LOS ANGELES -- The task seemed doable: Take the most popular Fiat ever sold in the U.S. and re-create it for the 21st century.
The reality, it turned out, was a little more complicated than typing "Miata" into Google Translate and choosing "Italian."
The pre-show nickname of the all-new Fiat 124 Spider that broke cover here this week -- "Fiata" -- reflects the challenge and the risk Fiat's designers and engineers took on. It started as an engineering package from Mazda that underpins its fourth-generation MX-5 Miata convertible. Fiat then wrapped a unique body around it and bolted in its own turbocharged powertrain underneath the scalloped hood. The 2017 model goes on sale next summer.
A two-seat roadster may be an unlikely route for a Fiat brand struggling to find its footing in the U.S. But the chance to revive a bit of the brand's heritage proved tough to resist.
"Of all the things in all the markets that I could go into when I'm launching a brand in the U.S., this probably isn't necessarily one of the first ones on your list," Bob Broderdorf, director of the Fiat brand for North America, told Automotive News at the auto show. "But when a partnership like this comes along, and you realize, 'I could make a 124 Spider out of this,' how can you not do that?"
Despite the car's Japanese bones, Fiat designers were keen to tie the new model to the long-established history of the previous 124 Spider -- which amassed 170,000 sales in the U.S. between 1968 and 1985.
"The most challenging thing was to get the spirit of the original car," Felix Kilbertus, the 124 design manager, told Automotive News. "It was an optimistic car, very simple, very light in its styling. You don't want it to be a cold, almost Germanic kind of car."
Another challenge: time. The styling team started the project in the middle of 2013 and had to freeze the design roughly a year later in order to speed the car into production by 2016. Not only did they need to get the styling just right on a car with a trunk full of heritage, they needed to do it on an extremely condensed schedule, given Fiat Chrysler's deep thirst for all-new models throughout its brands.
"The temptation is always to compress the styling phase, and that's the most risky thing to do because you can't correct any mistake," Kilbertus said. "So we really had to fight hard to make sure, 'OK, no, we need to [do] all these things, otherwise it will not work.'"
Even minute details such as the aerodynamic performance of the 124's honeycomb lower grille or the shade of white in the headlamps gave the team fits.
Some of the styling process involved his team working with Mazda in Japan -- where the 124 will be built alongside the Miata. The collaboration was made easier by the combination of Italian flexibility and Japanese work ethic, Kilbertus said.
With an eight-year stint at Renault -- including two years in Japan with its Nissan arm -- Kilbertus also had a sense of how to navigate potential challenges between the two cultures.
"It helps you distinguish what is a technical problem and what is just a misunderstanding," the designer said. "When you ask the wrong question, you get the wrong answer."
The Italian-ness of the 124 Spider goes deeper than the unique sheet metal. Fiat shoehorned in the same turbocharged, 1.4-liter, four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission it uses in the 500 Abarth and retuned the suspension accordingly.
In Broderdorf's eyes, there was no other option.
"This ain't a badge exercise, not even close, and the powertrain has to be Italian to pay homage to that [earlier] car," the executive said. "You'd get crucified if you didn't."