Motoring: With bells on

The verdict; Readers go for a spin in the Fiat Coupe LE - nice mover, shame about the dodgy alarm and styling.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
he impotent wails of car alarms are the bane of urban living and these days no one pays them the slightest heed. So when I heard a high-pitched car alarm sounding outside my house as I cooked dinner I just tutted and returned to the stove. The manic guinea pig continued for another 10 minutes until it really began to annoy. And another 10 passed before it occurred to me that it might be the new Fiat Coupe Limited Edition, loaned to me by the manufacturer and parked outside.

The Fiat's alarm had malfunctioned and was damned if it was going to be silenced before every curtain in the street had twitched. After a few frantic minutes pressing any button I could find, I was forced to drive the car and park it under a railway bridge where the trains could drown the noise.

And we had been getting on so well, the Fiat and I. Introduced this year as the ultimate Fiat Coupe, only 200 LEs will be sold in the UK. For a pounds 3,000 premium over the standard Turbo (pounds 25,724 in all) you get a six- speed box; drilled aluminium pedals; red Brembo brake callipers; red and black leather trim; and a body kit. One final gimmick is a shiny red starter button, a purposeless track-bred affectation, albeit one that does bring a smile to your face each time you start the car.

As with the standard car, the LE is an accomplished ground gobbler with seamless, thrusting acceleration and a magically free-revving five-cylinder engine that's just as docile around town as it is demonic on A-roads. The Coupe's gear change is a little loose, but the clutch is light and the steering sublime. This is Fiat's fastest production model ever and with wild acceleration and effortless high-speed cruising it is a car you drive with one eye on the rear-view mirror at all times, so difficult is it to keep within the speed limit. But then, if you don't want speed, buy a Seicento.

The Fiat's high-speed cornering poise is terrific fun, but the price you pay is a firm ride that can be a drag on long motorway journeys and gives you an instant vibrato over bumps as you sing along to the stereo. But you soon forget about your numb nethers once the twisty bits hove into view. What's more, for a coupe it is very roomy, rear leg room is excellent even for adults, and the boot is capacious enough for two suitcases.

But, personally, the idea of spending an extra pounds 3,000 on an interior that looks like a tart's handbag, a pointless sixth gear and a body kit which looks like it's been bought from Halfords and bolted on by a spotty boy racer, is laughable. Those wacky racer add-ons make the LE a car for poseurs only. The standard car's styling is extrovert enough as it is.

As for the alarm, well, after the police had been called (perhaps people aren't as apathetic as I thought) and I had offered shame-faced excuses, a passing AA man (thank you Peter Britten), managed to disable the alarm. Apparently a piece of the circuitry had "fallen off". Whether my Fiat's problem was a one-off or not (though another AA man did tell me of a similar problem on a new Coupe he'd been called out to the week before), I know how I'd be feeling today if I'd just spent pounds 25,000 on a new car that had turned the neighbourhood against me

Richard Townsend, 36, director of Bailey Paints, from Stroud, Gloucestershire. Currently drives a Saab 9000

"I love the unashamedly modern styling of this," commented Richard. "There's none of this nostalgia bollocks you get with cars like the BMW Z3. The headlamps are particularly groovy, you'll certainly turn heads. The detailing all over is very nice, but I don't know about the red interior, it's a bit tarty - the red seat belts make me think of an MG Metro. The turbo makes it very exciting on the move, though it's surprisingly quiet: I'd want a car like this to make a bit of noise. It's rock steady at speed, but the gear change isn't exactly switch-like. There's plenty of space in the back, my two children would be fine there. As it's a Fiat I'd worry about depreciation, but this could be a good second-hand buy in a couple of years."

Stephen Wall, 52, social worker, Rosemary Wall, 52, school librarian, from Churchdown, Gloucestershire. Currently drive a Nissan Primera

At 6ft 5in Stephen was always going to struggle to fit into the Fiat and had to drive with his head cocked to one side. "I do have a lot of trouble with cars because I have an exceptionally long back," he said. "But other than the headroom it's surprisingly spacious. This has a lovely light clutch and it pulls well in fourth gear. It does any speed you want instantly, but it's still very docile. It feels small, firm, solid and nimble and the power feels limitless. My brother's an ecologist so he'd be absolutely disgusted by this!" "And this would be practical for us now the children have left home," added Rosemary.

David Morgan 49, chartered surveyor, from Bisley, Gloucestershire. Currently drives a Toyota Supra Turbo

David was initially disappointed by the lack of boot space. "You wouldn't get a set of golf clubs in there," he said and also had problems with the headroom. "I don't see the point of six gears, it's just a fancy feature, like the starter button. But there's not much lag on the turbo, which is good. It is nicely chuckable and visibility out the back isn't bad, the gearing is nicely weighted too. But it has the usual Fiat driving position with your knees up around your ears. The styling is very pleasing, but I think this would appeal to someone who hadn't got a lot of motoring taste."

Maureen Shields, 64, hospital manager, and John Shields, 65, industrial designer, from Painswick, Gloucestershire. Currently drive an Audi 90

"It's very roomy in the back, I could wear a hat," observed Maureen. "And the engine is nice and quiet. I do think we should have this car, don't you John?" "It does handle well, nice sporty suspension, delightfully direct steering." said John. "And the Italians know how to work with sheet steel - I think it's a great design, it expresses its efficiency, it doesn't try and hide behind chrome. The ergonomics are very good, the seats grip very well and the boot is roomy enough to get the meals on wheels box in the back. I'd love to drive to Italy in this."

Road test If you would like to take part in a test drive, write to The Verdict, The Independent Magazine, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, giving a contact phone number, your address and details of the type of vehicle, if any, you drive. For most cars, participants must be over 26, and have a clean driving licence.

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