Front-drive Fiat rewrites the rule book

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The new Coupe Turbo has all the power you could wish for, and the handling to cope with it. Report by Andrew Frankel

By slotting an all new, twin-cam, five cylinder, turbocharged and variable valve-timed engine under the bonnet of its exquisite Coupe, Fiat has produced the fastest frontwheel drive car ever to be put into series production by a mainstream manufacturer.

Depending on which gear you’re in, the conditions outside and to what extent you are expecting the arrival of the power, the effect of the turbo cutting in fluctuates between exhilarating and plain frightening. Fiat claims a 0-62mph time of 6.5sec and a top speed of 155mph and while the latter of these two figures is plausible, the former is not. The Fiat is much quicker than that…

Whether it is wise to direct so much steam through the front wheels has, historically, been a matter of considerable debate. Any more than ten years ago, such a move would have been denounced by some as reckless to the point of irresponsibility. Today, advances in suspension geometry and, in the Fiat’s case, the engine’s ability to work out which gear is engaged and to limit boost accordingly, means more power can be transmitted safely through the front wheels than any of us would have once believed possible.

That is not to say the Coupe will not sit there and spin its wheels to the canvas in first gear given the opportunity, a feat it is happy to repeat in second and third given a sufficiently wet road. In such conditions, the Coupe is best kept restrained as the fight between power and steering in the wet is as tricky as it is unrewarding to referee.

When it’s dry and the roads are clear, the Coupe is transformed. The new engine’s note is that of a more civilised Audi quattro and the evenness of response, right the way to its 7000rpm red-line, is truly admirable for a turbo installation.

So too, is its handling. It takes not five minutes on a decent road to spot the limitations imposed on the front suspension and steering by the engine’s output and the fact that it still manages to swing between the apexes with speed, security and some fluency is a credit to Fiat’s chassis engineers. Even so, compared to a stablemate unburdened from the responsibility of such power, such as the Alfa Romeo GTV (whose super quick steering rack it now shares but not its multi-link rear axle), the Fiat comes across as a little leaden in its responses. Its brakes too might be an all-new system but, despite an undisputed ability to bring the Fiat to a halt in the required time, they feel desperately numb underfoot.

As ever though, there is considerably more to enjoy in this Fiat than merely the unique way it progresses down the road. The looks, further enhanced by new wheels, continue to guarantee exclusive access to the undivided attention of any passer-by.

Inside, the body-coloured strip of metal running across the dash plus the inimitable Pininfarina badge smack make it easily the most attractive interior £21,244 affords. No matter that the interior was the only part of the car in which the Italian carrozzeria played a part.

It’s a practical car too, offering useful accomodation even to adults in its rear seats and possessing a boot big enough to swallow holiday luggage with ease. Say what you like about the way the Alfa GTV looks, anyone wishing to carry more than two people and their luggage will turn to the Fiat instead.

That said, the Fiat is not an exactly sophisticated machine. It wears its charms for all to see and ride and refinement are evidently not on the list. Driving around town, the suspension is in a perpetual fidget and while it smooths out adequately at speed, the interference is replaced by wind noise muting out the delicious warblings of the five-cylinder motor.

More than ever now, the Fiat Coupe Turbo is a very particular car and those who turn to the classy normally aspirated version for its less compromised suspension and still more infectious engine note are unlikely to be disappointed.

I found the Turbo alternately charming and infuriating, a car I would love to drive in certain conditions and on certain roads but also one which, I know, would frustrate me to own. I too would plump for the normally aspirated car which, while slower, is more rounded and less narrow minded. Many others, however, looking for the biggest bang for your buck since the original Ford Sierra Cosworth, may well find its evident appeal overwhelmingly enticing. Were it available with four-wheel drive, I might even count myself among them.