European Car MagazineSeptember 1996
by Jonathan A. Stein

Afternoon traffic was heavy on the Autostrada. Trying to keep in sight of the big gray Fiat leading the way was rough as tiny Fiat Unos and Renault Twingos swam around the diminutive roadster. Drivers pulled close and cut in early just to look at the distinctive covered headlights or to read the nameplate. Every time it was parked, people asked questions: "Barchetta?" and wanted to know its top speed (200 km/h) and price. The Italian public loved it, but Americans cannot have it.
    The 1996 Fiat Barchetta (Italian for "little boat") it tautly drawn and beautifully sculptured by designer Andreas Zapatinas and built by Maggiora. In brilliant orange, it couldn't have been painted another color more guaranteed to trigger a flashback to the early Seventies and that very used orange Fiat 124 Spider. Then, you could also buy orange Fiat 850s, MGBs and Midgets, Pintos and Vegas. For the big bucks you could even get a 911 Porsche that color. Back then, orange sports cars were just as popular as bell bottom pants. Fiat has revived the orange color, but fortunately the pants have been allowed to rest in peace.
    Today, a whole generation of American drivers has never had the opportunity to own or drive a Fiat sports car—and that is a mixed blessing. Even Fiat sedans were fun to drive, with decent power and balanced handling. When new they had quality problems, but after three years on the east coast of the United States, they would be pocked with rust spots and plagued with brittle wiring. A good 124 Spider would quickly show an MGB its shapely Pininfarina tail and could run with any American market Triumph. American sports car enthusiasts may complain about the reliability of British sports cars of the Fifties through the Seventies, but there are still tens of thousands on the road. Altough Italian roads are choked with Fiats of every age and type, one can go months without seeing one in the United States, despite the fact that Fiat sold approximately 500,000 sports car here in the Sixties and Seventies.
    If the Barchetta came to the United States, with the prepronderance of three-year leases, a young American driver could have great fun and move on at about the time that Fiats typically started to give trouble. Unfortunately, Paolo Vannini, Fiat's North American Vice President of Corporate Communications, recently stated that “At the present time, there is no plan … to come back to the U.S. market.”

    Pulling for the Barchetta
Purists will say that a front-wheel-drive car cannot be a sports car. Let them re-evaluate after a week with the Barchetta. The platform comes from Fiat's Punto. Suspension is completely independent, with MacPherson struts up front, and trailing arms and coil springs bringing up the rear. The nicely weighted rack-and-pinion steering is power assisted, but gives good feedback. The four-wheel disc brakes are power assisted and are available with ABS as an option.. The chassis may be from a modest family hatchback, but it has been carefully tuned for viceless handling and has been fitted with sticky Goodyear 195/55R15 Goodyear NCT2 tires an 6.5-in. rims of either steel or alloy.

Rowing the Little Boat
    The 1.8-liter 16-valve four-cylinder twin-cam engine is good for 130 bhp. It revs freely to the 7000-rpm redline, with peak power coming on at 6300 rpm. Maximum torque comes on at a more accessible 4300 rpm. Weighing just over 2300 lb, the willing engine takes the car to 100 kmh (62 mph) in 8.9 seconds and will pull the Barchetta all the way to 200 kmh (124 mph)—although it needs a lot of road to get there. There was never enough empty Autostrada to exceed 195 mph, but top speed is not what the Barchetta is all about.
    Put it on the winding roads surrounding Lake Como, keep the revs up and use the gears whenever the traffic clears. At low engine speeds, the engine sounds like any other small twin-cam four. Take it about 4000 rpm and it begins to sing as the power builds. The more it sings, the more you'll smile. The slightly notchy five-speed gearbox is not a slick as one in a rear-drive BMW or Mazda, but it's precise and slips into gear as well as the best front-drive geraboxes from Honda or Audi. Aftmer more than 30 years' practice, one could expect no less from Fiat.
    Comparison to the Mazda Miata is inevitable. The Fiat compares well in concept, performance and styling, although the MX5 is better built. The Japanese car is somewhat retro in concept: a front-mounted twin-cam engine driving the rear axle through a five-speed gearbox. The styling evokes significant sports cars of the past—but, it trades on other companies' cars, particulary the original Lotus Elan. However, it's only in styling that the Barchetta looks back. It shows shades of Fiat 850 spider (from the front) and 124 spider (from the side and the cowl vents). As a Fiat, it should, and does, draw on the marqueís wonderful sports-car heritage, which began with the 8V in the early Fifties and continued until the 2000 Spider—renamed Pininfarina Azzurra in 1982, was dropped in the 1985.
    The interior, with it's white-faced instruments and expanses of painted metal, also harks back—beyond the familiar 124s and 850s—to 356 Porsches and the lovely Alfa Romeo Guiliettas of the Fifties. The instruments look terrific, but prove hard to read, especially when wearing sunglasses.
    Like any good sports car, the Barchetta is fun to drive on tight, twisty roads. At the limit, though, it just doesn't feel as chuckable or as stable as a rear-driver. And, at night on the deserted highway, 100 mph felt fast enough. Under normal conditions, the car is a joy. Lighting and wiper controls are well-placed on stalks; heating and radio functions are withing easy reach of the driver. The lift switches for the lightening-quick power windows are less conveniently placed on either side of the center console. The fabric seats are comfortable and the driving position is good. However, the exposed screws on the instrument panel, many painted surfaces, rubber floor covering and stark black vinyl clearly impart the Barchetta with the appearance of an inexpensive car.

The Ups and Downs

    The Barchetta's top is incredibly simple to sue and is water tight, even in heavy rain. To lower it, flick two latches on the header rail and pull a lever on the rear bulk head. Fold the top halfway back, then lift the bottom edge, before raising the metal tonneau panel. Then, lower the entire top assembly into the top well and close the panel. In theory, it's great. Unfortunately, the panel is very difficult to latch and requires several attempts. Going up is pretty much a reverse of the lowering process. Because no vinyl or hard plastic tonneau cover is needed to cover the folded top, the process is simpler than with the ubiquitous Miata. However, because the clear plastic window folds with the top, with only 15,000km on the Fiat's clock, the window has already started to cloud.
    Unfortunately, the build quality of Fiats still seems to suffer. In addition to the balky tonneau panel latches, the driver's seat back was broken (just like on the 1971 Spider) and the driver's door issued a piecing shriek every time it was opened. Despite these problems, the body structure was very rigid, revealing no scuttle shake or rattles on the roughest roads. Most of the problems were minor and could be overlooked. But there was no way to ignore the terrible cold-start driveability after the car hat sat for 36 hours in temperatures that never approached freezing.
    With minor faults rectified, the Barchetta could satisfy demanding North American customers. It would also give the Miata a good run for its money in both price and performance. The Fiat carries much more luggage and features sensuous Italian styling. But, there's little change that Americans will ever see this car. Fiat has been out of the American market officially since February 1982, and the company recently withdrew its Alfa Romeo subsidiary from our shores. For now, Americans will just have to soldier on with the evergreen Miata and the newly released BMW Z3, as they await the Mercedes SLK and Porsche Boxter. Oh, but if there were only an affordable Italian.