original model are seen as key purchase motivators for the new 124 Spider roadster, Fiat executives say.

Based on the same platform as the new Mazda MX-5 Miata, the 124 Spider hits the U.S. market this summer with its Abarth performance grade going on sale in the third quarter.

“The history of this car is something that I think is really an important part of the story,” Bob Broderdorf, director-Fiat brand North America, says here at a media drive for the roadster.

The original 124 Spider bowed in 1966 and holds the record as the best-selling Fiat in the U.S. Some 170,000 were sold and 8,000 still are registered in the country.

“It was an affordable, rear-wheel-drive sports car and a convertible at an excellent price point,” Broderdorf says. “This was a rare opportunity for the timeframe.”

With a starting price of $24,995 for the base Classica model, $27,495 for the Lusso grade and $28,195 for the Abarth, Fiat hopes the original’s success repeats with the new ’17 Spider, although executives refuse to provide a sales goal.

Because of the affordable pricing, Fiat sees the top two trim levels being the most popular, with the Lusso comprising 40% of sales and the Abarth 30%-35%, Rafael Paz, senior manager-product marketing for Fiat brand North America tells WardsAuto.

Design that harkens back to the original while also exhibiting some modern touches, plus the car’s 1.4L MultiAir turbocharged 4-cyl. – the lowest-priced turbo engine available in the U.S. also are seen as the car’s strengths.

The 1.4L puts out 160 hp in Classica and Lusso models and 164 hp in the Abarth which features exclusive engine-calibration-changing sport mode and quad exhaust.

Maximum torque is 184 lb-ft. (250 Nm) in the Abarth when in sport mode, up from 170 lb.-ft. (230 Nm) in non-Abarth models or with sport mode switched off, Program Manager Leia Horton says.

The unique engine plus other changes make the 124 Spider more than a copy of the MX-5, Broderdorf contends. He says all sheet metal has been modified, there are eight point of noise cancellation, a different exhaust note for every grade of the 124 Spider that are not shared with the Miata, and exclusive Fiat seats.

Some things remain the same, such as the MX-5’s infotainment screen and famous one-handed-close soft top.

Design New and Old

Virgilio Fernandez, chief interior designer, says the automaker tried to retain as much as it could of the original Fiat roadster, which he refers to as “one of the most beautiful cars in history,” while also wanting to modernize design to better incorporate technology and meet aerodynamic requirements.

The horizontal body of the original 124 is carried over to the new model, which also has an undercut front and rear. Its character line and friendly face also are retained, with the latter updated with modern LEDs to create a signature eyelid in the headlamps, Fernandez says.

Inside the new roadster, Fiat designers aimed for the same ring of luxury around passengers that is present in the old model, employing soft-touch material and leather atop instrument-panel and door panels. In general, Fiat aims to bring the feel of Italian personalization to the inside of the Spider, which has contrasting white stitching even on the base model’s cloth black seats.

The steering wheel and seats have been modernized, however, for better ergonomics and support.

Unlike with the old 124 Abarth, Fiat could not simply remove the rear bumper to lessen wind resistance, so Fernandez says aerodynamic flaps have been installed on the new model.

Despite its low starting price, Broderdorf sees the new 124 Spider attracting an older, more affluent customer to the Fiat brand as roadsters typically are third cars in many households.

“The Fiat customer today is incredibly young. It’s five years younger than the industry average,” he says. “My guess is (this car) will raise (our average age).”

The industry average age of a new-car buyer in the U.S. is somewhere in the late 40s/early 50s range, depending on whose data is believed.

Due to its drop-top, the 124 Spider should sell best in the southern U.S., Broderdorf says. The region already makes up 70% of Fiat’s U.S. sales.

The first 124 units of the new Spider to be built by Mazda at a plant in Hiroshima, Japan, will be Prima Edizione models, which are fully loaded Lussos in a blue paint. Broderdorf says Fiat already has 29,000 hand-raisers for the early units based on the car’s Los Angeles and New York auto show appearances.

WardsAuto data shows Fiat U.S. sales fell 18.6% through May to 15,191 units from the same period year-ago.

Sales last year were down from a brand-best 46,121 achieved in 2014.

Broderdorf sees the 124 Spider as rounding out the brand’s lineup comprising only the 500 hatchback and its variants the 500L and 500X. However, he makes no sales predictions on whether the car can reverse the Fiat’s current slide.

Roadsters typically do steady but slim volume in the U.S. due to their size and niche appeal.

For instance, Mazda has sold 4,495 MX-5 Miatas through May, which is below the 6,819 500s and 6,308 500x models Fiat delivered in the same period, WardsAuto data shows.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com

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