September 1995 road test


little beaut

Barchetta means little boat, but does the arrival of Fiat's pretty new roadster leave the MX-5 and MGF up a certain creek without a paddle?

A brief evolution of the car: man invents wheel, man comes up with car, man decides on rear-wheel drive. Man gets sick of hauling himself out of ditches, so man invents the much safer (and cheaper) front-wheel drive. Three cheers. However, man soon gets bored with front-wheel drive because it's as safe a bet as spaghetti bolognaise at a dinner party - it's just too predictable. Man longs for a bit of excitement, but by now rear-drive in the mass market is as dead as Darwin, so man starts working to make front-drive more of a hoot to use. Then the Lotus Elan comes along, and is so good at going around corners it's deemed to be even more boring. Enter the VW Corrado VR6 and the Ford Mondeo 24v, and the solution begins to sink in. Make a front-drive car that also steers with the rear when you provoke it, and you can actually have a bit of fun - make it obscenely competent like the Elan, a car whose tail never wavers out of line, and you're extinct.
    And what of Fiat's Barchetta (pronounced bar-ketta)? It may not be sporty in the sense your grandad might understand, but it dishes up as much fun, and as much oversteer, as your stomach can take. And it'll put you in the ditch if you're not careful, just for old time's sake.
    What's more, it's one of the prettiest shapes on the road today - it must be one the most successful sportscar rear-ends for decades. Neat, rounded and pert, it's no wonder so many men drool over it.
    And it's just so Italian. It oozes continental chic and flair, made all the more convincing by its left-hand drive configuration. Yes, the Barchetta will be only available as a left-hooker, but you shouldn't be put off by a steering wheel on the wrong side - you don't really need RHD in a little car like this. There's a small price to pay in visibility, but it's worth it just to get that little extra novelty value.
    And you can buy it, make no mistake. UK Fiat dealers won't get it as a regular member of their line-up, but they'll soon be able to take your Special Order if you can't resist the Barchetta's cuteness. Or if you're really impatient, you can buy one right now from a specialist importer like Alfa Corsa in Chiswick (which kindly lent us this lovely green example).


If details are in the things that make a cur-nut happy, then few will get into the Barchetta without grinning from ear to ear. The aluminium door handle, that lies flush in the body till you press a button, is worth a little smile. The body-coloured door mouldings, that curve around the interior door pulls, are worth a chuckle, and you'll be gagging for air by the time you've scanned the dash. Deeply recessed, round white dials with green and orange markings, round twisty knobs - there's a curvy simplicity everywhere. This interior was designed, not thrown together, and it looks modern with that touch of retro that made the MX-5 so popular when it was launched. And then when your eyes meet the swish 'barchetta' script, impressed into the glovebox lid, you'll need a slap to bring you back to your senses. It's heart-warming to see a car put together this way.
    It's not badly screwed together either. The black dash mouldings are well-finished, and though they sound thin if you tap them, they certainly look good. The seats are soft but supportive, and the driving position is excellent, especially once you've fiddled with the adjustable steering column.
    Left-hand drive takes some getting used to. Sitting on the wrong side affects the feel of the whole car, particularly for you right hand, as it begins to learn the intricacies of gear-knobbing for the first time: pushing up and away towards the passenger footwell for fifth is the most unnatural. Fortunately, the Barchetta's gearbox is precise, if a little notchy, compared with other Fiats, and the throw is shorter and quicker than long-levered Puntos or Cinquecentos.
    It's not all good, though - there's a distinctly bendy, plasticky feel to everything. The Barchetta's cabin is devoid of any clunky, metallic sensations that might set it apart as a 'sportscar' - the chunky stalks and gearlever have that rubbery feel you get in most hot hatches or saloons, and there's no bare metal to break up the look of the interior in the pedals or switches. Still, I guess most enthusiastic drivers of the nineties will be happy with that, because let's face it, hot hatches are the benchmark now.
    The breaks stood up to our tests much better than anyone expected, but then we didn't expect a lot. The pedal feels soft and mushy when you're going a little faster, and under hard braking you find yourself pressing deeply and firmly into the floor to get the desired effect: yet despite this, they didn't fade at Millbrook. Pitty anti-lock isn't standard, and our test car didn't have it fitted - braking from 70mph to zero, the front wheels wanted to lock up all the way, hence the very long distance on our graph.


