1997 Fiat Barchetta

Last month we featured a 1996 Fiat Barchetta for sale in Pennsylvania and now this week, another Barchetta has come up for sale in my backyard. These roadsters, based on Fiat Punto mechanicals, were never sold new in the US, but a few have found their way stateside over the years. While they lack the rear-drive balance that a Mazda Miata offers, these Italian roadsters offer a greater amount of style. This Barchetta is for sale outside of Washington, DC and has a clear Virginia title.

1997 Fiat Barchetta

This auction is for a 1997 Fiat Barchetta finished in Grigio Steel (Steel Grey Metallic) with a black interior and black convertible top. The actual VIN is ZFA18300000031604, which the eBay listing form didn’t recognize. The car has very low mileage, just 59,000 kilometers which is only about 36,000 miles. The Barchetta is the modern interpretation of Fiat’s 850 Spider of the 60’s and 70’s. It’s styling mimics the 850’s clean lines, short front and rear overhangs, and most significantly, how the top folds down and stores under a hinged metal panel behind the seats. This gives the back of the car a completely smooth appearance unlike most other drop top cars that have the folded down top covered with a vinyl top boot that’s most often an unsightly protrusion. The Barchetta’s totally hidden folded top is a feature only found on much more upscale convertibles even now, and virtually none others back then. It was a styling and engineering masterpiece that enhanced the beauty of the car while at he same time made it practical too. At any stop light, in just about 30 seconds, the top can be dropped and the car ready to drive, while owners of other convertibles after 30 seconds were still by the trunk unfolding the top boot from it’s storage bag. The Barchetta is in the same class as the Miata, but being front wheel drive, is more usable in winter climates (Canadians take notice). There probably isn’t more than 2 or 3 other Barchettas in the USA and maybe a handful in Canada, so if you want a rare Italian sports car that nobody else has, this is it. And you don’t have to spend six figures on a Ferrari or Lamborghini to get just as many looks either.

The Barchetta, which in Italian means, “small boat” was produced from 1995 to 2005. It shares mechanical components with numerous late model Fiats as well as Alfa Romeo and Lancia so spare parts are readily available and relatively inexpensive. Many routine maintenance items such as filters, spark plugs and belts are available and stocked on the shelf at parts stores in the USA or Canada as well as by internet retailers. More specific parts can be ordered and received in less than a week from RockAuto’s international site or from on-line parts stores in England such as Mister-Auto, Fiat dealers in the UK, and the auto parts section on Ebaymotors UK.

The Barchetta is powered by a 130 horsepower 1.8 liter 16-valve DOHC engine that is also found in countless other Fiats and Alfas. This engine has received excellent reviews by engineers and the automotive press for its high power output, good economy and inherent smoothness. It features a cast iron engine block for maximum durability and an aluminum cylinder head for light weight and excellent heat dissipation, dual overhead cams with variable intake valve timing for maximum power output at all engine speeds, hydraulic lifters for reduced maintenance, multiport fuel injection for excellent gas mileage, and distributorless coil on plug (COP) ignition for reliability in all environmental conditions. For anyone that has owned or worked on twin cam Fiats and Alfas of the past, you will instantly recognize the layout of this engine. But if you enjoy turning a wrench, you may be a bit disappointed, as the car is now actually reliable requiring very little service, and it now starts right up regardless of the weather or the temperature outside. Oh what a difference a decade or two makes.

The engine is mated to a smooth shifting 5-speed manual transmission. This transaxle setup has a low first gear that provides brisk acceleration while the overdrive top gear allows for effortless highway cruising and excellent fuel economy figures near 40 mpg. The clutch action and shifter feel are the best in its class. The short-throw 5-speed stick is buttery smooth and lets you flick off shifts with speed and precision and the clutch is feather light for tireless hours inside the cockpit. Rounding out the Barchetta is a suspension made to carve up twisting roads and brakes to handle any situation. Start off with a light curb weight of just 2,300 pounds and a chassis much stiffer than most other open cars. Add in a MacPherson strut front suspension with a solid anti-roll bar up front and trailing arms in the back, power rack and pinion steering and a set of 55 series low profile tires. Finish it off with power four-wheel disc brakes (ventilated rotors in the front), and a Bosch anti-lock system plus a set of lightweight aluminum wheels and you have a car that is blast to drive whether on a winding country road, a quick trip to the supermarket, or just the daily commute.

