1979 – 1982 Fiat Strada: Hit the road, Tony

1980 Fiat Strada

The Fiat Strada, with headlights that looked like they were drilled into the hood and grille, looked like little else on the road

This would be the sedan that could make it here. The Fiat Strada came to the United States broadly heralded and with much press coverage. And why not? Fiat was well established in the U.S. Its sports cars provided Italian entertainment for those without Ferrari or even Alfa pocketbooks, even if its more mundane offerings had not the popularity here as in Europe. The Strada promised to be different. It would be Fiat’s Big Push for market share in the burgeoning economy-car market.

In Europe Fiat called it Ritmo–Italian for “rhythm–but for U.S. consumption, Fiat selected a name that fell better on America ears. Even so, “Strada” was still Italian, and all the better, it meant “road” in the mother tongue. The Strada was the replacement for the Fiat 128 which, with it transversely mounted four-cylinder engine and front-drive, greatly popularized if not invented that particular automotive genre. Appearing in 1979, the Strada improved on the 128 in every way. Longer and roomier and with a track four inches wider, the Strada drew a bead on the Volkswagen Rabbit, as the Golf then was known here, with a wheelbase two inches longer and a half a foot more from end to end for more interior space.

The Strada made do with a belt-driven single overhead cam four displacing 1498cc–we Americans got the big engine–actually the same powerplant used in the Fiat X1/9. It was rated at 69 hp at 5100 rpm, well below its 6300 rpm redline, and 77 lb-ft of torque, about par with its contemporaries. But surprisingly, despite its extremely oversquare bore and stroke and two-barrel Weber carburetor, the Strada displayed little of the joy for revving typical of Italian cars. It came standard with a five-speed transmission, one cog more than usual on most inexpensive cars at the time, while a three-speed automatic from Volkswagen was optional (and best avoided).

As one might expect, suspension was MacPherson struts up front, but at the rear, a strut-type setup used a horizontal leaf spring to maximize rear seat room. Overall, however, little in the Strada’s numbers distinguished it from the rest of the econobox herd.

But there was Italian style. From the front, the Strada, even with its American five-mph bumpers, looked like nothing else, a horizontally ribbed grille drilled for two large round headlamps. The original wheels–not shown here–were discs with four large rings, and the circular theme was duplicated in the exterior door handles as well. The interior styling continued the avant garde design, with a steering wheel with spokes at 5 and 7 o’clock, and rectangular binnacle housing large round speedometer and tachometer dials.

The Strada was polarizing. Though–particularly with the luxury package–drivers found the seats comfortable, the steering wheel had the traditional Italian tilt familiar to bus drivers, and the pedals were too close to the driver. The shifter, to keep vibration to a minimum, was rubbery and imprecise as a result. And the improbably skinny Michelin XZX 145/70SR-13 tires did nothing to improve the cornering that the not quite stiff enough suspension didn’t provide.

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John is a veteran auto writer, first published in Custom Rodder magazine in 1980. Since then, he has been published in all the big car magazines, including Car and Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend, Auto Week, Automobile, plus a variety of others, including but certainly not limited to Automobile Quarterly, Collectible Automobile, and Special Interest Automobiles. John’s work has also been featured in a number of consumer and general interest magazines such as Consumers Digest, Popular Science and others. John has written four books, including a history of the Mazda RX-7 (selling for more out-of-print than it did new), buyers’ guides for Mazda, Datsun/Nissan and Volvo cars, and is co-author of 365 Cars You Must Drive with Motor Trend editor Matt Stone, and his work has been translated into Italian, Estonian, Portuguese, Russian, and Bulgarian. John is recipient of the prestigious Ken Purdy Award for Excellence in Automotive Journalism, awarded by the International Motor Press Association, and the Golden Quill from the Washington Automotive Press Association. John has three adult daughters and has been married for more that four decades to Mary Ann, Distinguished Professor of Mathematics at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania.