AUTOCAR2 August 1995



The first of Europe's new Mazda MX-5 rivals has arrived – and not only is it great to drive but the Fiat is also terrific value at £ 14,000


For far too long, Europe has been absent from the affordable sports car market. Supercars, yes. Coupes certainly, and more hot hatches than you can shake an insurance form at. But when it comes to honest to goodness, affordable open-top sports cars there has been but a trickle of low-volume, high-compromise specials. Until now. The taps are about to open, with Rover (or should we say MG), Renault, BMW, Alfa Romeo and, further up the price range, Mercedes and Porsche all about to muscle in on the act.
   Beating them all to the UK, though, is the Fiat Barchetta, which goes on sale this month with looks to die for and a price to make Mondeo buyers wince.
At last Europe has an affordable roadster it can be proud of. A roadster that can stand comparison with the hugely successful Mazda MX-5 and perhaps even trump it.
   The Barchetta's 130bhp twin-cam engine certainly has the power to match the 128bhp MX-5 and in some eyes its lovely Coke bottle body holds more visual allure. Even its price, estimated to be on the right side of £ 14,000, must be worrying the bean counters at Mazda and Rover alike. The only drawback (and potential godsend for Rover) is its left-hand-drive-only configuration. Fiat considered a right-hand drive conversion but dismissed it on cost grounds.
   But that doesn't mean you should dismiss this car. Once you've sat in its delicately sculpted cockpit and looked down the subtle curves of the bulbous front wings, it will take more than a misplaced steering wheel to stop you from writing that cheque. If it drives even half as well as it looks, Fiat could have a riot on its hands.

Even if Fiat's ‘little boat’ could accelerate no faster than a rubber dinghy, it would still be more fun than many of today's so-called hot hatches. Here is a car that can entertain long after the thrills of neck-jerking acceleration have been blown away in a puff of hydrocarbons.
   Just sit back in that low-slung seat, left arm propped on the open window sill, right one clutching the stubby leather gear lever that juts from the centre console, and revel in the tactile delights of smooth gearchanges and minimal steering inputs. A glitch meant we spent one day limping around the countryside with no more than 3000rpm to play with and still came back with a smile the size of Cheshire etched into our sunburnt cheeks.

LIST PRICE £ 14,000 (est) TOP SPEED 118mph
0-60MPH 8.7sec 30-70MPH 8.6sec MPG n/a

FOR Superbly detailed exterior and interior styling, strong grip, flexible engine, neat roof design
AGAINST Questionable build quality, lack of steering feel, uninspiring engine note, less than perfect gearshift

   As it happens, Fiat has done the decent thing and endowed the Barchetta with enough performance to have your cake, devour it and then come back for more. A brand new 1.8-litre 16-valve engine with variable valve timing and hydraulic tappets sits horizontally in the engine bay, packing 130bhp at 6300rpm and a useful 121lb ft of torque at 4300rpm.
   While no paragon of power or refinement, the new engine is undeniably effective, revving cleanly and smoothly to its 7000rpm cut-out without the troughs and peaks associated with some multi-valve units. Fiat claims that 90 per cent of maximum torque is available between 2000 and 6000rpm, a promise that is supported by a strong 50-70mph time in top of 10.3sec. The 1.8-litre MX-5 needs 12.6sec to cover the same increment.
   Despite the theoretical disadvantage of being front-wheel drive, the Fiat also manages to confound the rear-wheel-drive Mazda by sprinting from 0-60mph in 8.7sec, a full 1.4sec faster than the MX-5. Given a few more miles to loosen up and a slicker gearbox, we feel sure the Barchetta would go even quicker, dropping close to the psychologically significant 8.0sec mark. But its top speed needs no such excuses, recording 118mph around Millbrook's high-speed circuit with the roof up and 115mph with it down.
   Our only criticism lies with the gearshift action, which can be slightly recalcitrant when hurried between planes, particularly the frequently used second to third sequence. At least it feels accurate and positive, without the rubberiness that affects some Fiat gearboxes. Watch your fingers, though: it is all too easy to trap them between gear lever and console when reaching for third or top.