The Barchetta was designed in-house by Fiat Centro Stile, one of the main automobile design centers in Turin. Its exterior styling subtly recreates the essence of the 850 Spider of the past, while adding modern and unique elements of the present and future. It features clean lines and sleek curves that incorporate elements from premium European sports cars and looks handsome from any angle without being flashy. It has a monochromatic paint scheme with body color bumpers and mirrors, silver wheels, and satin aluminum door handles, all of which contribute to a solid look. A quick walk around the car will reveal its similarities to the 850, as well as the modern touches that set it apart. Up front the bumper gently slopes down and rearward for better aerodynamics like the 850’s front shape did, plus it now has a pair of integrated high intensity fog lights for improved visibility in bad weather. The frog-eye look of the 850 has given way to covered headlights that also improve airflow and look great. Out back the short deck lid and convertible top cover appear to be direct descendants of the 850 while the square taillights add visual interest. Rear fog lights and a chrome exhaust pipe add finishing touches. The last thing you notice before entering the car are the door handles. As one automotive journalist wrote, “The museum of modern art doesn’t have anything as stylish as the door handles on a Barchetta.” A thin blade flush with the door panel and a small button make up the mechanism. Press the button, out pops the handle, pull the handle to open the door. Very chic.

If you like what you see on the outside, the interior is also sure to please. Get in and sit down in a sport bucket seat that confirms to the perfect driving position with adjustments for recline and lumbar support. Then set the tilt steering wheel to achieve complete driving control. Now glance above you at the generous amount of available headroom with the top up. Next, look ahead at the dashboard with the race bred whiteface gauges in the instrument cluster and how easy they are to read at a glance. Look to the right at the center stack and how all the control knobs and buttons are just a fingertip away without altering your driving position. Change the radio station, lower the power windows or adjust the power mirrors without having to lean over to reach a button. Finally, look down at the seats and feel the grippy texture of the weave, while imagining how tightly it will hold you in your seat during sharp cornering, then look at the floor covering, a durable vinyl material with a rich looking dimpled texture that’s also very easy to clean. Not only is the styling all sport, but all the textures have a rich feel and look and all the switchgear have a precise soft touch action. From the grip of the steering wheel, the graining pattern on the dash and door panels, or the layout of the knobs and switches on the dash, everything looks and feels like it came from a more expensive car. Now place the key in the ignition and turn the engine on. You hear a light but unobtrusive growl and are surprised how smooth it idles. Next, take it for a spin. Whether on congested city streets, open highways, or twisting mountain roads, you will be amazed how smooth, quick and powerful the Barchetta drives.

The car is in great condition inside and out. It has a beautiful dent-free body with just the normal minor nicks and dings you would expect on a 15 year old car. The finish is also very nice and shiny and this shade of metallic silver just about glows in the sunlight. The only blemish to note is around the front bumper at the left below the headlight where it was painted at some point and blend isn’t invisible. It doesn’t really stand out from ten feet away, just when seen close up. The paint itself has been cleaned with Meguiar’s Smooth Surface Clay System, polished with Meguiar’s Mirror Glaze cleaner polish and topped off with Meguiar’s Ultimate synthetic wax for a high gloss shine. Even both the front and also the back sides of the wheels have been cleaned and waxed! How obsessed is that? Ditto for the chrome exhaust tip. The soft top is in great shape without any rips or tears and the visibility through the rear window is excellent with none of the clouding that many clear plastic backlights have.
The interior is in great condition as well. It has excellent upholstery, dashboard and door panels with no cracks, rips or tears or any significant signs of wear. The car doesn‘t have any smokers smell. In fact, you wouldn’t imagine a 15 year old vehicle would still have that “new car smell,” but this Barchetta still has that indescribable plasticy aroma of a new European car of years ago. Maybe because we are accustomed to driving in fully carpeted and upholstered vehicles with a sterile aroma that this Barchetta seems to stand out. If you’ve ever traveled in Europe and rented an economy car, you would understand what I’m saying. The trunk looks like it was hardly ever used and the engine compartment has been fully detailed and is clean enough to eat off of.

Mechanically it runs and drives excellent. The engine runs strong and feels smooth both at idle, while accelerating and throughout the cruising range. The engine starts instantly whether hot or cold. The steering wheel is on dead center going down the road with no shakes or vibrations at speed, the brakes are firm with no pedal pulsations or pulling to one side when stopping and the suspension is tight. It has a new set of four Goodyear Eagle tires size 195/55R15 that feature carbon fiber ResponseEdge technology and a long 440 treadwear rating, plus A ratings for traction and temperature. These tires combine a high performance yet very quiet directional tread design, M+S designation for exceptional all-season wet/dry traction, excellent handling and long tread life with a 50,000 mile limited warranty. They have been balanced with coated stick-on balance weights mounted on the inside of the wheel for a super clean look. These weights won’t corrode and turn ugly like cheap uncoated weights. The spare tire and jack doesn’t look like they have ever been used. The only mechanical issues are the radio doesn’t function because it’s asking for the security code which I don’t have. I don’t speak any Italian and when I called a few Fiat dealers in Rome, they didn’t speak any English. If you do speak Italian you may be able to get the code. The other item to mention is that sometimes when coming to a stop if you take your foot off the accelerator quickly, the RPM’s will drop down below idle speed and stall the engine. It may not happen at all one week and then it may happen 2 or 3 times the next time you drive it. Sounds like it may be a vacuum leak from a loose or cracked vacuum hose or just a little carbon on the valves from being driven infrequently during the last year or two. Probably nothing that a good old Italian tune-up wouldn’t fix.

