BY ANDY ENRIGHT
The Fiat Barchetta has never been a popular sight on British roads, largely due to the fact that it is only available in left-hand drive form. Look beyond this and you'll see a capable, attractively styled and well-engineered little roadster that's more practical than many of its competitors. Based on proven Fiat Punto mechanicals, the Barchetta is also quite reasonable to run. With the explosion in popularity of affordable roadsters, the Barchetta was somewhat steamrollered in the sales charts by the Mazda MX5, Rover MGF and BMW Z3, and has possibly suffered due to the fact that it shuns the 'purist' rear-wheel drive layout; its power going to the front wheels instead. The market that the Fiat has aimed for is more bar society than pure sports and it fills this niche quite well. A used Barchetta makes an interesting buy, and may cost less than you think.
Models Covered: 2dr roadster 1.8 petrol, [base LE]
Looking at the Barchetta's stylish lines it's hard to believe that it has been on sale since 1995. Perhaps because it looks like a more modern interpretation of the Alfa Romeo Spider, the lines look familiar and rest easily on the eye. Some companies made a fair amount of money importing Barchettas to these shores at prices that undercut the UK list by quite a margin, whilst others offered right-hand drive conversions for the standard car. The Barchetta has remained largely unchanged since launch. In 1998 a special edition 'LE' model was made available. One of the upsides of the Barchetta's unspectacular new sales is its exclusivity. It's unlikely anyone else in your street will have a Barchetta, a statement that would be difficult to make about the MX5 or Z3. In summer 2003 Fiat announced a revised Barchetta with more equipment, a restyled nose and, most importantly of all, £2,800 wiped off the asking price. Residuals for 'old' Barchetta took a consequent duffing. The Barchetta faded from the scene in 2006.
What You Get
The Barchetta is a stylish, sweet handling and reliable car. With prices that are eminently reasonable and styling touches that are deft and distinctive, the Barchetta has become popular with urban dwellers looking for a sports car that's a bit different. In town, the left-hand drive, position is a positive advantage, meaning you can enter and exit from the kerbside. The chief downside, overtaking, is rendered less of a problem if the car spends most of its time in cities. Equipment on the sole manual transmission model offered isn't lavish, but does include all the bare necessities, although carpet in the cabin wasn't part of the definition. Power steering is a useful feature for parking in tight spaces, and the height adjustable steering wheel allows good access for drivers of all shapes and sizes. Anti-lock brakes and a driver's airbag provide additional safety, while security comes via a Fiat CODE immobiliser, central locking and a unique RDS stereo. For anyone who wants more creature comforts, there's an optional Comfort pack, which inevitably adds to the price, but includes little luxuries such as central locking, electric aerial and mirrors, front fog lights, a leather interior and passenger airbag. While some rivals are of limited use for everyday activities, the Barchetta is practical, with a boot that's large enough for a couple of weekend bags. The manually operated hood is quick and simple to operate - flick open two catches to open the hinged metal tonneau on the boot, push the hood back into it and it's stored safely and neatly out of sight. Similarly, all the interior controls are stylish and easy to use though the slimline door handles can be a bit fiddly to operate.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
The classified sections are rarely bulging with used Barchettas, so if you're very choosy you may have a long wait to secure the car in the desired colour/condition. There is little to worry about mechanically. The Barchetta is based on Punto mechanicals and has no documented reliability issues. Check the hood for signs of damage, as this can be costly to repair. Also inspect the body carefully, as many Barchettas have been used as urban runabouts they may have suffered parking bumps and scrapes. Front tyres should also be inspected as enthusiastic driving can promote a fair amount of wheelspin, drastically reducing the life of a pair of tyres. Ask to see accompanying documentation to check that whether the car is a UK or European sourced model. If the car has a right-hand drive conversion check to see if it has been properly carried out. Does the dashboard and pedal box look and feel right? Do all the electrics work and have the windscreen wipers been adjusted? Otherwise, the usual reminder to obtain a service history applies.
(Estimated prices, based on a 1998 model) One of the advantages of basing a roadster on a top-selling hatchback are spares prices that are distinctly affordable. The Barchetta is one of those rare cars that are not only exclusive, but also cheap to run. A clutch assembly is around £127, while a new rear exhaust section is in the region of £195. Front brake pads are about £40, with rears going for around £50. A new alternator will set you back just over £80, with a new starter motor costing about the same. Despite the regular pannings Fiat dealers receive in the Top Gear/JD Power reports, it's good to know you won't have to pay too much to enjoy this service.
On the Road
Those 'enthusiasts' with string-backed driving gloves and flies in their teeth may deride the Fiat as a pretty irrelevance but a well-driven Barchetta can more than hold its own against similarly priced rivals. The chassis is impressively rigid, without many of the tremors and wobbles many open-topped cars suffer. Rest to 60 in less than nine seconds and a top speed of 124 mph are respectable figures from the 1747cc four-cylinder engine. It's a willing and tuneful companion as well, with a particular affinity for the upper reaches of the rev band. The left-hand drive layout makes exploiting the engine a bit trickier on country lanes when you need to overtake a nuisance tractor, but in town it's great to be able to enter and exit from the kerb. The driving position seems quite high due to the low window line of the car. The figure hugging seats, trio of white-faced dials and the elegantly retro-styled dials make the Barchetta a welcoming place to be. You won't feel uncomfortable at the pumps either with an average consumption figure of over 33mpg.
The Barchetta is a car that deserves to sell more than it has. If Fiat had backed it properly and sanctioned a proper right-hand drive model, it would undoubtedly be as popular as the Mazda MX-5, BMW Z3 or Rover MGF. As it is, it's something of an oddity, bought by those who are willing to put up with left-hand drive in order to benefit from its exclusivity. To write the Barchetta off as a trendy curio would be a shame. It is practical (for a roadster), reliable, quick, pretty and cheap. It also possesses more of that infectious joie de vivre than any of its rivals, and is guaranteed to put a smile on your face as wide as the first time your passenger tries to get into the driver's seat. Get a good one you'll realise why the Barchetta has long been the trade's favourite little secret. First you'll have to find one though.