Sports Car InternationalJune 1995


Europe hopes to win back the hearts

of the sports-car set, and Fiat's new Barchetta may

be their best bon-bon yet. Words, pix and

loneyly heart advice by Joanne Marshall.


he barchetta's nose twitches momentarily and then settles into the curve. A pair of sharpely front-end shoulders frames the snaking tarmac blurrily dashing under my wheels and the rearview mirror picks up two similarly buxom haunches. There's something appealingly retro about these sights, and something downright exotic about their accompanying sensations—the snug, ensconcing cockpit, the caress of the sun, the playfulness of the wind. Romance: That's what the feeling is. I'm responding to the vaguely intangible sensation of driving something out-of-the-ordinary as a legitimate back-to-basics sports car.
    Once properly identified, however, the retro-glow is quick to flicker and fade. This can't be a legitimate old-time roadster, I realize immediately. There are no questionable handling dynamics no bone-jarring ride. There's no cowl shake, no unburnt fumes of gasoline, no snapping, sensuous engine and no vociferous pops on the overrun. Instead of all this a solid, supple platform resides beneath my seat and a high-tech modular engine sits transversely ahead of my toes. Growling its soulful, muted rasp through a modern tree-hugging tailpipe, the Fiat's parsimonious electronic fuel injection won't even spare a single extra molecule for some gurgling, spitting backfires or a fruity cackle between full-throttle upshifts. Ah, the modern ages has truly come to Fiat.
The Classics
    It was not so long ago when Italian car manufacturers were synonymous with affordable, crisp-handling sports cars, razor-keen engines and adventurous, sophisticated styling. Arguably this would still be the case, but finding affordable examples of this condensed Latin brio has been well-nigh impossible ever since Alfa's venerable Duetto was mercifully put to sleep at the end of last year.
    The nippy little roadster you now see before is going to change all that. A guaranteed recipe for no-nonsense pleasure, the Barchetta is as much about riotous driving fun as controversial Romanesque styling. The new Barchetta's body stands as incontrovertible proof that another Italian Renaissance has just gotten underway, but it is the competence and enjoyment of its sedan-based underpinnings that will ultimately make the Barchetta a star. This bright and breezy roadster combines with Fiat's wacky new Coupé to reclaim the low-cost/high-style market that was once the Italian's private domain, and it does so in such convincing fashion that Germany and Japan have good reason to be scared.
    The Barchetta skillfully shirts the constraints of its front-wheel-drive Punto platform with a long, sexy hood and a traditional rounded rump. Overall the effect is tongue-in-cheek cute; the nose a bit contrived, perhaps, but the tiny, morsel-sized tail worthy of pure exultation. One can also feast heartily on the exquisite detailing around the front indicators, the brilliantly classic taillamps and the evocative beltline crease, which stands as a powerful reminder of the '40s and '50s Touring-bodied Ferraris from which the Barchetta takes its name. (See Naval History, p.41, SCI April 1994.)
    Following up on some of the themes set by the earlier Fiat Coupé, the Barchetta uses body-color paint in the interior to brighten the otherwise-dark plastic and give the cabin a classy, well-conceived tone. This immediately sets it apart from the Mazda Miata—the new Fiat's most natural enemy—and if this tidy solution doesn't satifsy, then potential buyers will even find an optional wood-trim package to be had on the Barchetta.
    The central console is a nice width for bracing yourself during hard cornering and everything is well laid out; the heater controles reside in the console along with the sterio while the gauges have all been arranged neatly in the driver's line of sight. The Barchetta's simple white-on-black dials don't insult your intelligence and the airbag-equipped leather steering wheel is a wonder to behold. To the naked hand, however, Fiat's standard seat fabric feels like nasty, aging rayon: This is no doubt part of the hard-wearing approach that's been taken with the rest of the car, which also has sensible and durable rubber floormats as standard equipment. Leather seats and proper carpets can be had as options, but the standard trim is also the most likable; above all else, the Barchetta was designed to be affordable to purchage, affordable to run and affordable to maintain.
Free Verse
    If the Barchetta enthralls you the moment you step in—and it should—then your delight only grows when you turn on the key. Fiat's 130-bhp Four combines with 2332 pounds of curb weight to give it some sparkling, energetic performance. According to the radar gun, 60 mph comes up in a ho-hum 8.5 seconds; that same run feels incredibly lively from behind the wheel, however, and then the little Fiat brakes back down to zero in less than 130 feet. Top whack is a respectable 124 mph; this speed does show up some sealing dificiencies in the manually operated ragtop, but even which the roof stowed under its integrated rigid boot the buffeting in the cockpit proves minimal.
    The Barchetta's DOHC 1.7-liter Four sports variable valve timing and four valves per cylinder, but while it begs to be wound to its maximum in each gear the powerplant is actually quite tractable. Some 90% of its maximum 121 lbs.-ft. of torque @ 4300 rpm are available everywhere between 2000 and 6000 revs. Trailing behind this superb engine is an exhaust note best described as a dry roar; a tad muted, perhaps, but reassuring and exciting all the same.
    The chassis impresses, too, for its taut, all-together feel. (The Fiat's compact dimensions help it maintain this fine rigidity, of course.) The ride is fundamentally sound, in no small part because of this excellent jumping-off point; that and the slightly stiffer suspension settings this car wears over the Punto means the Barchetta corners on a pleasingly even keel and generates only moderate angles of lean.
    On tight bends its poise, turn-in and sheer lithesomeness make it a true bundle of fun, but the grip you can generate with 195/55 tires isn't endless; a mild tendency for the rear to slink out of line is especially apparent in fast sweepers. This passage from typical FWD understeer to sports car-like oversteer can sometimes be abrupt, yet the transition is never demanding—when the rear-end grip fianlly does peter out the car's attitude is virtually self-correcting.
    The suspension's only real limitations is in its restriced travel. Long, undulating hollows tax its ability stay off the bumpstops—combined with the suspension's already firm damping, a patch a bad road in the middle of a hard corner can really get the chassis hopping. A quick steering rack helps give the Punto's front end a remakably sporty feel, but the feedback remains light and a bit on the muddy side.
Short Story
    More weighting would certainly add more character, yet the feeling as delivered is perfectly in keeping with the effort levels required from the rest of this car. Let's face it; the Barchetta is aimed at a new generation of buyer, and its endearing good looks are going to draw in as many sunburnt, happy cruisers as rampant, testosterone-crazed gearheards. The clutch offers little resistance and is precise in its throw; ditto the brake and the tasty short-throw 5-speed, which is a pleasantly satisfying change from the slovenly cog-swappers found in most other modern Fiats. At the end of the day the Barchetta offers a well-honed mix of pep, panache, driving ease and legitimate performance that makes it a universally likable machine.
    Fiat really is going through an unprecedented phase of creativity right now, and it's truly paying off. With a price starting well under $20,000, the almost certainly prove that a dose of Latin personality can still trump Japanese and German efficiency when it comes time to hit the showrooms. The fact that this roadster is great fun to drive is enough to put it at the top of many people's wish lists—making it affordable to boot was just a happy stroke of genius.