124 Spider: Has Fiat missed the boat?

The Fiat 124 Spider looks terrible.

We all know it. For what seemed like a recipe dreamed up by the gods, and served dripping in honey to the salivating media, the result is a bit…ghastly.

There is no excuse for this. The Japanese, not particularly renowned for the elegance of their vehicles, have managed to make the fourth-generation MX-5 look slender, sculpted and – crucially — pretty. So how did Fiat screw up quite so spectacularly?

The Italians enjoy an unarguable gift for creating stunningly attractive cars. This is well established. Some are incredible, others are idiotic, but they are almost always lookers. Surely, with the chassis and build quality already the best in class, it could focus on what it does best. Sex appeal.

Fiat 124 Spider side.jpg

As it turned out, it couldn’t. It really couldn’t. In fact, from such an agreeable canvas it conjured — to my eyes — a steaming turd. Too many overhangs, taillights pilfered from the Dodge parts bin, and poorly executed creases across the bonnet. As industry shocks go, this is the equivalent of Playboy being shown the way by White Dwarf.

In the interests of fairness, I have come across a handful of souls who look at the 124 and aren’t immediately and violently sick. I admire their bravery. But I am afraid they are wrong. The new Spider looks as though somebody has described the finer points of the Chrysler Crossfire to a punch-drunk American during a game of charades. It’s a mess, in other words.

Of course, looks aren’t everything, as they say, and the Fiat could prove to be an exceptional little car from behind the wheel – the hotly anticipated Abarth variant in particular. This, on some levels, would change matters somewhat. If the 124 can put a smile on your face once its gurning mug is upsetting pedestrians and not you, it could surprise us yet.

Pah! Enough objectivity. No one buys a sports car with ‘unfortunate’ looks, do they? It is this crucial – if superficial – point that Fiat has bafflingly missed.

The travesty is that the 124 desperately needed to be good. Tremendous, actually. With the exception of its supercar manufacturers, the Italian car industry is in a bad way. Alfa Romeo’s deluded attempts to rival the Germans is consistently being foiled by its aged and/or underdeveloped products. Just look at the stunning 4C. Its potential is huge, but so far remains untapped. An unrefined powertrain and dubious chassis dynamics have put paid to that. The forthcoming Giulia, meanwhile, looks marvellous, but can’t hope to pull the brand out of the mire alone.

Alfa Giulia.jpg

It will of course be helped by two SUVs in the years ahead, but in that very fact, warning signs are a-buzzing. In the years ahead. Not 2016, but years. Alfa’s new range has been delayed again, as far back as 2018 for the off-roaders, amongst rumblings about failed crash tests. Marchionne’s target of 400,000 units sold by 2018 suddenly looks a little doubtful, doesn’t it?

Then we move to Maserati, where we find the sensational Alfieri concept, which is – surprise surprise — a good few years off yet. In the meantime, we have the graceful but increasingly medieval GranTurismo, and the slightly awkward looking Quattroporte and Ghibli. Lancia meanwhile, that glorious maverick of a company, has been reduced to knocking out re-badged Chryslers.

The answer to the industry’s problems is not a straightforward one, clearly. To shift vehicles rapidly and efficiently, these manufacturers need affordable hatchbacks and saloons to do the donkey work. The flip-side to this is that rivals such as Ford, Volkswagen and Toyota have these segments licked. The reason most people actually choose Italian cars is because they are zingy, beautiful and a little bit different. Those are difficult qualities to impart in a £12,000 shopping trolley. Of course, Fiat has always managed to buck the trend, but that knack is arguably fading.

You might think that in order to woo customers away from the staid establishment, gorgeous ‘halo’ models are needed. Alfa has understood this with the 4C; but, of course, it is underdeveloped. Development costs money and money stems from sales. Catch-22. From here, we return to the catalyst of my rant. The 124 Spider. Has Fiat missed the boat?


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