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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: June 26, 2012 @ 11:16 am

    Italianostalgia

    Neil Briscoe

    Getting caught up in nostalgia is a habitual hazard in this job, but a dangerous one. It’s a very hard thing to avoid when your mind so easily wanders to hazy, sepia-toned images and memories of cars past, and it’s easily triggered by seeing one of those self-same cars cruising by or parked at the kerbside.

    Fiat has been much on my mind lately, not least because of the unpleasant news that it seems as if there will be many layoffs at Fiat’s Irish operations, not to mention Sergio Marchionne’s stern pronouncement that Fiat is cutting €500-million from its European investments until such time as the current financial crisis has passed. The motor industry equivalent of being told there’s no ice cream until you’ve eaten your broccoli. And the fact that next week, I’m off to test the new 500 L kinda-MPV-kinda-SUV; a car I am rather unnaturally excited about getting a spin in.

    But Fiat has mostly been on my mind because I’ve seen some coupes. One was on the telly, and was a gorgeous 1967 Fiat Dino Coupe; the one with the bellowing 2.4-litre Ferrari V6 engine which also saw service in the Ferrari (well, not really Ferrari but everyone calls it a Ferrari) Dino 246GT and the astonishing Lancia Stratos rally car. It just looked so good, that Fiat Coupe. Very sixties in its proportions (long bonnet, long rear overhang) but utterly beautiful in its understated, razor-edged panels and curvy, Coke-bottle hips.

    Then I saw, on the street, an all too rare example of its spiritual successor, the 1990s Fiat Coupe, the one that was all hard angles, bulging lights and slashed wheelarches. It was the car that introduced the insane genius of car designer Chris Bangle to the world, before he set about redefining BMW”s design language. It’s not a conventionally beautiful car, but striking beyond all belief, aurally wonderful thanks to a tuneful five-cylinder engine and with a surprisingly spacious and practical four-seater cabin beneath all the styling affectations.

    Or what about the razor-edged little X1/9 mid-engined two-seater? Hard to believe but that car celebrates its 40th birthday this year, and even if Fiat gave it up a long time ago, Toyota subsequently proved that the concept had legs with the successful MR2.

    And this is where the dangerous nostalgia started to kick in as I began to ask myself why Fiat doesn’t make a car like this anymore? Now, this is doubly dangerous because it ignores Fiat’s current European market problems and its need to re-engage with mass-market car buyers with vehicles like the 500 L and the (eventual) new Punto and Bravo. Fiat needs a new sports car like it needs a hole in its collective head. As do I, and the worrying thing is that an all too easy illogical extension of the why-not-anymore thought is the trip to the internet to see what nice-condition Dinos, Coupes and the delightful little LHD-only Barchetta sports car are selling for. Dangerous, dangerous territory. (Not, incidentally, because Fiats are any less well built than rivals; they’re not, they’re just averagely built in the same way that BMWs and Mercedes aren’t as solidly made as you’d think. Only the Japanese and Koreans have yet mastered the true art of making more-or-less indestructible cars.) Dangerous because this way to financial penury and spousal bellicosity lie. Classic car ownership is a head wreck at the best of times…

    But still… Fiat, by which I mean Alfa Romeo, recently announced a tie-up with Mazda to jointly design and develop successors the current MX-5 and the last-generation Spider. Now, with the Mazda having the affordable sports car market sewn up, and the Alfa version of the new car (due in 2015) being likely to be significantly more expensive than the Mazda, that leaves a potential gap in Fiat’s own lineup. And surely, the temptation must be there to take that joint Mazda-Alfa platform and spin-off a sweet little solid-roofed coupe out of it; a proper successor to the Dino, but with smaller, less expensive engines (check out the restoration costs for a Dino V6 lump. Second mortgage doesn’t even cover it) and a practical, useable cabin. The likes of the Volkswagen Scirocco, Toyota GT86, Hyundai Veloster and Peugeot RCZ have shown recently that mass-market brands can still make fun, affordable cars that sell in at least reasonable numbers, and surely such a car, well executed, would be an ideal halo model for Fiat at a time when it badly needs to raise its image a bit in the public eye.

    Of course, Alfa Romeo is about to unleash its Porsche-rivaling 4C on the world, and god knows that’s likely to generate more Italian-flavoured publicity than a tornado in a gelati factory. But that will be a quite pricey car (circa €50-55k) and, of course, an Alfa. Not much help in any direct way to Fiat. There had been rumours a couple of years ago that Fiat was planning a mid-engined roadster specifically for the Abarth brand, but the trail has gone cold on that; probably a good thing too as it would have been aggressively sporty, even stripped out. What Fiat needs (and this is me speaking remember; a true expert in the ins and outs of car company product development and investment. Ahem) is a truly affordable, practical coupe that is almost incidentally sporty. A car that can be bought and run for buttons, but through its styling and some rorty engines can inspire a little bit of motoring joy, not just for the driver, but for passers-by.

    Fiat needs to be careful that in trimming its development budgets and focusing on practical family-type cars, it doesn’t make the same mistake that Jaguar did a decade ago; canning development of the sporty, halo-effect F-Type roadster in favour of investing in the dreary diesel version of the already-failing X-Type saloon.


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