Review by Brendan McAleer, photos by Brendan McAleer, Paul Williams and courtesy of manufacturers
Oh boy. This one comes with the biggest disclaimer I can think of. Hey Editors, do we have a font that’s six feet high? Or one that shoots lasers?
Anyway, owing to semi-popular demand, here’s the next instalment of our series on cars that Canadians never originally got, but that can now be imported under 15-year grey-market rules. This time, we’re off to the sunny climes of Europe’s boot: Italy.
Having been to Italy, I can tell you that the people are warm and friendly. While attending a rally event in the middle of a field, one gent wandered over and seeing the maple leaf on my T-shirt enquired, “Canadian?” Then he insisted I drink homemade wine with him. It was something like eleven o’clock in the morning.
A cheery welcome to be sure, but the way they drive… I always had Italy fixed in my mind as a place where nattily attired gents wearing string-backed driving gloves squired their Ferraris and Lambos through serpentine country roads with alacrity. In reality, it’s basically pure guerrilla econobox and Vespa warfare on the streets – the entire country drives like a herd of bumper cars let loose into the wild. I absolutely loved it.
But here’s the disclaimer: finding a performance-oriented Italian car that isn’t used up can be a little trickier than with some of the JDM imports. What’s more, parts are a little hard to come by. You really need to stake out a specialist mechanic, and realize that you’re not buying a Honda Civic. Not that an Italian steed is always going to be laid up with a lame leg, but the word “reliable” shouldn’t really be used here.
Remember, Tim Horton died behind the wheel of a DeTomaso Pantera. Italian cars and Canadians need to be careful around each other. Having said that, they’re mostly wonderful, and certainly full of passione. Leaving the Ferraris and Lamborghinis out of it, here are some formerly unobtainable pasta-rockets you can actually afford.
Fiat Barchetta & Lancia Delta Integrale. Click image to enlarge
1998 Fiat Barchetta
The idea of a hot little Italian number was perhaps best burnished into the collective consciousness by Dustin Hoffman driving a bright red Alfa Romeo Spyder across the Golden Gate Bridge in the opening scenes of The Graduate. A classic Italian roadster? Why not?
For the same reason that a Mazda MX-5 can be a better ownership experience than an MGB, may we perhaps suggest a slightly more modern drop-top with which to woo Mrs. Robinson? This little front-driver comes with a modest 130 hp from its 1.8L engine, but it’s a willing little scamp and only weighs 1,000 kg or so.
It’s a fairly recent design as well, built from 1995 to 2005 in various trim levels. The Barchetta (the name means “little boat”) looks great, and as the underpinnings are straight out of the ubiquitous Fiat Punto, spare parts are relatively easy to find.
1993 Lancia Delta Integrale HF Evoluzione II
This little turbocharged box is my favourite Italian car of all time, after the Ferrari F40. Think of it as a Subaru STI built by a Renaissance master who only had a ruler.
The current Lancia Delta might just be the ugliest car ever built by mankind, resembling a shrunken Lincoln MKT with the face of a deranged cuttlefish. The old model, however, was homologated for World Rally Championship racing; as a result, its short-wheelbase form is wonderfully flared and aggressive.
The last of the Delta Integrales, the Evoluzione II had a 2.0L four-cylinder equipped with a Garrett turbocharger that huffed and puffed and sent 212 hp to all four wheels. Zero to 100 km/h comes in under six seconds, but the car is also extremely responsive in the mid-range, and has excellent grip. If you can’t quite swing (or find) the Evo2, the HF starts in 1987 as an 8v with less power.