Why the Fiat Coupe will give you full-on life-affirming boost

The Fiat Coupe 20v Turbo combines thrust and lust, and if you buy one now you'll have hit the jackpot too

Words Nathan Chadwick Photography Adam Shorrock

T

he 1990s was a golden time for coupés. From Alfa Romeo to Hyundai, everyone was building two-door creations that looked sporty and wouldn’t rev their buyers’ bank accounts beyond the redline. But few caused as much of a stir as the Fiat Coupe.

The car was a personal mission from Fiat boss Paolo Cantarella, started when he was head of the purchasing department, researched as he rose through the ranks and finally signed off… by himself. He wanted a halo car to entice people into showrooms, whether they wanted a Coupe or not. ‘Once we get them in, we can usually sell them a car, even if it isn’t the one they went to see,’ he explained.

He set out to create a controversial car – and boy did he get it. Chris Bangle, the man who later went on to design even more controversial BMWs, penned a car with jaw-dropping lines that made Europe’s best-selling coupé at the time, the Vauxhall Calibra, look tired and dated just five years after its debut.

As with much of Bangle’s work, the styling now looks timeless rather than outrageous – it’s a car whose looks seem more alluring every time you see it. Add in a turbocharged five-cylinder engine and you’ve got one of the hottest cars of the 1990s.

The Fiat Coupe is starting to seduce the market too, with some immaculate examples kissing goodbye to the £10k threshold and heading for the mid-teens at dealers. Online, prices are all over the place for decent-mileage cars, so it won’t be long before prices firm up generally. But does its startling styling translate into an overall package? Let’s find out...


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Paolo Cantarella’s mission to make Fiat sexy again with a design that polarised opinion was a risky move. The whole project took £80m to come to fruition, but it was worth it. For around £20,000 you could have a Pininfarina-built 155mph coupé – who could resist?

The packaging helps – the long section in front of the front wheel and the tightly-cropped rear give it proportions that can only scream ‘speed!’ Add in a Maserati Shamal-aping rear wheel-arch slash, plus the daring creasing in the belt line, and you’ve got a shape that was far more concept car refugee than any of its rivals. It’s a very individual car, this, one which polarises opinion – and those who fall in love with it, fall head over heels. Nothing else looks like a Fiat Coupe, and it’s unlikely anything else will ever again.

The detailing is exquisite – as befits such a personal project, every little piece of design feels crafted. The tail lamps channel the Prancing Horse directly to the high street, without looking tacky. The metal fuel cap proudly juts out of the car’s flanks like an old-school racer. There’s nothing here that hasn’t been crafted with love.


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Behind the long, heavy doors, that attention to detail continues inside. Your first thought is just how roomy it is – a stark contrast to that other Italian coupé hero from the 1990s, the Alfa Romeo GTV 916. The Fiat’s got plenty of space for heads, legs and arms – even if you’re 6ft 7in. The pedals are well-spaced too, and the controls are all located within easy reach of the driver. But there’s true style in here – a body-coloured metal strip goes around the sides of the car and across the dash, and is topped off with a Pininfarina badge. And as your hands encircle the perfectly-sized steering wheel rim, the textured grip at ‘quarter to three’ just fills you with confidence.

As the 2.0-litre five-cylinder fires up to an ominous yet refined burble, it becomes clear that this isn’t a hardcore machine. It’s very refined, this car – as we get up to speed on Bedfordshire’s corrugated B-road tarmac, the chassis is truly unruffled. Yes it’s mildly firm, but you won’t lose any fillings while you’re grinning – and you’ll grin a lot. Fiat claimed the Coupe’s body rigidity was three times that of the Tipo that donated its floorpan, and even on the roughest terrain you’ll struggle to hear squeaks or creaks – either from the interior or the front suspension. Another point to inspire jealousy in the GTV-driving Alfisti.

They’ll also be jealous of the way it handles, too. The V6 GTV pays the price for its 200+ nags emanating from its 3.0-litre engine with a nose-heavy inclination. You’ll only get the Fiat feeling that way if you’re asking questions of the car that most people don’t need answering. As with all big-power front-drivers, the front will eventually push wide – but only when you’re carrying lots of speed. At all other times the Viscodrive system (a viscous-coupled limited-slip differential) keeps everything controlled – and the Coupe’s nose heading directly where you want it to be.