It's hard to give a definitive fuel consumption figure for the Barchetta because of a problem with air blockages in the filler pipe. An overall figure of 34mpg looks on the generous side for this type of car, while our economy route gave a wildly optimistic 58mpg reading.
   Fiat claims 28.5mpg around town and 36.2mph at a constant 75mph, both of which compare favourably with Mazda's claims of 28.2mpg and 31.0mpg respectively. A 50-litre fuel tank should still guarantee a touring range of about 400 miles.

Again Fiat has managed to confound critics of front-wheel-drive sports cars by engineering a chassis that is as adjustable as it is safe. Its repertoire of cornering attitudes may not be quite as broad or accessible as the indulgent MX-5, but it makes up for most of it with superior poise and grip.
   Turn in under power and the nose dives for the apex so sharply that it feels as though the rear wheels are steering as well. Keep the power on and the Barchetta clings doggedly to its chosen line, resisting understeer far better than its humble Punto-based underpinnings would lead you to expect. If the corner does tighten unexpectedly, a brief lift of the throttle is all it takes to straighten the line, while more determined provocation can even lead to short bursts of lift-off oversteer.
   But it's on fast, open sweepers that the Barchetta really shines, snaking from bend to bend with a fluidity and composure that not even the MX-5 can match. And a super-sharp power-assisted steering rack with just 2.4 turns between locks lends an immediacy to every input the driver makes and negates the need for frantic arm-crossing manoeuvres when the corners tighten up again.
   As quick as the steering is, we would prefer a little more feel. Even under hard cornering the steering feels light and slightly detached from the front wheels, failing to provide the sort of involvement and delicacy that makes the MX-5 so enjoyable to drive. But at least the system sponges away any traces of the torque steer that sometimes afflicts front-wheel-drive sports cars.

Roadsters aren't meant to waft you gently from crest to crest, but to entertain and involve so that bumps are soon forgotten in a quest for new thrills. That said, the Barchetta manages at least as well as the MX-5 to filter out road imperfections and proves particularly adept at shaking off mid-corner bumps.
   It is only in town, where the fun has to stop, that the occasional thump from the tyres and creak from the bodywork cause a raised eyebrow here and a sore buttock there. And on motorways and rolling A-roads, pronounced ridges and peaks will occasionally unsettle the suspension rather more seriously, leading to a short series of uncomfortable vertical bounces.

This is probably the Barchetta's weakest link, despite the promising specification of all-round discs.
   Under normal circumstances the system works well enough, with a nicely weighted pedal and a smooth consistent action. Only under heavy braking do concerns arise, at least on the car we tested, which came without the optional anti-lock sensors. Either the wheels would lock or the car simply wouldn't slow down quickly enough, as the unusually long braking distances show. They also proved prone to fade after repeated heavy use.

At the wheel
Any limitations forced on Fiat by the adoption of a stretched Punto floorpan have done nothing to harm the driving position. You may not sit quite as close to the ground as in the MX-5, but the high waistline and short, upright windscreen give all the right impressions of sitting in a roadster. Even the stubby black windscreen wipers seem to sit just a little higher than necessary on the windscreen so that they nudge into your field of view, just like MGBs of old.
   Most drivers will find themselves instantly at home in the Barchetta, despite the lack of seat height adjustment. Hip-hugging seats and long seat runners pander to most body shapes and sizes, while the steering wheel adjusts for height but not reach.
   Thoughtfully placed pedals, including a drilled throttle and left foot rest, complete the pukka roadster effect, encouraging drivers to indulge in heel and toe downchanges and even the occasional double declutch for tradition's sake.
   The rest of the cockpit is a haven of beautifully detailed colours and curves. The optional leather-bound three-spoke steering wheel has rubberised thumb grips that are repeated on the indicator and light stalks. The gorgeous black-on-cream dials are set deep into the facia in individual recesses, with the small, centrally located revcounter placed perfectly in the driver's line of sight.
Likewise, the centre console is angled towards the driver, with the stereo moulded to match the curvature. Even the doors are worthy of adorning art gallery walls, with body-coloured panels providing a visual link between interior and exterior and emphasising the Barchetta's open-top aspirations.

