UK CAR Road Test
Every now and again, Fiat, Italy's nationalised car maker,
springs a surprise on the unsuspecting public....
And virtually every time, it comes in the form of a sports car. Why we are so surprised is rather confusing. Despite being synonymous with small but worthy cars for the proletariat, the Fiat badge hardly emits a single faint flicker of glamour.
Yet there have been a whole succession of off the wall Fiats - 850 Coupe, Dino Spyder, X19 and, more recently, the Barchetta with its heavy Alfa Spider overtones.
Fiat are, of course, the parent arm of Ferrari and their iconic objet d'art cars and, along with Alfa Romeo and Lancia, it's fair to say that Fiat should leave the big saloon and supercar markets to their smaller siblings. As Fiat rebadges its marques into their perceived market it is all the more remarkable that this car escaped from Italy wearing a Fiat badge. Yes, we know it shares it's components with an Alfa but it's cheaper and more convincing when bearing the Fiat badge.
If the Pininfarina penned and built body doesn't do anything for you, then it's time to check your pulse as you're probably dead. By its very nature, the shape is one that you will either love or hate. Those who recognise that this is something quite special, (hand-built, not by Fiat but by Pininfarina at their Grugliasco plant, at a rate of just eighty cars a day) will love its outrageous show-car styling. Those who think that cars are a transport system for the express purpose of delivering occupants from A to B with as little fuss as possible or who shop with the aid of a Golden Retriever will find it a pointless exercise in showing off and hate it for daring to exist in the modern climate of cuddly, environmentally friendly, passenger safety friendly, pedestrian friendly PC world.
This is a car full of exquisite touches, a car at which you can just stare and stare and stare and stare and stare..................
Recent models have brought in the new stronger, 5 cylinder motor
but it will be a while before that depreciates far enough for most of us to start
dreaming. For now, we have to be content with 4 cylinders and 16 valves, although the
uncouth hooligan turbo nutter is waiting for those of you who are never satisfied.
The 16 valve endows the older car with enough poke for most of us and anyway, that little bit slower-going just gives everyone a chance to hang their tongues out and stare enviously. It's a typical Fiat motor with a slightly gruff and metallic raspy sound - it would be called tiring in normal cars; in the Coupe it's called harmonious. The engine has a good strong mid-range allowing excellent flexibility and superb pick-up from low revs. This motor featured an aftermarket exhaust can of incredible volume (size), it may have looked the part but it didn't add to the aural effects and the suspicion was that it may have degraded the top end performance somewhat.
Apart from the aural bombardment, the other tactile aspects of the car were equally entertaining. In modern saloon cars, most things are light enough for even the most pansy of drivers to live with - light brakes, light clutch, light accelerator, light gearchange, light steering, etc, etc. The whole thing takes a minimum amount of effort and minimum effort means maximised customer coverage. This Fiat doesn't go down that road; instead everything is an effort but the effort is rewarded by the feeling of control, of harmonious balance, of man and machine melting into one.
The steering is solid and meaty, giving
telling you the details of the road surface below. Okay, fair enough quite a few
manufactures have now realised that overlight steering is not really helpful (Audi please
note), but how many cars actually require you to put a little effort into braking and gear
changing? The brakes require a much firmer shove than most modern saloons but the pay-back
is that you can squeeze the anchors on hard, feeling for the squealing break-off point
before the ABS cuts in. On most modern ABS equipped saloons you just touch the
pedal and the brakes lock on, ABS cuts in, easy, safe, no brainer driver de-skilling.
The gearchange is much more interactive than normal cars. The lever is slightly tall, the throw slightly long, it arcs up at an odd angle and to set it into motion, the clutch requires a dose more thigh than normal. The response it gives though, is one of perfect mechanical fluidity, hard charging in gear, consciously stressed thigh and dip clutch, the engine revs drop instantly, shove firmly towards the next gear and it locks home perfectly with mechanical precision, drop the clutch whilst stamping on the go pedal and the little Coupe fires forward. Get it right and it's massively rewarding but of course it gives less margin for error than other modern user friendly, idiot-proof systems.
Quite a number of the original four-cylinder Coupes found homes
in the UK and Fiat dealers are having little difficulty selling the latest five-cylinder
versions to former Ford Probe and Vauxhall Calibra customers - the Fiat delivers exactly
what Ford and Vauxhall promised!
Sit behind the chunky three-spoke steering wheel and there are designer cues everywhere. Check out the body-coloured metal strip that wraps itself around the cabin (it's plastic but plastic metal is far more convincing than plastic wood!) and the Pininfarina signature on the dashboard.
The expected Italian chimpanzee driving position doesn't
materialise once behind the wheel. The seats, steering wheel and pedals are all well
sited and the wheel is both height and reach-adjustable. The seats, covered in bearable
material, do a reasonable job of supporting your backside, they hold you tightly
enough through tight bends and generally do what seats are supposed to do. But on the
whole you're too busy enjoying yourself to pay much attention. The switch layout is
probably an ergonomic nightmare but who cares, it looks good and racy.
Despite the lines, this is a reasonably practical car - by coupe
standards anyway. You can fit more than a cagoule and a toothbrush in the boot and,
as long as they're not very tall, you can just about get two adults in the back - though
it would help if they were already intimate. An even better idea would be to remove the
back seats altogether, getting extra load capacity and dispensing with the chance of any
back seat drivers. For the money and despite the style, Fiat wasn't too stingy with
the equipment. Driver and passenger air-bags, electric front windows and powered
mirrors, front fog lamps, remote control central locking and power-steering. Though
personally, I would have dumped the air-bags and chosen a sunroof.
It would have been easy for Fiat to pop in leather seats and a turned aluminium dashboard or lashings of carbon and titanium bits, bobs and trinkets, stick on a prancing horse badge and charge 40+ grand for it (it's been done before by Fiat-Ferrari and badge engineering is the current fad flushing across Europe). Instead, they left the Fiat logo on and ask around 20 to 23k new and for that we should be thankful and they should be praised.
A truly great and future classic - divorce the wife and sell the house, live at your mum's and buy one of these - you know it makes sense.
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