Curbside Classic: 1998 Fiat Coupé 20V Turbo LE – Shock Therapy

”Well, at least it’s different.” As far as I can recall, that’s what almost everybody said when Fiat launched their Coupé in late 1993. It was just plain “Coupé,” nothing else needed to identify or qualify it. As if Fiat owned the word and they had never done anything in this body style before. Well, it’s true that they’d never done anything quite like this, so giving it the most generic name ever was perhaps a wise move.

After the initial shock, seeing these in the streets did not make their styling any less potent, but it did shock less. Familiarity did not bring contempt, but it certainly helped with acceptance. A lot of Chris Bangle designs were like that. But that’s a subject for a different post… For the record though, compared to all the designs Bangle oversaw, be they bearing a Fiat, BMW, Mini or Rolls-Royce badge, I think this one kept its freshness and originality the best.

The Fiat Coupé, known within the company as the Tipo 175, was a bit of a departure in some ways, but there had always been a sporty two-door in the Fiat range, so it could be seen as the rightful descendant of the 124 Sport, the X1/9 and even the 128 3P. The fact that those three predecessors, dating back to the ‘60s and ‘70s, featured RWD, mid-engine and FWD layouts respectively shows that Fiat were not necessarily set on a particular formula for their sports cars.

Usually though, said sports cars were hewn from an existing saloon platform (the obvious exception here being the X1/9). And the Type 175 Coupé adheres to this sensible tradition, being based on the “Type 2” FWD platform, which was first used on the Fiat Tipo (1988-95) and was subsequently adapted for Alfa Romeo and Lancia models as well.

Engine options for the Coupé were naturally oriented towards the performance end of the spectrum. Five flavours were on offer, from a 1747cc (abusively dubbed “1.8”) 130hp 4-cyl. to the turbocharged 1998cc 5-cyl. found in our Limited Edition feature car, mated to a 6-speed manual and churning out a quite respectable 220hp.

Apparently, Pininfarina and the in-house team (i.e. Chris Bangle) were in direct competition for the Type 175’s design. The Centro Stile won the match, but PF were going through a difficult time so Fiat outsourced the Coupé’s production line over to the coachbuilder. It seems the PF proposal was recycled as the Peugeot 406 Coupé, so it was really a case of picking a cutting-edge design over an elegant but conservative one. That was a better fit for Peugeot’s image anyway, so everyone ended up being pretty content, so much so that Pininfarina merrily put their name on the side of the Fiat, even though they did not design it.

And Pininfarina were also given the task of designing the interior of the Fiat, which gave them another occasion to slap their logo on the dash. This LE version features Recaros with red and black leather upholstery and other little improvements. The gearstick’s knob should be red as well, but this one must have lost its colour from overuse. Six gears means a lot more shifting. (That last bit was a bit, by the way.)

After seven years and over 70,000 units made, Fiat nixed the Coupé in the year 2000. It’s interesting that the story almost ended there: the Coupé was, for many years, the last of the stylish Fiat-branded two-door sports cars that graced the roads of Italy and the world since the pre-war days. The 500 Abarth was not exactly the same idea, and the role of the sporty style leader was entirely confined to Alfa – not unreasonably, perhaps.

And then, kind of out of the blue, FCA figured that the 124 drop-top should make a comeback in 2015, though it could be argued that the new Miata-infused 124 is more of a follow-up to the 1995-2006 Barchetta than the Coupé. So the Fiat Coupé was its maker’s last (and perhaps best) attempt at a genuine sports car, which the 124 isn’t, really. I mean this 20V Turbo version is a pretty serious performer, for a front-driver: 0 to 100kph in 6.3 seconds and 250kph top speed – not too dissimilar to a turn-of-the-Millennium BMW Z3, albeit one with a 3-litre six, as opposed to the 2-litre 5-cyl. used by the muscular Fiat.

And then there is the styling. Say what you will about Mr Bangle (and there are plenty of opinions out there, I’m sure), but his work at Fiat Centro Stile certainly took the Italian conglomerate out of the origami doldrums it was stuck in for too long. Shock therapy isn’t always pretty or successful, but in this case, it actually worked.


Related posts:


Cohort Outtake: Splateagle Misses His 1998 Fiat Coupe 20V Turbo, by PN

Cohort Sighting: Fiat Coupe – Parking Lot History Lesson, by Perry Shoar