The car has been fully checked out and serviced including over $2,600 worth of new or recent parts and maintenance with original Fiat or other name brand parts so that only your enjoyment rather than your immediate attention will be required after purchase. Some of the items checked or serviced include:

New Mobil 1 oil change
New Fiat oil filter
Recent Fiat air filter
New Hengst fuel filter
New throttle body cleaning
New Fiat spark plugs
New Bosch premium 84 month battery with 3 year free replacement and jump starts
New Fiat timing belt
New Fiat timing belt tensioner
New Fiat idler pulley
New Fiat water pump
New coolant flush with distilled water
New Honda Type 2 blue coolant change (closest coolant to Fiat Paraflu blue)
New Continental serpentine belt
New Redline MTL transmission fluid change
Recent Lucas front brake pads
New Brembo front brake rotors
New Brembo rear brake pads
Recent Fiat rear brake rotors
New parking brake adjustment
New Valvoline Synthetic DOT4 brake fluid flush and change
New Goodyear Eagle tires, set of four
New embroidered floor mats
New Italian front license plate with current sticker

No expense was spared to make the car as reliable and trouble free as reasonably possible, and more important to purists, to make it as authentically original as possible. It would have been cheaper, easier and quicker to use generic no-name parts. I could have saved a lot of time and money by using an off-brand timing belt kit and water pump instead of genuine Fiat, or off-brand brake components instead of Brembo pads and rotors, but like everything else, you get what you pay for and you can feel better about the car knowing name brand parts were used. Many parts that were still in good shape were replaced just for extra piece of mind. Rear brakes for example still had half their life left but were replaced anyway. The battery in the car was a new Interstate model but it didn’t seem appropriate in a Fiat, so I installed a Bosch battery, much more authentic for a European car, and the top of the line model with 3 years free replacement. So other than routine maintenance such as oil and filter changes, with all the above mentioned servicing the car has recently received, you should be good to go for another 15 years before requiring major maintenance.

If you’ve owned Italian cars in the past or have any right now, you know how temperamental they can be and how much time and money it can take to keep them on the road. Whether that reputation is deserved or not, it’s clear that the quality and reliability of Fiats has increased greatly over the years with the introduction of modern systems like electronic fuel injection, distributorless ignition and computer controlled engine components. You can feel just as confidant driving a Barchetta as you can a Miata, but you will be doing it with more style and exclusivity.

Overall this Barchetta is a beautiful car inside and out that looks great in this color. The finishing touch to the exterior is an Italian front license plate with a current date sticker. (Keep it on the car only at your discretion, I can’t be responsible for tickets if your state has a problem with it.) Also note the Roma parking decal in the windshield. On the interior there is a brand new pair of embroidered floor mats still in the wrapper. And the car comes with the blue and silver main key, a red dot duplicate key and an emergency wallet key just for the mechanical locks.

At nearly $7,000 less than the last Barchetta we featured, this car is much more realistically priced and the thorough description and list of maintenance items attended to should ensure confidence amongst potential buyers. I'm curious as to how this car was registered in the Commonwealth of Virginia, but the seller does provide a copy of the actual title in the auction listing. Even though they don't offer the same driving dynamics as a Miata, I've been smitten with the looks of the Barchetta for years. Given this car is for sale locally, I am trying to withhold the urge to give up the Cooper S for this.


2 thoughts on “1997 Fiat Barchetta”

  1. Wow. I want to buy my next car from this seller. He’s done his homework, and inspires buyer confidence.

    Every last thing is documented thoroughly, in extraordinary detail, complete with clear photography and competitive listings. The Washington Post pictured to prove the date is a nice touch also.

    As incredible as the listing is, depending on the state I lived in, I’d still be nervous about title, registration, inspection and insurance. Virginia title with Maryland plates? Hmm.

    Maybe he’s a diplomat, a returning military officer, or an ex-pat returning from a foreign service position. I’m not any of those things, so I’d worry.

    If it makes sense to get a Barchetta, this is definitely the Barchetta to get. In the US at least, it’s got WAY MORE cool factor than a Miata. On the other hand, in most performance measures, it’s not as good as a Miata. Most Italians would probably think you are nuts to consider a Barchetta over a Miata.

    If the Cooper S is your daily driver – or your only car – you’d also have to seriously question the wisdom of trading off the functionally of your Cooper S. The Fiat would make a perfect 2nd car though.

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