Five of Italy's Best Real-World Drivers Cars
Italy, with its winding roads and creative flair has got to be the undisputed home of Europe's best cars. Germany may have Porsche but Italy has been home to Lamborghini, Ferrari, De Tomaso and Maserati. Yes, some of their cars may have been pants. But even the not so great ones were, in their flawed way, great.
If your pockets aren't quite deep enough for Modena's finest, don't fret: the DNA that defined those supercars is also present in some of the country's more humble fare. We pick our favourite Italian cars for the enthusiastic driver on a real-world budget.
It's testament to Italy's prowess at building exciting real-world cars that limiting this list to five means many great - perhaps better - cars missed the cut. Like the original Alfa GTV, Lancia Beta Montecarlo, Alfa Romeo Spider and Fiat 124. But these are the cars you could buy then and can still buy now - in right hand drive - without breaking the bank.
Before the Golf GTI there was the Alfasud Ti, a not-quite-hatchback that proved that humble family motoring could also be fun. A lot of it.
The Alfasud dropped into a world of Morris Marinas, Austin Maxis and Ford Escorts, where just-enough was deemed to be good enough. Not so with the Sud - created by an ex-Porsche engineer and designed by the same man who penned the Golf, the Sud was a marvel of packaging with room for four. And, thanks to a low centre of gravity and peppy Boxer engines, it drove brilliantly.
It also rusted badly - actually, very badly - and the electrics operated on a 'one on, one off' shift pattern, but none of that really mattered when you were behind the wheel and it was running.
Thanks to those rust problems there are just 60 left in the UK and Alfa has never dared reinvent it. A shame because it was arguably the best handling front wheel drive not-a-hatchback of its generation.
In the 1970s Lancia was flying. There was the stylish Beta saloon, the Gamma and the achingly pretty Beta Coupe. If you were a man about town in the 70s and 80s and lacked the chest hair for a Capri, here was a svelte coupe that would make you stand out from the crowd.
The Beta coupe didn't just look good, it drove well too. Despite attempts to cut costs by Lancia's new owner Fiat, the Beta had a decent twin cam 2 litre engine - there was also a 'Volumex' supercharged version - and advanced (for the time) front wheel drive. It was a car that seemed to channel Lancia's rally experience into a smart, road going model. There was even an estate version called the HPE, presumably aimed at famed Scimitar enthusiast Princess Anne.
The Beta Coupe, of course, succumbed to that most Italian of tragedies - tin worm. There were reports of brand new cars arriving at showrooms already rusty. But in its fragility surely lies part of the Coupe's appeal. The knowledge that the relationship had a sell-by date meant you had to wring every last drop of enjoyment out of it while it lasted. So owners did.
Mainstream Italian car makers can, at times, give the impression of not being quite bothered. There's some of the cars they've given us - quite a lot of them Fiats - and then there's the habit of not really bothering too much with names. Like the Alfasud - literally, an Alfa made in the South of the country - and Lancia Beta (the second in a range of cars) and then there's the Fiat Coupe. A coupe. By Fiat.
But, as you can see from the photo, there was quite a lot more to the late 90s Fiat Coupe than a boring name. Designed by Chris Bangle - who went on to go all flame-surfacey at BMW - it looked sensational. It shouldn't have worked - those slashed wheel arches - and yet somehow the car totally pulled it off. Against competitors from Ford, VW and Vauxhall, the distinctive Coupe showed that, at last, Fiat had got its mojo back.
It didn't just look right, it went very well too. At the time the top of the range 226 bhp 20v Turbo was not just the fastest Fiat every built but the fastest accelerating front wheel drive car on the market. Admittedly, this performance did push the limits of the shared Tipo platform on which the Coupe was based, but it was heady stuff from the firm that had been turning out Marea Weekends.
Alfa Romeo GTV6
Jeremy Clarkson famously loves them. But there are still good reasons why you should too. The GTV and GTV6 were Alfa's answer to the Ford Capri: sophisticated, upmarket sports cars from a long line of sophisticated, upmarket sports cars.
So, where Ford opted to make great styling disguise very humble underpinnings, Alfa did things properly. The GTV was well engineered with near 50:50 weight distribution thanks to a rear mounted transaxle. It got Alfa's superlative engines, in particular the V6 2.5 litre 'Busso'. And, because clever thinking doesn't always translate entirely well into the real world, there was a dashboard that mostly wasn't actually in front of the driver.
None of which particularly matters when you drive a GTV. Even the humble four-pot versions are alive and exciting in a way that a Capri never was or will be.
Of course, there are very few GTVs left for a reason that will be glaringly obviously if you've read this far. Today their complexity and reputation for unreliability keeps values low. But they really are one of the best Alfas you can buy.
When Fiat was pondering replacing the Fiat 124 in the early 70s it didn't take the easy option and just design another front-engined convertible. It chose difficult.
Of the two competing designs, one became a notoriously fragile and unreliable Lancia - the Beta Montecarlo - and the other became a notoriously fragile and unreliable Fiat, the X1/9. True to Italian car naming convention, X1/9 was simply the name given to the prototype. Yet somehow it works.
The X1/9 channelled Ferrari thinking into a small, low cost sports car. Its styling was influenced by power boat design and gave the little car serious road presence, while its mid-engined layout provided superb handling. It may only have had a 1300cc and later 1500cc engine but it didn't need any more - the X1/9 was nearly fun just at walking pace.
The postscript to the X1/9 is familiar - most either broke down and died when new or are rotting in the great Italian scrap yard in the sky.
That's our list of the top 5 real-world Italian drivers cars. We've definitely missed some out - see above - and we've probably even forgotten some that others will remind us about. That's the beauty of Italy's rich history of these cars. Let us know what your list would have on it.