Road Impressions

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The Fiat Strada 65 CL

When I remarked recently that if we are being driven towards smaller-engined cars by the petrol situation this need not necessarily be dull, I might have had a Fiat Strada, or Ritmo, in mind! This new small-car will be dismissed either as too gimmicky or liked very much for its sheer individuality. This new generation Fiat hatchback is very ingenious in many practical aspects but it is not a handsome car. But nor was the Citroen 2cv and the same purpose lies behind each – to provide a commodious hold-all rather than a car intended to catch the eye.

The Strada has an ugly air-intake grille atop the bonnet lid in front of the driver, its two frontal inlets above the radiator grille differ in depth, and its wheels are the ugliest in the business. The circular external door handles are odd, too, and within there are some more distinctly unusual, but sensible ideas. You will either love it, or dismiss it as a rather poor joke. Yet in this age of the economical car, a degree of difference may be just what is needed to launch a small-car cult.

The Strada I tried was a pre-production model, and there was no instruction-book to explain its many abnormalities. It was the five-door, five-speed 1,300 c.c. 65CL version. I hadn’t long been pounding down the M4 in it keeping up with most of the traffic but feeling that its top speed of 96 m.p.h. would take some building-up, when I overtook an Italian-registered Ritmo. Within a few days I had encountered more than one British-owned Strada – the ploy is catching on, perhaps? The main impression apart from the gimmicks is that there is a really spacious body on this little car, and that it has very comfortable, spacious seats. The transverse 86.4 x 55 mm. (1,301 c.c.) four-cylinder power unit is essentially that of the Fiat 128. It is not altogether quiet but it makes a rattley rather than a roaring sound at speed, a considerable improvement on the noise-level in so many small-cars. It drives through a five-speed gearbox, controlled by a substantial lever without a separate knob – the shape is one moulding. This gear change tends to baulk going into bottom gear but otherwise it is quite reasonable, if not exactly delightful to use. That fifth speed, located towards the driver, in line with weakly-guarded reverse gear, is really a Motorway cruise-ratio but I found the engine willing to tolerate it down to quite modest speeds and used it to get some very good m.p.g. figures. The clutch is smooth and the engine starts readily if the choke control, a plastic strip extending from the facia, is used. There is some lower-gear whine and a little transmission snatch, but nothing to really complain about.

The Fiat Strada does not corner exactly like a sports-car and ridges in the road can play tricks with the rear transverse leaf-spring. Again, however, there were no real complaints and the suspension is soft enough to cope with rough going. The servo disc/drum brakes work well and the steering is accurate, being rack-and-pinion, the rather thick-rimmed wheel’s vee-spoke gives good instrument-vision. The practical aspects? Well, there are ash-trays at the extremities of the facia, the neatly grouped small barrel-type switches are coloured to show whether they are in use or not, as are the unusual internal sill door-locks, the heat and ventilator fan are controlled by rotating circular switches, with the degree of heat or air-flow indicated on side dials with geared-down needles (although I never did discover why the knurled-knob for projecting heat or ventilation up or down appeared to have an illuminated arrow to its upper location), and before the driver is a bottle-container – so useful when you buy a bottle of milk, for instance, which is almost impossible to stow safely in most cars. Oh, and for some reason a Ritmo has a curved foot-plate for the accelerator. . . .

For stowage there is a small but handy drop-cubby on the facia and divided rigid door-well, etc. Fiat’s triple minor-control steering-column stalks are retained, the inside door handles are functional in construction, and the door trim looks of high quality. At first I thought the fuel-thirst was going to be disappointing but off the Motorways it improved, to give an excellent 37.1 m.p.g. of 4-star overall. I think some commuters would exceed 40. The tank, with a screw filler-cap, holds 11.2-gallons, so the range, so important nowadays, is highly commendable, too. The back seat folds and the hatchback lid lowers the usual cover over the luggage as it is closed. It lifts easily. The spare wheel lives beneath the bonnet. To conclude, I liked this Fiat Strada. On the grounds of petrol economy, a low noise level, a very roomy interior, enough performance, and decided ingenuity, it must earn high marks from those who recognise it as a very ingenious fun-car, full of practicalities. The price, now £3.629.11 for the 65 CL, is also notably competitive (A 75 CL 1½-litre o.h.c. version will be available). Equipment includes a Voxson FM stereo-radio as standard, fitted carpets, head-restraints, cigarette-lighter, rear wipe-wash, oddly-shaped but effective door mirrors, fog, reversing, and hazard-warning lights, side-repeaters for the turn-indicators, etc. The 44.1 cu. ft. luggage area in a car claimed to devote 82% of its volume to passengers and luggage is notable, from a wheelbase of half-an-inch over eight feet. The power output is 65 b.h.p. (DIN) at 5,800 r.p.m. and the 5-bearing alloy-head engine will rev. well beyond this power peak. Servicing periods are the now-usual 6,000/12,000 miles, and Fiat have a two-year Mastercover warranty of 24,000 miles. There is a 400-strong Fiat Dealer network in this country.

This robot-built Strada, which is advertised with some very clever TV film, has put some of the fun back into utility motoring, just as the 2cv and Mini did years ago. Its full claim to fame or notoriety is as the car which was designed by a computer, silenced by a laser, and built by a robot. It seems good to me, whatever the idea does to Trades Union leaders. – W.B.

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Glad Tidings from Lotus

We were happy to see that, following our interview with Lotus MD Mike Kimberley, Group Lotus were able to declare some promising financial results this year.

The company report says that they made 1,200 vehicles in the last financial year and that pre-tax profits went from £557,000 to £716,000.

Lotus have also said to the national press that they expect to double engine output in 1979 “for other car firms”. Outside work at present includes Talbot with their Sunbeam saloon car and consultancy development programme for John Delorean’s V6 sports car.

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Sorry To See You Go

Wynne Mitchell, the man who did so much to develop the Lotus-Sunbeam version of the former Chrysler saloon car, and to help so many privateer rallying and racing competitors over many years, is to leave the new Talbot company’s Coventry competition department.

No successor has yet been named, but it is known that the decision came as a severe blow to leading British driver Tony Pond in his first season with the Chrysler Talbot marque.

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