Progress re­port

Small Ital­ian sports cars with plenty of kerb ap­peal and enough power to be fun on a Sun­day af­ter­noon.

Top Gear (UK) - - CONTETS - Gra­zie Italia! STEPHEN DOBIE

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.

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