CLASSIC CARS | The Fiat X1/9 Vs. the MR2 MK122nd February 2020
Two-seater Toss Off
For as long as time has begun, from the ’70s to be exact, the Fiat X1/9 has always been compared to the TR7. And this is true of the classic press too. Wedge-shaped with pop-up headlights, that is where the similarities end. The X1/9 comes out well in these tests but I fear this is because there are many that disliked BL’s wedge or the agro that went with it.
The TR7 died in 1981. The X1/9 carried on, unchallenged until 1984 when suddenly you could hear the X1/9’s market share fall apart much like what happened to the car itself after its first winter.
Launched in 1972, the X1/9 saw very little development. The main changes came in 1979 with larger US federal style bumpers and a 1500cc engine from the Strada. There were some changes to paint schemes and specs but overall, very little changed.
Suddenly, Japan enters stage left. It comes to the party with its MR2. A dinky looking 2 seater with a rev-happy 1600cc engine packed with 16 valves and twin cams. It was what the X1/9 had been calling out for.
Toyota’s new car was a runaway success. What it lacked in practicalities over the X1/9, it more than made up for it by keeping up with the new hot hatches on the block. There was even competition in-house from the Corolla GT-i 16. Basically the same engine dressed in a 3 door hatchback style. It was competent and reliable but didn’t set the pulse racing with its Corolla looks.
The X1/9, having surpassed the128 3P and still going strong considering Fiat’s Strada Abarth offering, it had finally met its match. Back to back, in everyday situations, both cars are similar. The engine sits behind you and both are vocal. In those traffic light Grand Prix trials, it’s quite fun. On a run, it can be both tiring. Both cars come with low gearing though it feels like the MR2 has the lower set of ratios. Using the Fiat Strada engine and gearbox, the X1/9’s are just a little bit taller all round.
Those lower ratios are no bad thing though. The MR2, with its 16 valve engine has 3 stages of power delivery like boiling an egg. 1-3000 it’s all gentle, warm, nothing really happens. 3-4000 and something is happening. There are bubbles at the bottom of the pan and it’s getting hot. 4000 and beyond and it’s boiling. Stomp on the throttle and you feel a shove from the 128bhp engine that will happily spin up to the red near 8000rpm.
There is no such gauge to be had from the X1/9. It’s 85bhp is way off what the Toyota has. All is not lost though. Despite its twin choke carb fed single cam unit, it develops all of its 87Ib/ft of torque lower at 3200rpm. This makes the X1/9 a more flexible car than you would expect and feel the more rapid in the twisty bits. It’s far easier to keep the power on.
With maximum bhp’s coming up high on both engines, it’s where the torque is that counts. The X1/9 doesn’t have to have the engine singing loudly to get where it wants too quickly. In contrast, the MR2 needs to be spinning at 5000rpm to get its 105 Ib/ft. The downside to the 16valve engine is that it needs revs to get the power.
You’d expect the handling to be similar for both cars too. Well no. They differ in quite a lot of ways and both are winners and losers. Where overall comfort comes into it, it is the X1/9 that wins. Its ride from the all-round MacPherson struts is soft and comfortable. This makes it the more civilised cruiser over long distances despite its cramped cockpit and close to the controls driving position.
On the other hand, the cornering safety goes to the MR2. Approaching its limits, it will gently understeer and the steering wheel will communicate this back to the driver effectively. The X1/9 has no such virtue. Instead, you can be caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s near-neutral handling is great. The steering loads up and its adhesion with the road is lost. Be quick though because the steering is not as quick in the rack as it is in the MR2, nor is it as light. And this issue is down to 1 factor alone. The MR2 wears wider 185 section tyres with a lower sidewall. The Fiat’s 165 sections cannot compete with 185’s.
So who did it better? Both have plus sides over the other. At its limit, the X1/9 will try and kill you. You can’t drive it without 100% concentration all the time. The MR2, on the other hand, will allow you to be foolish and reward you without going backwards into a ditch unless you are really stupid.
It’s like the Minogue sisters, you can’t, apparently, like them both. The MR2 is like Danni. It can be a little bit diva and a little bit pop in as much as it will satisfy you no matter what your mood. The X1/9 is Kylie. It’s full-on disco diva, 100% of the time. Just don’t show it her years with Deconstruction records. It gets messy, much like its handling can.
Which would I choose? I’ve had a liking for both since I was a child. I just happen to own the Fiat. Having now driven both in almost all driving situations, (the MR2 I did manage to get on the Silverstone racetrack) would I change my own X1/9 for the MR2? If I had the chance to use it more, I would. The MR2, despite its lack of luggage carrying ability, is the more useable car. It’s both fun and easy to live with. It doesn’t feel as delicate as the X1/9 and that also goes for all-round weather ability.
It’s just that my X1/9 tends to spend a lot of time looking at me from the garage, not broken I might add, and much like its handling on the limit, its looks are a killer!
Many thanks to Toyota GB’s Graham Bothamley for the loan of the MR2 from their heritage fleet.