Road Test

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The Fiat X1/9

An incomparable and delightful, mid-engined small sports car with removable roof and outstanding roadholding and handling.

The years fly by so quickly that it took a reference to the office index of our sister journal, Motoring News, to shock me into realising that I had first written driving impressions of the Fiat X1/9 in January 1973 after test driving it in Sicily in late 1972. Yet this utterly modern, mid-engined small sports car has arrived on the British market only in the last couple of months (the Fiat UK Press Release mistakenly credits 1974 as the year of the model’s Italian introduction), still feeling like a breath of Spring, a delightful novelty, yet oh, so enjoyable and practical.

I was truly loath to return our test car to Fiat at Brentford, after covering 1,600, sometimes ridiculously hard miles in just over a week, every mile an enjoyable yet astonishingly thrifty one. Just to drive this brilliant contraption provides an immediate answer to why 44,000 have already been sold in the USA. It also poses the sad question, “What have Leyland been playing at?” The sophisticated X1/9 has simply whisked the mat from under the wheels of the crude MG Midget in the small sports car export market. True, the Midget remains “fun” in a vintage opposite-lock fashion and its performance on the handbrake should keep it ahead of the glued-down X1/9 around local motor club driving tests, but there the comparison ends.

To be fair to the 1,500 c.c., £2,085 Midget the X1/9, with only 1,300 c.c., is dearer than the MG-B at £2,997 against £2,843. Unfortunately, the MG-B suffers almost as badly as the Midget in the comparison, The UK market X1/9 is a special series incorporating as standard very attractive 5J X 13in alloy wheels shod with 165/70 series Pirelli Cinturato P3 tyres, fog-lights, a heated rear window, tinted glass, colourful striped cloth seats with matching tailored luggage for the rear boot, a choice of eye-catching blue, orange or green metallic paintwork and full anti-rust treatment.

The X1/9’s wedge-shaped, steel body is a Bertone design, strictly a two-seater. Part and parcel of its delightful character is a rigid, lift-off roof, which stows away in the front luggage bay. It is located by simple catches on the screen rail and hooks on the roll-over bar; though light, its size makes it a little awkward to remove and stow. The fixed rear window in the box-section roll-over cage prevents back-draughts so effectively that with the side-windows up and the heater on we were able to enjoy extremely comfortable open-air motoring on cool February days. There is no turbulence and a reasonable level of wind-noise with the roof removed.

Some wind-roar emanates from around the front corners of the hard top when it is in place, including an annoying shriek on the test car which was not present on the other X1/9s I have driven. Some attention to the rubber seals would no doubt have eradicated this.

The aforementioned roll-over bar, which incorporates the through-flow ventilation outlets, completes the particularly strong shell, based on a robust floor pan integral with a central box section tunnel and scuttle and a reinforcing member linking the scuttle and tunnel. The entire structure is designed to prevent crash deformation of the passenger compartment; it also makes this little open car feel very stiff and taut.

A version of the 128 3P’s single overhead camshaft, four-cylinder engine is mounted transversely, amidships, slightly inclined to reduce height, with the four-speed, all-synchromesh, all-indirect gearbox mounted in line.

This 1,290 c.c., 86 mm. x 55.5 rm., five-bearing unit has a cast iron block and ft. torque DIN at 3,400 r.p.m., has a compression ratio of 9.2:1 and breathes through a Weber compound twin-choke carburetter demanding four-star fuel.

Suspension is independent all round, using struts incorporating double-acting shock-absorbers, coaxial coil springs and bump stops. These are mounted on reinforced mountings inside the wheel arches and have their lower ends articulated through spherical bushes on wide-based triangulating arms. A transverse arm and a longitudinal reaction rod make up the front swinging arms, while the rear suspension has pressed steel wishbones, with wheel location by two adjustable transverse rods.

For sheer brilliance of space utilisation the X1/9 is hard to beat. The 10 cu. ft. front boot accepts decent-sized suitcases or a remarkable amount of soft-baggage. The twin, fitted soft bags in the tail boot swallow another big load and are flanked by deep wells in the wings. Unfortunately, right-hand drive cars were not considered properly at the design stage: the release handles for the rear boot and matt-black, vented engine cover are hidden in the nearside B-post. For the unaccompanied UK driver this necessitates either leaning awkwardly over, opening the passenger door to release the handles, or walking round to open the passenger door. The front boot’s front-hinged lid has its prop mounted on the nearside, another walk for the driver. This lid does not slam shut, but needs considerable pressure on the paintwork above the catch to close it.

Retractable headlamps and a deep front spoiler aid the extremely efficient aerodynamics. The headlamps are raised electrically with manual emergency winding and have excellent main and dipped beams. Daytime flashing is taken care of by the foglights: have rarely come across a car in which I felt so immediately comfortable and at home. Taller drivers might not be so impressed, but for me the driving position was one of glove-like perfection, even though neither the high back rests of the form-hugging seats nor the small, four-spoke, soft-padded steering wheel are adjustable. We used the X1/9 for following the Mintex International Rally in Yorkshire and County Durham; it’s a long time since I had so much fun with a car in so much comfort. Fiat have killed the idea that a small sports car must be harsh and uncomfortable this X1/9 is a perfectly acceptable, long-distance touring car.

