For stylish, bouncy fun, the Spider 2000 from Fiat is hard to beat

Some cars on the road just naturally turn heads. The Ferrari, for example, is one of the best; and so also is an Italian exoticar, such as the Lamborghini. Motorists will snap to attention when the stainless-steel DeLorean goes by, with its gull-wing doors and Ital Design styling by Giugiaro -- at least for a while. Then there are such low-production classics as the fiber-glass Model A's, the raft of ragtops built from converted 2- and 4-door sedans, and the Clenet.

Such a car also is the Fiat 2000 Spider, a classic sports ragtop with a woody-looking dashboard and the aura and feel of a car that was built back in the heyday of the British MG.

Indeed, it's a handsome car, this spider 2000 by Fiat.

I must admit that my first reaction -- that is, after I got it from another auto writer around Boston -- was somewhat negative. After all, it was reainy and hot, the windows fogged up badly, I wasn't familiar with the controls, and there was, sadly I thought, no air conditioning.

Thus, I tucked it away in the office garage for the weekend and drove home in something else.

But then, getting back into the car a few days later, it quickly grew on me and I found it one of the nicest cars I'd been in for a long time, if pure fun with an auto is the measure.

And perform it does -- with zip to spare -- although the power layout is strictly conventional, with a 122-cubic-inch, 4-cylinder, fuel-injected front engine and rear-wheel drive. But what a kick you get when the gas pedal is pushed!

"The pickup is surprisingly fast," a colleague agrees.

With a wheelbase of not quite 90 inches and a fairly stiff sporty-type suspension, predictably the Fiat Spider is jouncy on rough roads, but that's all part of the fun.

That's why you buy a sports cars, anyway, isn't it? No one who opts for a sports car expects a big-car ride.

Too, the steering is stiff, but it should be in a car of this kind. Power steering would be out of the question, anyhow. The car goes precisely where you want it to go, so that, with a manual 5-speed gearshift, you're in full charge all the time.

Thus, in total, we like the car very much, but naturally there are things that get in the way.

Whoever heard, for instance, of turning the window crank toward you to raise up the glass? You dom in this Fiat sports car. Opening the doors, either inside or out, is a little hard to get used to, we find. In fact, the right door on the car we've been driving calls for a big push to open it. But that may be a peculiarity of this particular car and not the entire marque.

When you're under way, the gearshift area around the drive tunnel gets warm to the touch, but not so warm as to keep a hot pastrami sandwich in shape for lunch.

The Fiat Spider 2000 was designed and built by Pininfarina, that preeminent Italian styling and coachmaking firm that has made such an impact on the cars the world drives over the last 50 years.

What ism it about the Spider 2000 that turns all those heads?

I guess it's the shape, the feel of the '30s, perhaps, the cute turn of the taillights, the ivory paint and the striping, the fastidious attention to detail. That said, it's a totally impractical car for most people to drive.

For one thing, it's quite a tight fit inside, although I did find enough legrom for someone who is an inch or so under 6 feet. The rear seat, however, is useless for anything but luggage, although there's a small trunk (6 cubic feet) for that. Nonetheless, there is a market for the car. Obviously!

As for the price, it's not cheap at $11,000-plus, even though the base is just under $10,000.

Fiat has had a rough ride in the United States since hitting a record sales high of about 100,000 cars a few years ago. But then its sales took a nosedive, partly because it was unprepared for the sales spurt and thus couldn't take care of the buyers; and also because of some problems with its products, including rust.

Since then, the Italian automaker says, it has been mending its ways. Its goal in the US now is far more modest. And it sells one of the most fun-filled cars on the road today!

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