Road impressions

A Pair of Sports Fiats

FIAT SERVED up quite a dose of fun recently with extrovert sporting versions of their popular 131 Mirafiori and the little 127.

The Mirafiori Sport

Last in order of testing but first in order preference came the Mirafiori Sport, a two-door 131 saloon shell powered by a 1,995 c.c., 84 mm. X 90 mm. version of the familiar DOHC four-cylinder power house, in this instance developing 115 b.h.p. at 5,800 r.p.m. and 123 ft. lb. torque at 3,600 r.p.m. This is the same body/engine mix as last year’s World Rally Championship winning cars and, trite though it sounds, this bright orange road car’s breeding is very obvious.

With black, GFRP wheel-arch extensions over low profile, 185/70 SR 14 Pirelli P6 tyres, a front air dam, matt-black exterior trim and large and small, paired Carello quartz halogen headlights in a special grille, the Mirafiori Sport looks mean and sporting – and is as much fun to drive as it looks. The car shares the same basic layout as the standard Mirafiori, with McPherson strut front suspension and a live rear axle mounted on coil springs and located by trailing arms and a Panhard rod. But somewhere inside that configuration are much-revised spring and damper rates, for this Sport handles superbly in the most forgiving, taut and almost roll-free way. The very responsive chassis gives a good idea of why the rally 131s are so good – it’s easy to hold the tail out like an ace! Firm damping creates a stiff ride, improving with speed. Fiat’s engineers have obviously done their sums right, but Pirelli’s tyre engineers deserve a deal of credit too, for the grip, response and progressiveness of those remarkable P6 tyres, standard equipment, has added the finishing touches. This was an exceptionally controllable car on the snow and ice of the test period, very quick to respond to the precise, if sometimes slightly dead, nicely geared, rack and pinion steering, controlled by a two-spoke, thick rimmed wheel. At slow speeds around town the 131 Sport exaggerates its initial understeer more and demands some fairly hard work at the wheel; crisp engine response does make it a very nippy town car, but it is at its happiest on fast, winding roads.

This is a very different animal to the heavier, four-door, 131 Supermirafiori fitted with the 1,600 twin-cam engine, which rolled, picked up its inside wheel far too easily and was both gutless and characterless (Motor Sport, September 1978). Although the 2-litre car shares the same gearbox and final drive ratios, its considerably greater torque (123 ft. lb. at 3,600 r.p.m. against 94 at 3,800) allows far better use of what in the smaller car were not very well spaced ratios. The retention of the low final drive adds a deal of zest to the Sport’s performance and response, though leaving it undergeared in fifth at 19.9 m.p.h./1,000. Nevertheless, it cruises a lot less fussily at high speed than the Supermirafiori and gives good acceleration in fifth, where the 1,600-engined car fell flat. On the theme of high speed cruising, this car which is so good round corners runs straight as a die on motorways except in strong crosswinds, its stiff ride surprisingly comfortable.

The stubby gearlever operates via a new remote control linkage, its movement short, sharp and precise with no slop, but a little notchiness. It needs firm movements into the 1st/2nd and 5th planes, but is best left to its own spring loading to find the 3rd/4th plane. This is far from a knife-through-butter change, yet I grew to appreciate its decisiveness. The test car lost reverse gear, an isolated fault, I believe.

Low gearing and plenty of torque makes for excellent performance throughout the range and good flexibility. The claimed 0-60 time is under 10.5 sec., maximum speed 112 m.p.h., which the test car would exceed under favourable conditions and 85-95 m.p.h. a happy cruising speed. The tachometer has a yellow warning sector from 5,600 r.p.m. to the 6,000 r.p.m. red line.

If this sporting Fiat has an Achilles heel it is noise. The engine note is very harsh and unrefined if the throttle is used as the rest of the car encourages; it may be a fairly sporting sound in some ways, but in truth it is just downright noisy, particularly in the 3,500 to 4,000 r.p.m. bracket, until the throttle is relaxed for constant speed cruising. The gearbox whines somewhat and the suspension and tyres are by no means quiet, yet wind noise is much less than might be expected from such a boxy shape.

Four-wheel disc brakes stop this flying-machine effectively enough though they suffer from slight servo-lag and a soft and dead pedal.