The Veglia instrumentation behind a rectangular, perspex screen is a bit messy, though satisfactorily comprehensive, with an oil pressure, water temperature and fuel gauges, a speedometer and tachometer, the last named being yellow-lined from 6,500 r.p.m. to 6,900 r.p.m. and red-lined thereafter. Too many figures are crammed into the speedometer, making it difficult to read. Worst of all are the yellow “gun-sight” crosses scattered over the panel. There is far too much instrument reflection in the screen at night on unlit roads. There is an impractical parcels tray on top of the brown, plastic facia and small stowage wells in each footwell, but the lockable glove locker of the American specification X1/9 is unfortunately omitted here. There is further stowage space behind the seats. The spare wheel is cleverly stowed away in the bulkhead behind the drivers seat.

The manually-choked engine was very slow to warm up and seemed overcooled by its front-mounted radiator. The heater suffered to, therefore. Starting was sometimes a bit lazy too, possibly because the engine was running noticeably weak, doubtless the cause of a flat-spot in mid range. Once warm, though, it proved a really willing little engine, revving easily, if a little buzzily, to its 6,900 r.p.m. limit. The gear ratios have a noticeable gap between second and third, but the engine pulls well through it. First gear is good for 31 m.p.h., second for 50 m.p.h., third for 75 m.p.h. and Fiat’s claimed 106 m.p.h. maximum proved easily on. For a 1,300 c.c., engine pulling 17.3 cwt. unladen, the performance is creditable. It will cruise happily and unfussed to 90 m.p.h. and accelerate from 0-60 m.p.h. in 11.8 sec. The gearchange started off being quite light and positive, deteriorated after the car had been through several floods, but returned to being acceptably positive, if a little notchy.

The real beauty of this splendid little car is its utterly superb chassis behaviour. I will go so far as to say that this is one of the safest cars I have ever driven. It feels beautifully balanced (1,036 lb. on the front axle, 1,345 lb. rear) and is quite astonishingly controllable. Roadholding from the excellent Pirelli P3s is remarkable. The car is a natural understeerer, simply scrubbing off speed if a corner is taken too quickly. Lifting off brings the nose back again. Cornered right on the limit it’s possible just to get the tail out a little. Roll angles are modest, though g-forces high, so the deep bucket scats are necessary. The rack and pinion steering is light, smooth and positive, without much caster return and excellently geared through the small wheel at 3.1 turns lock to lock. Traction was perfect under all conditions, even in thick snow in West Yorkshire, Upon which the handling balance was a boon. Braking is almost of racing car excellence; the all-round 8.9 in. discs arc light, progressive, excellent in feel and superb in stopping power. They do not have a servo, so there is none of the usual Fiat viciousness. If the brakes were free from fade the rear dampers are not. Their effectiveness disappeared completely during some fast laps of our Surrey test track, a fact announced by sudden oversteer. The ride proved extremely comfortable, with just minor pitching at low speeds and with very low suspension and road noise.

Some measure of the chassis performance can be had from lap times Ford works rally driver Andy Dawson achieved on an airfield circuit in Hertfordshire where a racing driver friend runs a high performance driving course for owners of high performance cars. Dawson lapped our 1,300 c.c., X1/9 in 1 min. 26 sec. against 1 m. 25.1 sec. for a 2-litre TR7 and 1m 24.3 sec for a 2-litre Porsche 924. With more power the X1/9 would be stupendous. As it is the engine feels adequate for most UK road situations, acceleration in top from 70 to 90 m.p.h. being surprisingly good. Steep hills are its greatest threat, when aerodynamics are of little help, but more power would be at the expense of economy; a worst of 31 m.p.g. included circuit driving, while 33-35 m.p.g. was a more usual figure. A less determined driver should be able to squeeze over 400 miles out of the sensibly sized 10.5 gallon tank.

Underbonnet access is not the car’s strongest point. The awkward dip-stick showed that 3 pints of oil had been used in 1,600 miles. Fiat’s Mastercover plan gives 6 months’ unlimited mileage warranty, followed by 18 months additional cover on all major parts. There is also a 24 month anti-corrosion warranty. I was not amused when the Toric inertia reel seat belt mechanism came adrift from its mounting. So much for compulsion.

As a Briton, I find it disheartening to recall the strength of Fiat’s production mid-engined sports car range, from the X1/9, through the Lancia Beta Monte Carlo to the Ferrari 308GT4 and 308GT-B to the Berlinetta Boxer. What a line-up!

This little Fiat X1/9 belies its toy-like appearance. It is both comfortable and extremely practical for two medium-sized people, but above all it is outstandingly delightful to drive. If materially it appears expensive I think its unique character well worth the price. There are likely to be some long queues at Fiat showrooms if we have another hot summer. C.R.

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