I love the idea that Mazda and Fiat are working together on sports cars, because it’s a good game plan that’s likely to revive the faded fortunes of Alfa-Romeo in the U.S. Fiat is re-launching its storied brand here next year, and the company will need a successor to its fabled Spider (a/k/a “The Graduate,” after its star-making appearance in that hit Dustin Hoffman vehicle).
The Mazda MX-5 Miata is known as the sports car that actually works, and that’s why it’s still around—and due for a substantial “back to basics” re-launch in 2013. From an artist’s conception posted by Motor Trend, the 2013 model will be very cheerful looking, reminiscent in a fascinating way of the old Austin-Healey Bug-Eye Sprite, but much more likely to get you home in one piece. The new Miata is going to be both lighter and more fuel-efficient than the current car. The Alfa-branded car will be based on the new Miata platform, but I’m hoping it retains enough Italian character so that it’s something more than a rebadged Mazda. For Alfistis, a Japanese Spider is sacrilege enough. At least the styling is reported to be distinct for the two cars. Under the hood in the American-spec, Miata will be a two-liter engine producing something like 145 horsepower (20 more than the 50-mpg version with the Skyactiv-G engine headed for other markets). The latter should at least be an option in the U.S.
Mazda, which has seen its partnership with Ford fade away, has been suffering financial reversals (it failed to produce profits in each of the last four fiscal years), and partnering with Fiat will presumably give the company the revenue to make the MX-5 redesign profitable.
I’m a huge fan of two-seat roadsters, and I speak with fond nostalgia for the Alfa Spider, because I owned a ragged-but-right 1976 example. It was huge fun to drive, despite such impressive demerits as a leaked-like-a-sieve top, dodgy second gear, low compression in one cylinder and a growly rear end. Did I mention it was also rusty? Back then, Alfa was still a player in the U.S. sports car market, competing against the British marques that would soon bite the dust, including Triumph, AC and MG. Morgan and Lotus are somehow still with us, aren’t they?
People then expected sports cars to be finicky and problematic. If Fiat stood for “Fix it again, Tony,” then Alfa stood for “A Loose Fitting Again.” Something was always falling off an Alfa-Romeo, including mine—I accepted it as part of owning a sports car. The British cars were actually worse, as most had Lucas “Prince of Darkness” lighting and “Always at Zero” Smith’s Gauges. I never knew anyone who owned a trouble-free MG, though lots of people loved them.
One British car enthusiast says that among the delights of owning his Mini (the original one, before BMW fixed it): oil leaks, constant exhaust breakage, water splashes that would kill the ignition, a sticking rear brake, frequent rust breakouts and a gearbox that would randomly freeze up. But he also says that he loved his Mini’s “soul,” and “had a blast in that little car.” That’s the essence of British car ownership.
The Brits barely made it into the 1980s, victims of stagnant design and labor problems so bad that workers were actually sabotaging cars on the line. Alfa lasted longer, soldiering into 1993 with the fourth series of the Spider, then ignominiously exiting the American market. Alfa was then having trouble selling its 164 sedan (on a platform shared with Saab, Fiat and Lancia), but the Spider was doomed by the arrival, in 1990, of the “what, me worry?” Miata. Although it superficially resembled the Lotus Elan, the Miata was in a whole other class of reliability. You could actually commute in the thing if you traveled light. They borrowed one thing from the Alfa Spider: The fruity exhaust note. It’s not surprising that the MX-5 Miata is the bestselling two-seat sports convertible in history. In fact, it’s the first one owners could depend on. Watch this video to understand the value proposition--fun and practicality in equal measure:
Sergio Marchionne has done an impressive job of rethinking Fiat for the American market, and Chrysler has totally rebounded under his leadership. He remains quite bullish on the company, and is said to be looking for ways to increase Fiat's already majority stake in Chrysler. The partnership with Mazda is another smart move, making sense for both companies.
The Miata now figures in a million American coming-of-age stories, and the Alfa is relegated to a fading memory for baby boomers. But the Alfa/Mazda, if it’s good, could make some new memories. Some of the Alfisti loyalists disagree with this view, however. My friend Greg, for example, has commuted daily in a 164 for an incredible 10 years, in snow and rain, and claims it's amazingly reliable with something like 86,000 miles on the clock. He loves Italian cars, and is leery of miscegenation with Japanese bloodlines. I asked him if he'd consider buying an Alfa Spider/Miata, and he responded, "NO!!!!"
You can't please everybody. Did I mention that my next car is going to be a Miata? Not the snazzy new one, alas, but a good, solid older one. There are tons of them on the road, after all, and they’re amazing bargains.