Stirring the emotions

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It is a while since Fiat produced a car with such flair. Is this the best thing to come out of Turin since the 124 Spyder?

The coupe market is making manufacturers a lot of money. This seems increasingly to be an age of child-less couples, a society encouraging people to be alone. The desire for the individuality and freedom represented by convertibles and coupes is on the increase, and even the giant Fiat has jumped onto the bandwagon.

Not before time, too; as a maker of charismatic automobiles Fiat has remained dormant since the XI/9 redefined the small sports car. It was an ingenious concept which others have emulated since (though never with the same ratio of flair to mundane mechanicals) but one of which Fiat eventually washed its hands, using Bertone as the soap.

The 124 Sport was Fiat’s last coupe which wasn’t a hatchback in disguise. Sister to the gorgeous spyder, it was axed way back in 1972. Fortunately, the company has realised, perhaps just in time, that there are enough people around for whom driving is still a passion. To address the situation, both parent company and sibling, Alfa Romeo, have already launched new coupes and spyders on the continent. The Alfas in particular have gone right to the hearts of sports car lovers. They’re different, and competent. while cocking a cheeky index finger at the styling conventions of late.

Fiat has brought its Coupe to our shores before the Alfas, which will arrive in early ’96. Centro Stile has seized its chance to reawaken the charisma of past liaisons with Pininfarina by having the great design house style the interior of, and build, its new Coupe. And what a return to eye-opening form. It’s very different.

Both the two-litre 16v normally aspirated and the turbo tested here are visually identical. At a quick glance, the overall neo-retro styling looks more Citroen with a touch of Zagato, than Fiat. With its slashed, angled wheel arches, one of several detail master strokes, you could imagine it hugging the ground, easing down onto hydroneumatic suspension when parked.

Intriguing delights swarm around the chunky bodywork the sculpted headlight shrouds, the pillar-mounted door handles, the Sixties racing-style petrol filler cap and simple round rear lights all attract attention.

But the panels, a curious mixture of curves and slabs, make the whole effect only an arguable success. There’s no doubting the neck-twisting potential, as a result of its individuality and subtle badging, but some comments overheard aimed at the rear-end chop suggested its designers had run out of ideas. We at Motor Sport think that Fiat has got away with it by the skin of its teeth.

Even when you’ve recovered from the initial shock and realised what it is, you are as yet unaware of further surprises. Firstly. the mechanicals and the motive unit in Particular, which is a slightly detuned Lancia Integrale two-litre, four-cylinder, 16-valve, twin-cam, turbocharged beauty. Even with ‘only’ 195bhp on tap, you know that the performance is going to be, to say the least, urgent, and it powers the Coupe to a claimed 140mph and 0-62mph in 7.2 secs – good for its class. Twin counter rotating balancer shafts ensure that this remains one of the sweetest ‘fours’ money can buy. A five-speed, split-synchro gearbox puts the drive through the front wheels, and the turbo version incorporates a Viscodrive viscous coupling traction control system.

Less exotic is the all-round independent suspension, featuring segmented valve dampers. MacPherson struts with transverse wishbones at the front, and what Fiat call “longitudinal wishbones” at the rear, which look rather like trailing arms with coil springs. All four wheels are retarded by discs, vented at the front, with ABS as standard. Steering is power-assisted, with 2.8 turns lock to lock.

Climbing inside the coupe provides another surprise. It is so elegantly simple and devoid of gimmickry. Jumping out from the cool, dark surfaces is a Pininfarina-badged, body-colour strip running along the doors and across the fascia which contains four round, clear white-on-black dials. They are all essential and concise not even a turbo boost gauge rests here. The ergonomic immediacy and feel of the minor switchgear in the centre console is also impressive, and the contrast of gentle curves and straight edges echoes the exterior design. Quality materials are used, and the result is an environment Integrale drivers would relish purposeful yet peaceful. The subtly patterned and well-shaped seats are low-slung and comfortable, though more support under the backs of the knees wouldn’t go amiss. Neither would a height and tilt adjuster, for the range of adjustment in both planes offered by the steering wheel isn’t quite enough to get a perfect driving position. Still, it’s not bad.

As might be expected from a car of this type, the equipment leaves little to be desired only air conditioning, leather upholstery and a sunroof would empty your wallet further.

