Pininfarina's interior design was one of the best and included striking body-coloured dash trim, while the unique turbocharged 1998cc in-line five-cylinder powerplant delivered a healthy 220hp and 229lb ft of torque. A Viscodrive limited-slip differential helped traction while the reinforced bodyshell, independent suspension and anti-roll bars front and rear ensured that the Coupe handled sweetly.
Surprisingly, at the moment a good Turbo will set you back just £4,000, making Fiat's unique two-door one of the best value performance cars you can buy. And values of the best-kept examples are rising, making Fiat's Coupe Turbo 20v a shoo-in as our latest PH Hero.
Launched in 1996 to replace the original four-cylinder Turbo, the 20-valve five-cylinder model boasted a Garret turbocharger enabling the five-speed manual Coupe to reach 60mph in just 6.3 seconds and top out at 149mph. That made it the fastest front-wheel drive production car for a while, and the last true performance car Fiat has produced.
A new six-speed manual gearbox arrived in 1998, along with a few other tweaks including a satin gloss starter button, body-coloured sills and new eight-spoke alloys, whilst the car's top speed was elevated to 155mph. This six-speed transmission was first fitted to Fiat's LE (Limited Edition) model which featured front Brembo brake calipers, a distinctive bodykit, a strut brace and a pair of front Recaros with red leather inserts. A badge located by the rear-view mirror showed each car's unique number. Approximately 300 Limited Editions were originally planned, but the final production figure was much higher - with some estimating that as many as 1,400 may have been made. Fiat also released a Turbo Plus version that came with virtually the same equipment the LE.
Recaro seats with side airbags were introduced in early 2000 as part of a number of other minor revisions, before Fiat Coupe production finally came to an end in September of that year. By then UK buyers had snapped up over 3,500 examples of the 20-valve Turbo, and around 800 of those are still registered today.
Despite its age the Fiat's set-up is actually pretty contemporary, with that sharp-edged design backed up by a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine driving the front wheels via a limited-slip diff. Fire up the 20v Turbo and - as with more modern cars - the engine note is initially rather muted. In fact, off-boost the Coupe delivers a surprisingly benign drive. Get on the throttle however, wait for the turbo to kick in and the Coupe really comes alive, with urgent in-gear thrust and an unmistakable five-cylinder sound that acquires an angry rasp at high revs.
If you're not expecting it, the surge can momentarily take your breath away - a feeling that old-school Impreza drivers will find reassuringly familiar. You'll need to take a little more care when the heavens open though, as the front-wheel Coupe struggles to maintain traction. The diff does its best of course, but torque steer makes the Fiat a little boisterous. With decent rubber the grip levels are quite high though.
On corners the Coupe feels nimble and agile, with light but responsive steering - and body roll is minimal, with a comfortable ride too. Braking too is good, although track day enthusiasts will soon feel the need for something a little stronger, and in tight spaces you'll need to watch that rear end - the Coupe's turning circle is quite large and not always easy to judge. Slick gear changes are possible, in spite of the longish gear lever, and practically-minded PHers will be pleased with the two rear seats - which can accommodate younger children.
The 20v Turbo also provides a good platform for further tuning, with tuners like FC Performance able to provide anything from a simple Stage 1 remap (which can provide around 240hp) right up to a 400hp-plus Stage 5 rebuild. Most buyers at the moment, however, will be seeking a car as close to standard as possible.
Scour the classifieds and you'll find cars advertised for less than £3,000 - but these will require varying degrees of TLC. We reckon at least four grand is a more sensible starting point. "But this can rise to as much as £10,000 for an excellent condition example," explains Rob Donaldson at Glass's. "The more sought-after LE models start at £6,000 and can go for as much as £13,000," he adds. The well-equipped Plus version sits somewhere between the two. Coupes with a long list of modifications tend not to sell too easily and the higher prices are always for near-standard, well cared-for cars.
Galvanised bodies have meant that visible rust is not been much of an issue, but potential buyers must check the wheel arches, around the rear wing badges, the boot seams, sills and floorpan for any signs of corrosion. Aside from this the key issues to watch out for are missing red master keys, incomplete service histories, cracked exhaust manifolds, failing Lambda sensors, worn turbo seals, warped brake discs, perished suspension bushes and worn wheel bearings. "The engines are strong though," claims Leighton Wilson at Coupe experts FC Performance. "Just keep an eye out for a good maintenance record, and stay away from poorly tuned examples."
Service intervals are every 12,000 miles but some owners change their oil every 6,000, and the key cambelt change is due every 72,000 miles, or every six years. Prudent owners get this done more frequently but it can cost around £600 at a specialist - Fiat dealers charge more than £1,000 as they claim it's an engine out job. A few OE parts are now becoming harder to source and you should budget for new front tyres every 8-10K miles.
One thing's for sure: the Fiat Coupe certainly splits opinion, even in this, the most powerful 20-valve turbocharged guise. It's a classic marmite car and, although a rare sight, it's still one of the most recognisable shapes on UK roads. And certainly one of the more affordable PH Heroes too - what are you waiting for?
FIAT COUPE 20V TURBO
Engine: 1,998cc turbocharged inline-five
Transmission: 5-speed manual/6-speed manual, front-wheel drive (1999-on)
Power (hp): 220@ 5,750rpm
Torque (lb ft): 229@ 2,500rpm
Top speed: 149/155mph
Weight: 1,310kg (claimed)
On sale: 1996-2000
Price new (1998): £24,224
Price now: £3,000-£13,000