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That's our kind of indoctrination and one that soon finds me rinsing it through every gear, which is infinitely more enjoyable than today's standard practice of riding a turbocharged wave. Heel-toe into second for a 90-degree corner while hard on the uprated brakes, revel in the new manifold's staccato effervescence as it descends past 4000rpm, then tip the FRP in. The steering froths with haptics, and the wider track provides remarkable surefootedness. There's little roll, and no pause while you wait for the Ford to settle into its compression, just an obedient beeline for the apex and an eagerness that begs you to power down early; this being one of the 72 optional LSD-equipped examples it's even keener.

Slippy diff or not, the FRP relegates the concept of basic physics from fact to a mere widely held belief. Ford might not have known how to brand an enthusiast car, but by God did they know how to make one handle; the body is as unwavered by directional forces as a Rolls-Royce Phantom's wheel emblem. It's probably for the best only 280-odd remain of the 482 customer cars built, lest one be sampled by a flat-earther and accepted conventions start coming under some real scrutiny.

'I remember one evening following Parry-Jones home,' says FRP project leader Peter Beattie. 'He was driving one of the development cars, so a support car always had to go along in case it broke down in the middle of nowhere. It was too dangerous for us to try to keep up with him. When we eventually arrived at his house, he told us there were two things we should never change: first were the pops on the over-run that sounded like rally car anti-lag, and second was that we should never put a rear wing on it – we didn't want it looking like an "Essex boy" car.'


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The five-speed gearbox aids and abets this more refined taste on hooliganism – it’s precise, perfectly weighted and positive across the box, even if the throw is long. There’s no fumbling here – everything is cohesive and tuned to allows you to extract ever more thrills from the engine. It’s a grown-up approach to going fast in a turbo car – rather than a short-lived punch, this is a firm, progressive push in the back, with gearing set up to encourage.

Downsides? Well, if you can’t get over the looks you probably never will, and the turning circle is similar to that of most ocean liners. The steering wheel could do with a little more information about what the front wheels are doing if you’re really going for it, but only at extremes.

Those are only minor quibbles. The Fiat Coupe 20v Turbo is much more than just a fashion statement, unlike other coupés. This is a properly fast, characterful car to drive, that delivers vast helpings of grin-inducing boost and precise, entertaining handling. Addictive? Let’s just say since driving one I’ve spent many an evening scoping Fiat Coupes out in the classifieds. It really is that good.


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The Modern Classics view

The Fiat Coupe’s time is now. Its styling has become more coveted than contentious, and its performance is still electrifying in a world of 400bhp hot hatchbacks.

It’s also left its tricky depreciation period behind it. Many owners were put off by expensive engine-out cam belt changes (£2000 at Fiat dealers), but specialists have developed less labour-intensive, much cheaper ways of doing the job. Sadly many cars have suffered skimped maintenance or been used and abused by owners, with lots of 20v Turbos having been robbed of their engines by modifiers. So, despite there being nearly 900 taxed, finding a decent-miles, unmolested example with the right interior spec can be challenging. We’ve seen dealers touting mid-teens, though (if you're feeling brave) you can still pick up decent cars privately for less than half that.

The Fiat Coupe 20v Turbo is one of the finest performance cars of the 1990s and due for further price rises, mirroring those for the best performance Alfa Romeos. Pay £8000 for a good car now and you’ll crest £10k within a few years. The very best LE models are more expensive to get into but are much rarer, and will command a premium. We found an LE with 89k miles for ten large – halve that mileage and you could see £15k.

However, it’s more than just a car – and an investment – it represents a time when Fiat was run by car-mad enthusiasts, none more so than its fanatical CEO. He wanted to build a super-stylish, supercar-troubling high performance coupé for the common man, and boy did he succeed. A true modern classic.


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Specifications Fiat Coupe 20v turbo

Engine - 1998cc, 5-cyl, DOHC

Transmission - FWD, 5-speed manual

Power - 216bhp@5750rpm

Torque - 229lb-ft@2500rpm

Weight - 1310kg

Performance

0-60mph - 6sec

Top speed - 155mph

Economy - 28mpg


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