Turn the ignition key, a sculpted aluminium affair which looks faster than the car itself, and those familiar with the Integrale will immediately feel at home. The burbling engine tones are always present to remind you of its purpose. The wheel and steering itself both have an assuring feel chunky for the former, weighty for the latter. Vision ahead is good (even with the useless sun visors lowered) but casting your head either side reveals poor rear three-quarter visibility; parking takes some getting used to, though the stubbiness of the tail helps. The turning circle is poor, which can be a nuisance in confined areas.

The controls have a feel you’d expect with this kind of power – gearshift is precise, not too light and devoid of heavy spring bias. Both clutch and brake pedals are firm, but the latter has a touch too much travel for comfortable heel and toeing, and its action is accompanied by an irritating ‘click’.

Get under way modestly and the Coupe is user-friendly. There’s no kick-back from the steering and no thumping from the suspension over ridges, though its stiffness is betrayed by a little jiggliness of low-speed ride, which in turn brings evidence of a little scuttle-shake to light.

Accelerate more smartly and another surprise can open your eyes. When the turbo awakens at just over 3000rpm and unleashes all that torque (2181b/ft) through the 205/50 front tyres, you’d expect the steering wheel to writhe hysterically It doesn’t not even a little; it’s so well-behaved, in fact, that a driver ignorant of the Fiat’s specification would be forgiven for being unable to detect whether it is front or rear-wheel-drive. The complete lack of noticeable chassis squat would also add to this dilemma. Only forceful treatment makes it plain: with traction control overridden, the front wheels spin enthusiastically until the throttle is moderated. No turbocharged car’s full bore acceleration is going to be seamless, but the Coupe manages to avoid the tantrums of its almost equally accelerative smaller brother, the Punto GT, which squirms, squats and writhes all over the place.

The Coupes’ composure is retained through bends. Lack of body roll is disconcerting enough at first, but pressing-on more forcefully almost slackens one’s jaw, so much does the car’s neutral stance belie the front-drive format. You simply have to do crazy things to get this chassis to under-steer heavily. The beauty of the traction control system under these circumstances is that it doesn’t hinder progress by retarding engine revs severely, it merely modulates and transmits more torque to the wheel with most grip. Deliberate lifting” off or even braking simply allows torque to be re-distributed and a tightening of line. The rear-end doesn’t argue.

Thus, the Coupe 16v turbo is probably the quickest ever production Fiat across country. Full throttle can be used in situations which would see you falling off the road in many other cars. The quick steering helps make rapid directional changes, and the Coupe executes them with precision. Only its size and weight restrict its ultimate agility. Hauling down the Coupe’s speed for hairpins inspires confidence, thanks to the Powerful fade-free brakes and lack of dive if only the pedal travel wasn’t so long.

Yet for all this dynamic competence, the chassis’ natural balance is still bettered by the evergreen Volkswagen Corrado. It isn’t stiff enough to allow razor-sharp response. On the straight the VW VR6 has it beat too, but this is marginal and the surge of the Fiat’s whistling turbo actually makes it feel even quicker than it is. Mid-range acceleration in the higher gears is most satisfying, and there is not much able to stay with the Coupe on full chat. On a more disappointing note, but to be expected from a high-performance turbo, was the unimpressive test fuel consumption figure of little over 20mpg. Fiat have perhaps attempted to improve this via the gearing, as fourth and fifth gears are maybe just a touch too high.

It is however most satisfying that the Fiat can seat four adults in genuine comfort and carry a reasonable amount of luggage with more than an acceptable level of refinement though aurally, you’re always reminded of what lies beneath the swooping bonnet. This is an enormous piece of galvanised steel, which when open reveals a space so tightly packed to the very edges that it is a little worrying to think of the repair bills in the event of even a minor frontal accident.

Verdict

All of the Fiat Coupe’s competitors are more conventional, and include the aforementioned Corrado VR6 at £22,000, Ford’s £20,400 Probe, Vauxhall’s Calibra V6 at almost 20 grand and the storming Nissan 200SX at £20,400. They vary from competent to dynamically uninspiring, from fast to not so fast, from interesting and appealing, to anonymous and definitely not.

The Fiat Coupe I 6v Turbo still has (only one or two) rough edges to its interior assembly, but is solid and it feels like a quality product; it also has an equipment level, barring air-conditioning, to rival any of its competitors, plus an eight-year paint warrant.

At £19,250, it must be the most desirable in its class. At first sight, it may look a bit of an oddball. Take a closer look, soak in the -detailing, and you’ll grow to like it. Drive it and you’ll be hooked. It’s fast enough for any sensible driver and, for a front-drive car, its dynamics are stunning. Fiat, welcome back to the world of stylish, interesting cars.

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