driving as it was
always meant to be...
LIVING IN AN AGE, as we do, where robotised electronics are increasingly taking over, few drivers have tasted the raw enjoyment of a simple sports car.
Before the advent of the modern safety systems we take for granted, the driving seat was a place where one had to assume responsibility and control of motoring risks without having seat belts, air bags and crumple zones to fall back on.
Sporting manufacturers such as BMW and Porsche who cater for enthusiast drivers recognise this, and provide the means to turn off invasive traction control systems or set the cut-in thresholds at higher levels so that the competent driver can still call upon his own skills.
So if it's an affordable, no-comprise two-seater sports car you want one untarnished by an excess of electronic interference then Fiat's lively little Barchetta will provide you with hours of entertaining driving.
This cheeky, instantly recognisable Italian convertible has much to offer. For a start the styling is refreshingly uncluttered, with just a hint of the great convertibles including the Ferrari 166S that first coined the term "Barchetta" (Italian for Little Boat).
Styled by a knowing hand that incorporated some classic touches, such as the flush fitting push button door handles and jewel-like rear lights, two things separate the Barchetta from its peers: this little gem has front-wheel drive and is only available in left-hand drive.
Slide into the well-shaped driver's seat behind the height-adjustable three-spoke steering wheel and the stubby gear lever doesn't feel at all out of place under your right hand. Body-coloured metal frames the dashboard, which with other makes might seem to be a sign of cost-cutting. With the Barchetta, however, it is most definitely a deliberate statement of style.
Instrumentation is clear, classic black on white, and although the windows are electric, the soft-top is not. However, it's a simple task to release the header catches, step out, raise the body-coloured metal hood cover and fold away the top behind the seats for some alfresco entertainment. The boot is independent of the hood stowage area, and is more than adequate for a dedicated two-seater. For wet, top-up days there's a decent CD player sited high up in the centre console within easy reach of the driver and tilted so that your eyes can be kept on the road.
130bhp may sound modest, but theres not an ounce of fat on the compact Barchetta. The spirited 1.8-litre, 16-valve, twin overhead camshaft VVT engine is more than up to the job and, accompanied by a crisp exhaust note tagging along behind, propels this petite Fiat to sixty-two miles per hour in 8.9 seconds and on to a top speed of 124mph. On our test route we saw 32mpg, and we certainly werent trying to break any economy records.
The alloy wheels don't have to turn much before you realise just how well balanced the Barchetta is. The precise steering has a positive feel (power assisted; but not too heavy on the 'power') and allows the driver to exploit the considerable grip. You don't so much drive it through bends as think it through.
And there's always something very special about driving a car that lets you take advantage of every last drop of power safely, and without exceeding the abilities of its chassis. The Barchetta rides firmly, but reassuringly so, and the only thing between you and the road are the anti-lock disc brakes (ventilated at the front) and your right foot. This is driving as it was always meant to be.
You won't see many Barchettas on UK roads, mostly down to the left-hand drive only format. But for the lucky few for whom this isn't a problem, £11,995 buys a car that's as great to drive as it is to look at.
Standard equipment also includes power steering, ABS, driver and passenger airbags, central locking, foglights, electrically operated windows and door mirrors, a leather steering wheel and gearknob, and an electric aerial.
Optional extras include air-conditioning (£999), a hardtop (£1,450), windstop (£99), metallic paint (£285) and alloy wheels (£320).
Fiat Barchetta | £11,995
Maximum speed: 124mph | 0-62mph: 8.9 seconds
Overall test MPG: 32mpg | Power: 130bhp | Torque: 121lb ft
Visit Fiat's website