Small Italian sports cars with plenty of kerb appeal and enough power to be fun on a Sunday afternoon.
Want a fascinating stat? Fiat sold 751 Barchettas during the roadster’s 10 years in the UK. In the 124 Spider’s frst year on sale, Fiat has shifted 1,194. There are no doubt numerous reasons for this – the Barchetta was a left-handdrive curio, after all – but the Mazda MX-5’s role feels central.
Leaf through car magazines from the mid Nineties and while the Barchetta won praise for its pretty styling, it was always beaten by the more fun Mazda. “If you can’t beat them, join them,” some say, and, two decades later, Fiat’s roadster is an MX-5, at least under the skin.
Get the two together, though, and you’ll conclude the Barchetta had a tougher time than it deserved. It looks brilliant, especially in the orangey launch colour of this 1996 example lent to us by Aldo Diana. It’s so much more petite than the 124, whose long overhangs appear clunkier than ever. On looks alone, the Barchetta walks it.
You’d expect the 124 to bring the scores level when it comes to driving. It uses a boosty 1.4-litre turbo engine with 138bhp, while the Barchetta uses a naturally aspirated 1.7 with 130bhp. More crucially, the older car drives its front wheels on a platform apparently related to the MkI Fiat Punto. I have fond memories of driving such a Punto aged 17, but I’ll concede it operated in a diferent universe to a rear-driven MX-5.
Yet the gap between their driving experiences is surprisingly small. It helps we’ve got a stunningly warm day, so just about any convertible car would ofer a feel-good experience. But while the Barchetta is particularly entertaining for FWD, the 124 is particularly plain for RWD. It’s designed to be more comfortable than the MX-5, and so isn’t an immediate entertainer. It gets a bit scrappy when do you want drive it harder.
Front-drive cars simply encourage greater confdence and commitment, too, as they’re unlikely to bite as hard if you carry too much speed into a corner. The Barchetta really does egg you on, and while it may have the steering wheel on the wrong side, it’s so titchy that visibility and road placement are never issues. Its performance is modest enough that you can feel like you’re driving fat out quite a lot of the time, and the engine loves to rev. It makes a brilliantly raspy noise as it does so, while the Barchetta’s supremely sharp throttle response embarrasses the turbocharged 124’s.
There’s a fash of colour and character in its interior that the 124 is sorely missing, too. With FWD, the Barchetta requires no transmission tunnel, so it’s much roomier than its younger relation. And full of Italian foibles. The manual roof is tremendously fddly to operate, the fuel gauge has “50 litres” written at its maximum when the tank barely takes 30 and the Veglia Borletti speedo and rev counter are works of art, but hard to decipher when you need them. Borrowing Mazda’s know-how means the 124 sufers no such ergonomic quirks – the roof is a doddle to use and the interior is sensibly styled – but it’s less endearing.
Indeed, Fiat’s decision to call a truce with Mazda has made the 124 a far more complete car, but a less charming one. The Barchetta may not have beaten the MX-5 when new, but I wonder how a comparison between used examples would turn out. I knew the older, rarer car of our pair would be pretty, but this test has revealed talent beyond its looks.