The spacious, all-black interior has luxurious-looking, velveteen-covered seats with headrests on the front pair; they’re not quite so comfortable as they look. The front seats roll forward when the back rests are released and the doors are wide. Fiamm air horns and a Voxson radio are standard equipment, whilst those Carello headlamps burn away the darkness more effectively on dip and main than those of any standard road car I can recall. This top-of-therange Mirafiori model retains those curious sliding lids to the capacious glove locker, lacks an oil pressure gauge and has but one rather too slow constant speed for the wipers in addition to an intermittent wipe facility. A deep glass area gives commendable visibility.

I liked this £4,837 Fiat immensely, though I feel that its garish appearance and unrefined rortiness contradict directly Fiat’s Press Release claim that “above all, (this is) not a boy racer’s car. Refined performance is the keynote of its character”. This is a car more in the RS 2000 mould, not the sporting luxury car Fiat claim it to be, but it has more space than the Ford offering and in some ways is even more fun. I liked it for what it is, not necessarily what Fiat think it is.

The 127 Sport

PUT 70 b.h.p. through the front driveshafts of a light, little Fiat 127 and it becomes quite a little flier, reminiscent of my old Cooper S, though somehow without the same character. Or is that increasing age and the passage of time producing a false memory?

The precocious 127 Sport, the test car decked in bright orange like the Mirafiori Sport, uses the Brazilian-produced, o.h.c., five-bearing, 1,049 c.c. engine with a reprofiled camshaft, larger inlet and exhaust valves, twin-choke, downdraught Weber carburetter and a new exhaust manifold. Its 70 b.h.p. DIN at 6,500 r.p.m. compares with 50 b.h.p. DIN at 5,600 r.p.m. from the standard 1,049 c.c. engine. The compression ratio has been increased to 9.8:1 from 9.3:1 and maximum torque increased to 61.5 ft. lb. at 4,500 r.p.m. (57.14 ft. lb. at 3,000 r.p.m. for the standard engine), maintaining over 57.86 ft. lb. from 3,200 to 6,500 r.p.m. All this results in 100 m.p.h. and 0-60 in 14 sec. performance. It also produces a lot of wheelspin and steering snatch, just like the old Cooper S, but with a better ride.

This three-door 127 Sport handles and holds the road extremely well in kart fashion, with appropriately direct steering through a little softrimmed Fiat sports wheel and very little roll or pitching. It is noisy and very low geared through four forward ratios (it uses a lower, 4.46:1 final drive ratio, against the standard car’s 4.07:1), will pull 1,500 r.p.m. in top but prefers to have the needle of its squashed-hexagonal tachometer darting between 4,000 r.p.m. and 7,200 r.p.m. and won’t tolerate too much throttle below 3,000 r.p.m. The test car had a few carburetter flat spots too and a nasty, rubbery gearchange which might have improved with more than its 2,500 miles. Cold starting was very poor and the manual choke, tucked away beneath the right hand side of the steering column, was a very flimsy affair.

The Sport brakes gain servo assistance and bigger front discs; they are light in feel, not over-sensitive like the servoed brakes of many Fiat models, and stop this light car very effectively. A stiffer front anti-roll bar and wider (41 in.) wheel rims are additional Sport modifications.

Well-upholstered, attractive seats with built in headrests and micro adustment for the backrests mask some of the cruder aspects of this up-market 127, such as manually operated Heath Robinson ish heater flaps somewhere down in the depths. On the plus side this Sport has a hatchback and rear seats which can be folded separately or together to give a usefully large loading area, belying the car’s small overall dimensions.

The driver’s side wheel-arch intrudes to force the tiny pedals uncomfortably far over to the left and the steering tilts towards the laminated windscreen in Mini fashion, necessitating an upright driving positiop.

A matt black front air dam, a distinctively patterned radiator grilled with a 70 h.p. badge, a spoiler on the rear of the roof, a twin tail-pipe Abarth exhaust, Sport badges down the side and coach-lined orange or black paintwork distinguish the 127 Sport from the rest of the huge 127 family, Europe’s best selling car for six successive years.

I’ve been a little too spoiled over the years to enjoy a buzzy little car like this all the time, but there’s no mistaking its attraction as a cheeky and nippy commuting car, or as a run-about for rural areas, when its small size and precise handling come into their own. A buzzy bundle of fun this, which retails at £3,043 and averaged about 30 m.p.g. driven very hard.