When Italy Went To War

Great Italian cars are like buses. You wait a long time and then two come along at once. So it was in the 90s, when Fiat and Alfa Romeo gave us the Coupe and GTV. 

Lovers of Latinate motoring had had a long wait by the time this dynamic duo arrived. Not since the mid-70s had either company mustered sufficient enthusiasm to launch anything remotely four wheeled and exciting. By 1995 Alfa had spent 20 years recycling designs from the early 70s while Fiat had blanded out with cars built by robots and driven by morons. 

With the advent of the 90s the Fiat Group  realised it faced a problem. Its products were dull and outdated – its trio once-illustrious Fiat, Alfa and Lancia could barely muster a single decent car amongst them. Cue the first of many, many relaunches based around the innovative ‘platform sharing’ concept subsequently popularised by VAG. 

The idea of sharing basic vehicle structure across the three brands was a clever one that enabled Fiat to develop several new cars whilst sharing key components. To deliver this Fiat created the ‘Tipo’ chassis, which was intended to underpin several mid-size models, including the Fiat Coupe and Alfa GTV.

These essentially identical cars proved to be very different in execution. The Fiat was designed in-house by a team led by Chris Bangle, with an interior created by Pininfarina, while the Alfa was created by the evocative design house, with an interior created in-house. Despite their shared architecture, the two cars took very different approaches. The Alfa aimed for its traditional coupe and convertible market – an upmarket, beautiful car for being seen in rather than burning up b-roads. It executed this brief pretty well, the stunning design wowing buyers, the low-rent interior on early cars rather less so. The broad remit for the Tipo chassis meant it wasn’t the ideal starting point for a sharp-handling Alfa but the Milan firm’s engineers did a brilliant job of injecting Alfa character into the car.  The steering is ultra-sharp and the passive rear steering and sophisticated rear axle mean that the Alfa handles well, particularly the GTV which does without the Spider’s scuttle shake. The Alfa engines are typically excellent – in the UK we got the revvy two litre Twin Spark and latterly the superlative 3 litre ‘Busso’ V6. The 6 pot is without doubt the best engine to come out of Italy without a Ferrari badge on it – powerful, smooth and full of character. The Alfa’s main shortcoming is a lack of space – the boot is tiny and the cabin low and cramped, making it a difficult choice as a daily driver. 

Fiat chose a different path for the Coupe. While Alfa aimed at a market somewhere between Ford and Mercedes, its Turin cousin went the other way, essentially imagining the rebirth of the blue collar coupe, a market once occupied by the Ford Capri. Where the Alfa was pretty and subtle, the Fiat was bold and brash. The infamous Chris Bangle designed it – he moved on to ‘reinvent’ BMW – creating a car that swooped and slashed from its low front to kicked up boot. Neat touches like the Ferrari-esque rear lights, clamshell bonnet, slashed wheelarches and hidden door handles marked the Coupe out as a car you either loved or loathed. Certainly it was bold in a way Fiat has rarely been since. The interior was much more subtle; designed by Pininfarina – with their logo prominent on the dashboard – the centrepiece was a faux-metal strip from door to door that colour-matched the exterior. The general fit and finish and ergonomics were surprisingly good for an Italian car.

The Coupe started life with various iterations of the Lancia Integrale 16v engine before receiving a new and innovative 5 cylinder 20v motor in naturally aspirated or turbo-charged guise 3 years into production. This engine made the Coupe the fastest front wheel drive car of its generation – a now-modest 220bhp sending the wheels scrambling once the turbo comes on song. 

The Coupe appears to set up its pitch in the hooligan category, a barn-stormer to the Alfa’s more GT pretensions. And it is true that the later body kits and its descent into Max Power second hand territory  tend to reinforce that impression. But it’s really not that simple. The Coupe is a proper daily driver with a decent boot and reasonable rear seats, which both give a hint to its true character. The Coupe is really a GT cruiser. True, the Turbo is very, very quick, albeit with a lot of turbo lag, but the Coupe doesn’t feel as at home on B roads as the lithe Alfa. Fiat’s engineers have done a less impressive job transforming the stodgy Tipo chassis for a sports car, resulting in a car that rides well and handles tidily but lacks the driver involvement of the Alfa. 

Fiat sold roughly similar numbers of both Tipo-based cars, but it was only the Alfa that lived on once the original had died. Fiat never replaced the Coupe, which is a shame because it had a much clearer market niche than the Alfa, one now occupied by the Toyota GT86. These cars have been ignored or under-appreciated for years, meaning you can pick up decent examples for hundreds rather than thousands of pounds. That seems likely to change, particularly for the V6 Alfa and turbo coupe, which have all the ingredients of future classics. They were two of the most distinctive cars of the 90s. 

I own examples of both – a 97 20v Turbo and a 2000 Alfa GTV V6. The Fiat is practical, interesting to look at and astonishingly quick. It’s also extremely comfortable, all of which makes it the ideal mile muncher. But the Alfa edges it for me. The later Phase 2 cars, like mine, had much better interiors and the 3 litre V6 is a superlative motor. Sure, it is impractical and not comfortable for long trips, but as a weekend car it edges the Fiat on character, engine and style. 

These two cars can’t get cheaper. I paid £2,500 for both of mine, most of which was for the Alfa. I’ve bought them for personal use and for the long term, so unfortunately they’re not for hire. 

Grab a piece of Latin style before prices go up. 


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