The question of what the best Italian cars in the world are is one that could spark a fiery debate. Hell, it could spark a fist fight. These are cars people love, that they would fight for. As is too often the case, however, cars we love aren’t necessarily good. Rarely is that more the case than with Italian cars. So what are actually the best Italian cars?
The 12 best Italian cars ever made
Happily, the Ferrari F40 is as beloved as it is excellent. It arguably set a standard that is yet to be surpassed of driver involvement and excitement. Yes, there are faster sports saloons now but the F40 in its day was warp-speed fast, both in a straight line and in the twisties. Lightweight, powerful, well set-up. Arguably, with the F40, Ferrari created the first-ever hypercar.
Generations ago, Lancia was a marque known for technical innovation. One of many examples of this is the Lambda of the 1920s. This was a legitimately excellent car both in the moment and in its legacy. It ran an early iteration of the famous Lancia V4 but more than that, it pioneered the use of a unitary stressed body and independent front suspension. For context, there were sports racing cars in the 1960s that still hadn’t moved to monocoques. This was a car decades ahead of its time.
Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint GTA
Long before BMW M, Mercedes-AMG, and Audi Sport, Alfa Romeo were producing performance variants of their conventional road cars. The 1960s Giulia is perhaps the best example of this pre-super saloon era of tarted-up conventional cars. The Giulia GTA traded steel bodywork for aluminium and ran a twin-plug head on its revvy 1.6-litre engine. The A stood for Allegorita, Italian for Lightened. We don’t need to tell you how brilliant this little car was because you already know.
We’re going to go controversial and not give this one to the original Fiat 500. Chincy as it is, the modern-day 500 is an excellent car in the eyes of the only people who matter: the people that bought it. Critics were sceptical of the practical sacrifices that were made in dropping the cutesy 500 body on the Panda platform. How out of touch they were. It proved to be Fiat’s saviour, almost single-handedly, with what is fundamentally the same car still selling well 13 years on from its debut.
The odds were entirely against the Pagani Zonda on release in 1999. Pagani was a new relatively unknown name, the car was extravagant and excessive. It could have been fairly described as an Italian TVR. What the Zonda actually wound up being, much to the surprise of the industry and journalists, was one of the best Italian supercars ever made. Yes desirable, yes fast (particularly as subsequent versions were released) but crucially, very, very good. It was reliable and famously, entirely juxtaposing its jaw-dropping looks, reportedly very easy to drive. The Mercedes-AMG V12 engine had mountains of torque, the steering and chassis were well-calibrated, the clutch was light and the cabin was airy. A modern-day Countach it was but only in the very best ways.
Some may credit the Honda NSX or even latterly, the Audi R8, as the world’s first usable supercars. By our reckoning, they’re way off. Let us introduce you to the Maserati Bora, a mid-engined supercar engineered in 1969 that offered practicality, comfort and sophisticated design. The usual supercar niceties are there: independent suspension, a rapturous V8 engine and sleek wedge styling by Giugiaro in his Italdesign days. What it had that no other supercar had, was adjustable pedals, an adjustable steering rack, good air conditioning, electric windows, half-decent soundproofing and a decent-sized boot. This was a decent-driving pleasant-driving supercar that was much more amenable in everyday circumstances. A shame then, that it went unappreciated, with just under 600 sold in its seven years on sale.
Ferrari 458 Speciale
Many journalists will tell you the 458 Speciale is the finest Ferrari ever made and therefore, the finest Italian car ever made. You’ve got to admit, the ingredients are mouth-watering. A 600PS (441kW) 4.5-litre V8 that revs to 9,000rpm, a dual-clutch transmission, a soundtrack to humble the gods, and sophisticated electronics, all attached to the already sublime 458 platform. Whatever Ferrari takes your preference is entirely up to you but ask anyone who’s driven one and they’ll say the Speciale is objectively one of, if not the best.
The Fiat Panda was a brilliant car, there are no two ways about it. It built on the precedent of the also-excellent 126 and indeed, the original 500. It was yet more proof that Fiat were true masters of the people’s car. The original served economy car buyers from 1980 all the way up to 2003, before the also brilliant next-gen model took over. It was versatile, too, with electrified versions, a variant also sold by Seat and indeed, the famous 4x4 version. Did the Panda 4x4 father the modern crossover? An argument could be made...
Lancia Fulvia Sport Zagato
The Fulvia like the little Alfa Giulia was a superb little car during its 13-year run between 1963 and 1976. Originally debuting as an unassuming saloon, the Fulvia would grow into a desirable sporting coupe and in the form of the Sport Zagato, a special-bodied fully-fledged sports coupe. Yes, the Fulvia Sport Zagato was a full Zagato, being constructed at the coachbuilder’s Milanese premises. The Sport 1600 had the honour of being the fastest production Fulvia ever produced.
Just as Ferrari was in the first years of its sportscar building life, Fiat joined the fray with the 8V in 1952. Named because Fiat believed Ford had a copyright on ‘V8’, this diminutive little sportscar used a 2.0-litre V8 engine producing up to 127PS (93kW). Crucially also, the 8V would serve as the underpinning for some of the most stunning coachbuilt bodies of the era. Vignale, Zagato and Ghia all had multiple versions of the 8V, with beautiful custom bodywork. Fast the 8V wasn’t but it was an exemplary Italian beauty.
Upon his arrival at Ferrari in 1991, Luca di Montezemolo was unimpressed with what he found. A lacklustre line-up of cars that were unreliable, expensive to maintain and far from class leaders in terms of performance. That simply wouldn’t do. Out with the 348, in with the F355, a comprehensively reengineered version of the former with beautiful modernised styling, five-valve heads on its 3.5-litre V8 helping it produce 380PS (279kW). The was the beginning of a return to form for Ferrari in the 1990s, as it found its direction again following Enzo Ferrari’s death in 1988.
So those are our picks of the best Italian cars ever. Do you agree? Are you currently trying to slap us through your phone/computer screen? Let us know where we went wrong in the comments…
Lancia images and Alfa Romeo image courtesy of Bonhams.
Lamborghini Huracan Evo RWD
Lamborghini is perhaps best known for making cars that people love but that objectively, aren’t the best. That’s been the case for most of the marque’s life, even into the more regimented Audi ownership era. Even the Huracan, Lambo’s current junior supercar, was considered by critics to be a dud at launch in 2014 but it’s really come into its stride in the last few years. The Performante, the Evo and now, the Evo RWD – all are genuinely class-contending supercars, battling McLaren’s 720S and Ferrari’s 488 and F8 Tributo. With the Evo RWD, the Huracan is now on full song. A genuinely excellent supercar that we’d recommend in a heartbeat.
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