1996 Fiat Barchetta 1.8 16v
Great small roadster with tons of character
Driver's side door lock barrel found broken on purchase of the car, replaced at 105000km.
Soft top wear and tear marks over the top frame hinges. Repaired with acrylic sealant.
Driver side door tweeter and window working intermittently due to cut wiring inside the rubber hose near the hinge of the door. Wiring repaired.
Rusted through at both rear wheel arches, starting from the rubber covers that both arches have. Both arches repaired by a professional at 105000km.
Most faults found on the car were expected due to its age and abuse so far. Other than these, the Barchetta has proven completely reliable and hassle free. Quality wise, it feels cheap, but it is actually OK. This batch of cars was manufactured by Maggiora, a small firm outside Turin, and not by Fiat. This probably explains why quality was better in these than later (2001-) Barchettas.
The Barchetta is an exercise on how to make something look great, and it hits the mark. The Barchetta is cheap to buy, and does feel cheaply built, but it prevails when it comes to details : The dashboard, the soft top tonneau cover, the seats, the front end, the rear lights. The car is full of amazing details.
The dashboard is simply lovely to look at, however the centre console switches feel cheap. The door handles are a statement of form over function, and absolutely stunning details to admire. The handbrake never worked properly, but this is a niggle. The door trim is simple and cheap, but looks great. The fenders, both front and rear are prone to braking easily. Parts are cheap and easy to find, fenders are pricey though. Paint on the hood tends to chip easily.
Cheap it may be, but the engine worked like new at 140000km, and the rest of the transmission worked just fine, without obvious judder or play. I never had a single problem with the variator, which is rumoured to fail at some point. There was no oil consumption to worry about, no coolant leaks, and temperature varied a little in traffic, but this is normal for a Fiat.
In a typical Fiat fashion, the gearbox feels somewhat notchy (could also be because of the years of abuse), but this is not too much to be even annoying.
Mind you, the Fiat 1.8 16v engine shares the same low end with the Alfa Romeo 1.8 TS engine, differing mainly at the head and the ECU.
The car suspension is on the soft side for this type of car, and allows for some roll, but this becomes an instant advantage when you don't know your way or when found on slippery tarmac, where the car reacts progressively. There is enough feedback from the suspension and the (power assisted) steering wheel.
The Barchetta suspension is rather basic for a sports car. Where the Mazda MX-5 of the same vintage uses double wishbones all around, the Barchetta uses the floorpan directly from a Fiat Punto; McPherson struts at the front, trailing arms at the rear and anti-roll bars at both ends.
Though basic, this makes for a lovely to drive and enjoy little roadster. However, take the foot off the gas pedal abruptly mid-corners and the rear end can suffer from mild lift-off due to the front-biased weight distribution and the simple rear suspension. The rear end can feel slightly lively when meeting with bumps and gaps on the tarmac. In a similar way, turn in without throttle and you will feel the nose being rather heavy. These are all not severe in fact, but driving the Barchetta fast enough requires some commitment.
The car is front wheel driven in comparison to roadster traditions, where you'd expect the rear wheels to be the driving ones.
Make no mistake, this is a fast car for a 1.8, and numbers only tell you half the truth. 0-100km/h takes only 8.7 seconds. Due to the torquey engine, you get instant acceleration whenever you wish. Driving fast on good tarmac B-roads is what the Barchetta was built for. There is good grip and feedback for the experienced driver to enjoy. Brakes are also quite good.
The Mazda MX-5 manages to perform better overall on the road, but the Barchetta is cheaper, faster, has lots of character, whereas the Mazda doesn't. The Rover MG-TF should be better in theory, in fact it is far worse than both, in most aspects. The Toyota MR-2 is a serious driver's car, but has seriously less personality than all of the above; it is also quite a bit less fun to drive, and costs twice as much as the Barchetta.
The seats are lovely, comfortable enough and provide good support. The trunk is actually OK for a roadster of this size.
Though rather softly sprung, the car is not soft or very comfortable. Going over bumps, the car gets noisy, the body is rigid enough, but crashing noises can get intimidating. There is a growling noise from the engine bay for you to enjoy, but you don't always do so. The soft top is only a thin layer of PVC, enough to keep the wind and rain outside, but noise and heat/cold do come right in. The headlights are disappointing, severely reducing travelling speeds at night. Should have been much better.
I regret having sold the car, I would have kept it indefinitely had there been a way to do so. It is a lovely small sports roadster, not without its shortcomings, but with plenty of character and millions of things to love about it.
As a used car, prices are very low, which means there is less to lose from resale values.
For a small sports roadster with character, it is a bargain. For a daily commuter, it might prove tiring and inconvenient.
Would you buy another car from this manufacturer? Yes
Review Date: 15th March, 2011