Road & TrackAugust 1995

Roadsters Revisited: New Europeon Sports Cars

Fiat Barchetta

This is frustrating. The U.S. is the largest sports-car market in the world. We have the best roadster weather on earth. And yet both Fiat's and MG's new sports cars have no designs on America. Are we wrong or is this shortsighted?

Although Fiat's 1200 and 124 Spiders didn't have the same panache (or factory support) in America as MGs, Triumphs, Austin-Healeys and Alfa Romeos, they brought a great deal of fun to several generations of U.S. sports-car owners. And the Italian company's latest—the Barchetta—admirably continues that theme.

Fiat bases its Barchetta roadster on the mechanicals of its Coupe, but avoids the closed car's somewhat controversial styling. Is the Fiat Barchetta beautiful? No, but what small, inexpensive sports car is? Mazda Miata? MGB or MGF? Bugeye Sprite? Suzuki Cappuccino? While none of these will be remembered as true beauties, they are at least interesting or lovable or exciting. Or able to twang some important string in your heart or intellect. And this Fiat does just that.

Okay, it shamelessly snatches bits from Ferrari's 166 Touring Barchetta, like the name, the character line just below the waist and the push-in-the-button-pull-out-the-door handle, but nostalgia in pursuit of a good sports car is no vice.

Inside, the Barchetta is just what you want in a sports car. There are no-wasted-motion buttons and the instrument panel is done in a non-glitzy, efficient layout, though the black-on-white dials go against tradition. The seats look and feel Italian—firm overall and tight in the lower back, the way some of us like it.

Compared with both the Miata and MGF, the Fiat has superior elbow and leg room. This is no surprise, because the Barchetta is a smidgen larger than the Mazda or MG.

Somewhat less praiseworthy is the top. It is easy to erect and, when up, handsome and well sealed. But unlike both the Miata and the old 124 Spider, you can't flip it over your shoulder at a stoplight to go from enclosed to alfresco in mere seconds. You must stop and lift the panel behind the driver to raise or lower the convertible top. A big hassle? No. A retro step from its predecessor? Yes.

Engines are important to sports cars, and the Fiat has one we like: an iron block/aluminum cylinder head, 1.8-liter, 16-valve four putting out 130 bhp at 6300 rpm and 121 lb.-ft. of torque at 4300. Though it's a touch high-rpm biased for American traffic, it's fun and easy to use, propelling the front-drive Barchetta to 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds with the 5-speed manual transmission.

One oddity about the Fiat engine: It just doesn't look right for a sports car to have a transversely mounted engine, especially to those of us who prefer the balance and feel of a front-engine/rear-drive sports car. But the Barchetta is surprisingly fun to drive, and it doesn't seem to be made any less so by its front-wheel-drive layout. The suspension—MacPherson struts front, independent rear—is designed to help the Barchetta feel light and maneuverable, without the firmer ride of the Miata.

Quite simply, what Fiat has here is a damn fine little sports car. This Barchetta does precisely what it should do: look interesting, go reasonably fast, handle nicely, convert quickly from open to closed and leave you feeling you've just spent your driving time in a better manner than your sedan- or coupe-driving pals.

Too bad Fiat's management has decided to ignore the U.S., which could easily be the largest market for the Barchetta.—John Lamm