Accommodation and comfort
The seats might look the part but they fail to provide sufficient lumbar support for lengthy journeys. Otherwise the Barchetta puts up a very strong case for being a usable everyday car. A lockable glove box and centre console bin provide a reasonable amount of safe stowage space in the cockpit, and when the hood is up there is a little cubby hole behind the seats for a small squashy bag and the odd map.
   The roof itself is a wonderfully simple design. Two latches secure the roof to the windscreen, while a further latch releases the steel cover behind the driver's head. From there it's a short hop out of the car before folding the roof neatly out of sight. The whole operation takes no more than 20 seconds, yet the hood appears to be strong and watertight. A zip-out plastic rear window is the only possible drawback when it comes to visibility in winter.
   Luggage space, inevitably, is at a premium, but the dug-out boot is large enough to satisfy two people's weekend requirements. A space saver spare wheel and tool kit sit under the boot floor for emergencies.

If noise was entirely down to quantity (or lack of it) rather than quality, the Barchetta would score rather better. Engine and tyre noise are well suppressed for a small convertible car, with only the wind rush to disturb roof-up motoring above 70mph. With the roof down the Barchetta maintains a surprising air of calm. It still has the ability to ruin any self-respecting hairstyle but, thankfully, falls short of drying contact lenses into circles of transparent beef jerky.
   The real disappointment is the engine note, which sounds neither particularly raw nor cultured. You can't expect miracles from a 1.8-litre in-line four, but at least the MX-5 makes a concerted effort.

Gorgeous eyeball air vents, recessed black-on-cream dials, looks from rear three-quarter angle, attractive door handles, stylish coloured key fob.

Fiddly door handles, irritating lapses in build quality, bland engine noise, cigarette lighter hidden in centre console, plastic rear window.

Build quality and safety
Despite promising first impressions from the lustrous metallic paintwork and even panel gaps, the Barchetta failed to back it up with mechanical reliability. The fuel pump failed after two days, the bonnet latch stuck and an exhaust baffle shook itself loose. These may be minor start-up glitches from the Maggiora assembly plant, but they don't bode well for long-term durability.
   A standard driver's airbag and optional passenger's bag will help to reassure safety-conscious buyers, but the strengthened windscreen surround could never provide as much roll over protection as a proper bar.

Equipment and value
We will have to wait until UK prices and specification levels are confirmed to pass judgement, but if Fiat UK can come close to matching the Italian entry level price of £ 13,200, which it assures us it will, the Barchetta will represent spectacular value for money. This price does not, however, include extras such as central locking, leather steering wheel, alloy wheels and metallic paint, which together will add at least another £ 750 to the price. An optional hard-top should soon be available for a further £ 1000.
   After import costs and the usual on-the-road fees, it should still be possible to drive away a basic Barchetta for close to £ 14,000. With the cheapest 1.8-litre MX-5 starting at £ 14,495 and the MGF expected to top L 15,995, the Fiat looks fiercely competitive.

Our thanks to Alfa Corsa (0181 563 8696) for the loan of the Barchetta.

The good news is that the Barchetta is at least as enjoyable to drive as it is to look at. It provides a visual and tactile feast that, while not universally liked, shows breathtaking vision and attention to detail. It is only in absolute engineering terms that the Fiat struggles to stay on the pace. Little details such as engine noise and gearchange action make a huge difference to this type of car. So much of the MX-5's appeal is its ability to recreate olde worlde motoring thrills without any of the traditional hassles. And until Fiat can prove this side of the Barchetta's character, not to mention address its left-hand drive handicap, it will remain a deeply desirable but quirky addition to the burgeoning roadster market.