Road impressions

The New Fiat 131 1600S Mirafiori

Back in January MOTOR SPORT described the new Fiat Mirafiori range of family cars, explaining how, as with British Leyland’s Morris Marinas, these were simplified Fiats intended to meet the need for less expensive, long-life cars at a time of World economic recession. Thus the specification embraces push-rod engines, but distinguished by having the drive for the base-chamber camshaft by cogged belt, McPherson-strut i.f.s., coilspring rear suspension of a live axle located by four longitudinal arms and a Panhard rod, servo disc/drum brakes and, an innovation, rack-and-pinion steering. The 131 replaces the popular Fiat 124, of which more than 4,000,000 were built. The Fiat 131 comes in both 1300 and 1600 engine sizes and recently I was able to test in this country, five days before its official release, the 1600S four-door saloon, with the de luxe trim, four circular Carello headlamps, and the bigger engine. The 1600 engine peaks at 5,400 r.p.m., when it develops 75 (DIN) b.h.p. It is mated to a four forward-speed gearbox but a five-speed box will be available later.

The 1600S came in a very attractive shade of meadow green, with upholstery in bright ochre and brown cloth. The overall impression is of a car which, matching its sensible but unsensational specification, is not exciting but which does everything in a rather dull but satisfactory fashion. The seats are comfortable. There is a good area of glass for maximum vision. The gear-change functions nicely, controlled by a fairly short, rigid central lever, reverse, down past top, protected by strong press-down spring action, and the clutch is reasonably light and smooth. The engine is quiet at normal 1975-permitted Speeds but far too noisy on a Motorway. From within, the Fiat 131 belies its outward compactness and narrow track (4 ft. 5in.). Indeed, it gives a feeling of stolid spaciousness, and none of the “tinniness” sometimes conveyed by inexpensive family cars, an impression confirmed by the generous-sized seats, the quality of the door handles and internal fittings, and the simulated leather door trim, pile carpeting, etc. Instrumentation is simple, just a hooded panel before the driver, containing three square-faced instruments, a 120-m .p. h. Speedometer with k.p.h. markings and total and trip mileage recorders, a Veglia quartz clock with seconds hand, and a dual heat and fuel contents meter, the engine normally running at 190° F. There are elaborate air vents, not only at the facia extremities but also down by the console. A three-lever heater panel is situated centrally, below the Radiomobile radio. A shallow stowage well is found behind the gear-lever, there is a left-hand non-lockable cubby, and divided slot-pockets in the front doors. Big tumbler switches are confined to lamps, rear-window heater and heater-fan, and the steering column carries the expected Fiat triple control stalks, the wheel’s single spoke sounding the horn, if pressed towards the centre.

The outward appearance of the Fiat 131, enhanced by the curved windows and doors, is crisp and angular, which to me was very acceptable, nor do the controlled retraction bumpers mar the car’s looks. The front wings bolt on, for easy replacement in the event of damage, and the fuel tank is located safely in the area behind the back seat. All the expected mod. cons, and safety factors have been incorporated and the sophisticated electrical system of the Fiat 131 has a central control-box fitted in front of the front passenger’s feet, grouping relays, 13 fuses, and multiple socket connections, which makes for easy access and only one opening for cables, thus insulating heat and sound from the body.

The 1600S has a top speed just short of 100 m.p.h. and adequate acceleration. The big steering wheel has a too slippery, thick rim (but with finger grips on its lower edge), and I thought the feel rather vague for rack-and-pinion. However, this is fairly light and smooth steering, geared 3.4 turns, lock-to-lock, with gentle castor return action. The 131 corners very nicely, with no undue roll but some understeer. The wheels, with uncovered four-stud hubs, were shod with 13-in. Pirelli Cinturato tyres. The ride is lively at times but generally very comfortable.

What I am saying is that this latest Fiat family saloon performs as one would expect, nicely but not outstandingly. It has a spacious luggage boot with self-locking lid, into which luggage has to be humped over the back panel. The fuel tank has a screw-thread filler with a convenient finger-grip, up on the o/s rear body panel. Driving at more Motorway than 50-m.p.h. speeds the range, to tank empty, was a useful 348 miles. Fuel consumption worked out at 33.4 m.p.g. of four-star petrol, driving economically. The warning light shows with rather more than two gallons in the tank. Under-bonnet items are accessible, so it was simple to check that no oil was required in 800 miles. The engine now has an automatic choke and starts instantly from cold. The front-hinged, self-propping bonnet has its release lever on the “wrong” side.

The new Fiat Mirafiori has most things that family drivers require. The front-seat squabs adjust by means of large knobs to any setting; the steering wheel is adjustable for height on the 1600S model. The instruments are easy to read and the switches are illuminated by the fibre optics system introduced in 1969 for the luxury Fiat 130 and used on the Fiat 132. Fiat are making a great attempt to overcome the rusting defects for which they gained a had reputation for a time. Thus they employ zinc-bonded paints on all joints before the 131’s body panels are welded. Then phosphating, electrophoresis painting of the interior of the box-sections, the application of PVC to the underside of the body shell, beneath the wheel arches, and the lower sill panels, and for the first time in Europe lower structural members of a new zinc-treated steel-alloy combine to insure the Mirafiori against rusting and corrosion. In addition, anti-rust wax additives are injected into the box-sections, including boot, doors, wings and rear lamps clusters, the wheels are finished in aluminium or epoxy paint, and special wheel arch plastic shields are fitted, as they have been to other Fiats for the past 18 months. The new engines are based on those of the now defunct 124 and current bigger 132 power units, but the tappets are new, the push-rods short, and the exhaust valves are coated with stellite cobalt alloy. Testing incorporated a full-throttle run of 1,000 hours on the bench, equivalent to driving a Mirafiori flat-out for over 62,000 miles. The engine of our test car began to run roughly at idle before we returned the car, and the parking lamps could only be used with the ignition-key in a non-removable position, due to a defect developing in the facia lamps-switch. Reverting to personal observations, the brakes are very light and 100% effective but horribly over-servo-ed, which seems a habit with modern Fiats and Lancias. This spoils progressive retardation. If you wish to coast for economy this makes for very sudden braking and very little “fail-safe” is provided with the engine off, although a good yank on the between-seats hand-brake will stop the car. I also thought the reversing lamps to be tacked on in an ugly position. There are two keys for good quality if slightly “fumbly” locks, a steering lock being fitted to the 1600S.

Full marks for a very sound car, which is available here in two-door and four-door forms, with automatic transmission if required, prices ranging from £1,619.28 with p.t. and VAT, to £1,935.18 asked for the 1600S. Estate versions should now be on sale and altogether, as with the Marina for British Leyland, I expect the Mirafiori to float Fiat on a new wave of prosperity.—W.B.