The Barchetta is available with just one engine, a new 1.8-litre, four-cylinder 16-valve. Limiting choice to just one engine in a car means you can't afford to disappoint your customers on the performance front, and fortunately Fiat hasn't. This 1.8-litre is the first Fiat engine to use variable valve timing, a system that twiddles with the intake timing through the rev range to ensure you get a steady flow of power and torque as you put your foot down. Then engine peaks at 6300rpm (700rpm short of the red line), where it dishes out a healthy 130bhp, by which time you've been through the torque peak (121lb ft at 4300rpm) to get it to 60mph in just 7.9 secs - that's quicker than a turbocharged Punto GT. And Fiat hasn't only succeeded in getting raw numbers out of it, either, because it's also a gutsy little engine to listen to.
There's no bark or spit to the exhaust note, but it's a willing and eager revver in the first four gears (they're all you need to reach 100mph, fifth is good for 120mph), and it rarely feels out of breath or short of ideas. It's no massive road-burner, but it'll hustle you along at a rate that keeps you interested and on your toes, pulling you out of corners strongly. And with a TED (Time Exposed to Danger while overtaking a 45mph articulated lorry) of just 6.3secs, it won't leave you stranded behind good ol' Steady Eddie Stobart for long.
    On the fuel front, the 11 gallon tank (50 litres) shouldn't leave you stranded on a hard shoulder, either. Our test revealed the baby Fiat has no drink problem, and it did 27.7mpg. I wish there was something else I could say about it. Er... the Fiat Barchetta's fuel consumption left me feeling gently mulled in the warm dewy light of an environmentally friendly morning. How's that?


Fuel figures, top speed and brake horsepower all amount to bugger-all compared to handling when you're whizzing along in a small sportscar. And I'm happy to announce that the Barchetta has enough balance, predictability and driver involvement in its chassis to easily match its looks and engine.
    The immediate sensation as you drive away is that the Barchetta's setup certainly isn't 'sportscar' hard, and bumps tend to send you into deeply cushioned bounces, rather than tautly sprung jiggles. This is great for the ride - a long drive is far from tiring - but it begins to compromise the body control as soon as you start to corner. At first this is worrying, as the car rolls over and leans back, sinking deeper into the coil sprung, trailing arm suspension that seperates body from back wheels. It's a peculiar feeling, as though you're leaning back and to one side in your seat, and at first you can't help but think, 'oh dear'.
    But then you start to notice how eagerly the front is biting. At the next corner you turn in little more positively - the steering is very good, with less than two and a half turns lock-to-lock, and though it lacks tarmac-level 'feel', it's still precise. And it bites. The front digs into the bend, and all the travel in the springs and bushes makes the back sway out a little. Ah ha. Next time turn in quicker still, and it gets more pronounced, and then you realise what's happening.
    Now go in hard, back off the throttle as you turn, and the shift of weight caused by the engine braking, combined with the cornering forces that the front has just incurred, together wing the tail out - this is 'lift-off oversteer'. Now take off the steering lock, get back on the power and you're straight again. You've just oversteered this front-drive car through a corner and now you really are smiling.
    Best of all though, this rear-end movement can be adjusted according to the corner and the circumstances. If it's a longer corner or a little narrower, you just go into it on the brakes, correcting the movement of the back end by taking off the lock, and then just driving it out. Driven enthusiastically like this, the Barchetta will drift wide, rather than strictly 'understeer', even under lots of power. Drive it less exuberantly, and it still won't spin its wheels and wash out like some quick front-drivers; it's better to exploit the 'give' in the rear suspension, rather than let it hinder you. The Fiat Barchetta's so progressive that if you ran one - even for only a few days - you probably wouldn't be able to stop yourself from playing around, having fun. And you can't say fairer than that...


So, just to complete the evolutionary trail we started earlier: Fiat invents the Barchetta, mankind buys it in surprisingly large numbers, man gets happy, world peace is achieved. If the UK at large can deal with the left-hand drive malarkey (and it's not really that difficult, promise) then people are going to want Barchettas. Fun, fruity, and a few more words beginning with 'F', the fabulous new Fiat (there's two, already) is a fine alternative to the MX-5, and a worthy alternative to a hot hatch. Yes, you could live with it every day; the hood is quick and easy to use and stow away (it didn't rain on us, but it looks tight and snug-fitting when it's up), the boot is deep, and it should be fairly reliable. Just don't quote me on that. And no, I can't promise that the fittings won't fall off, in that good old-fashioned Italian way.
    Despite being a special order only car, the Barchetta has the looks, the price and the ability to be a winner. There's little doubt that when 'spider mania' hits the UK over the next couple of years, as more manufacturers rejoin this once dead sales playground, the Barchetta should hand Fiat the cheaper end of the market on a plate. A pert and well-rounded plate, in fact.

John Barlow:
I'd love to disagree with Walton, but I enjoyed the Barchetta even more that he did. Its styling is hard to fault - only its over-long, pointy snout spoils it for my money. Inside, amidst all the rather self-conciously retro recessed dials and painted body bits, I wonder how long it'd be before things came adrift. You're never allowed to forget that this is a cheap car. There's a cheesy metallic 'kang' to its fixtures and fittings. It's great to drive, though. Initially it feels too soft and wallowy, but there's a hidden sharpness and atacrity in its responses the harder you push, with playful rather than inspiring handling on the limit. And it's more fun to throw around than its big brother, the Fiat Coupé.