Catching Up With the Miata


The door handles, of all things, set the mood. They are, like the Barchetta itself, cheeky, daring, retro, and contemporary at the same time. And gloriously tactile.

There's a small button at the leading edge of the horizontal slot that's embedded in each door. Push it with your thumb and a lever swings out. Your fingers clasp the thin cast-aluminum lever from behind and pull open the door. Once mastered, the action becomes an elegant, simple movement that immediately defines Fiat's new sports car as different.

Different even from Mazda's Miata. That low-cost roadster has proved an embarrassment to Europe's carmakers, simply because it took them six years to respond and reclaim the territory that was once the sole domain of Fiats, MGs, and Triumphs.

Unlike the Miata, which gets a purpose-built front-engined, rear-drive platform, the Barchetta draws on the Fiat Punto's chassis and structure. Hence the front-drive layout. There are compromises, though the quirky in-house styling does its best to disguise them. Park a Barchetta next to a Miata and you're immediately aware that the Italian is narrower, more contrived, and slightly higher (especially around the cowl, a legacy of that transverse engine).

The impression is heightened when you climb in the Barchetta. You notice the driving position is less sporting and the bucket seats seem higher—your shoulder is above the waistline, and the gear lever is below rather than beside your right leg.

Fiat has taken this low-volume (just 15,000 a year) opportunity to use the Barchetta as a launching pad for the first of a new family of engines. For the sports car, it's a 1.8-liter twin-cam four developing 128 hp at 6300 rpm and 121 pound-feet of torque at 4300 rpm, though it's far less peaky than these figures suggest; variable inlet valve timing helps deliver 90 percent of that maximum torque from 2000 rpm to 6000 rpm.

Fiat says the Barchetta will sprint to 60 mph in 8.7 seconds and reach a top speed of 125 mph. Though the Barchetta weighs 88 pounds more than the Miata, the greater torque of the Fiat engine means it's a stronger performer, capable of lugging from 1500 rpm in fourth or fifth if you're not ready to snick through a gear change that comes close to matching the rifle-bolt action of the Miata.

The Barchetta boasts a long list of options—anti-lock brakes, alloy wheels, air conditioning, leather upholstery, a hard top, a passenger airbag and central locking—but power steering isn't one of them. Rather, it's standard. High-geared at just 2.5 turns lock-to-lock, the steering is impressively direct without ever behaving nervously.

Given a healthy power-to-weight ratio and agile steering, it's no wonder the Barchetta is nimble, turning into corners with an eagerness that makes you go looking for winding roads. Does it have the poise of the Miata? Well, not exactly. Fiat's engineers had to contend with a 66/34 weight distribution. And although the four-wheel independent suspension has been developed with great skill, the Barchetta lacks the delicacy of the rear-drive Miata. Still, the car's attitude can be adjusted to suit, and the handling is as nearly neutral as it can be, even under power.

Inside, the Barchetta is true to its retro-modern philosophy. It's a two-seater only, with a proper (read: non-Italian) driving position. A flush-fitting metal cover means the double-layer convertible roof is out of sight when lowered, and the profile is uninterrupted when the roof is up. Deeply recessed instruments with black-on-white dials dominate the dash. The tachometer sits in a place of pride, ratcheting the interior's entertainment value up a notch.

In Europe, the Barchetta costs about 10 percent less than the Miata. And if it lacks some of the inspiration behind the Japanese knockout, that's not enough to stop it from feeling like a genuine sports car. If you love the Miata, you'd likely appreciate the Barchetta. Tough. Fiat has no plans to return to the United States. So unless you come to Europe, you won't experience the most touchy-touch door handles extant.

Fiat Barchetta: Fiat Auto Group
Turin, Italy

Vehicle type: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 2-passenger, 2-door roadster
Price (estimated):$20,500
Engine type: DOHC 16-valve 4-in-line, iron block and aluminum head, Hitachi engine-control system with port fuel injection
Displacement110 cu in, 1800cc
Power (SAE net)128 hp @ 6300 rpm
Wheelbase89.6 in
Length154.1 in
Width64.5 in
Curb weight2330 lb