If you had to instantly associate one word with Italy, ‘style’ would probably be the first term to come to mind. That’s especially true of its automotive output, from the groundbreaking 1950s FIAT 500 to the modern-day Maseratis and Ferraris, which dominate any conversation about Italian sports car brands.
Yet you don’t need a banker’s budget to live la dolce vita. The best Italian car brands have a coherent personality, whether they’re using a one-liter hybrid engine or a howling V12. Some marques have sunk into self-parody – none more so than the tragically diminished Lancia – while others thrive in today’s homogenous global market.
A canter through the best Italian sports car brands will inevitably touch on supercar superstars. Yet any celebration of Italian motoring should also consider the authentically alluring and the affordable, from pocket-sized FIATs to family-friendly Alfa Romeos.
Even at opposite ends of the design and performance spectrum, the soul and spirit of Italian motoring remains peerless.
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Before becoming a motoring writer, I spent much of my childhood in the back of various family FIATs, cultivating a lifelong passion for Italian cars. My dream car garage would include a Lancia Delta Integrale and a Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder.
Any round-up of the best Italian car brands will be contested by cognoscenti, whose passion makes them very protective of their favored marque – and occasionally hostile to rival brands. We’ve produced an even-handed overview of each manufacturer, including niche brands like Mazzanti. We’ve excluded defunct marques like Autobianchi and Innocenti, who ceased trading in the 1990s.
Bertone’s name is synonymous with Italian sports car brands, having been emblazoned across everything from the Fiat X1/9 to the Lancia Stratos. However, Bertone was historically more a design house than a manufacturer, though they did debut a limited selection of coach-built sports cars in 2022.
The Prancing Horse’s reputation was forged in the white heat of Formula One, with a record 16 constructors’ championship wins. The pursuit of speed and optimal road manners has also underpinned its consumer products ever since the first 125S rolled off the Maranello production line.
Ferrari is best known for supercars like the 488, launched in 2015 and firmly established as the marque’s all-time best-seller. However, its current six-model range includes its first-ever plug-in hybrid (the SF90) and its first-ever four-door SUV (the Purosangue). A Ferrari SUV might sound sacrilegious, but the Purosangue’s V12 engine and rear suicide doors are true showstoppers.
|Types of car:||Supercars|
|Best-selling car:||Ferrari 488|
Ferraris have always been delicate machines, and in 1958, a 250 GT with a dodgy clutch was bought by a tractor manufacturer called Ferruccio Lamborghini. Incensed by his unreliable car – and Ferrari’s indifferent response – Ferruccio vowed to put them out of business by creating a superior product.
Ferruccio ultimately failed in his aim, though he has arguably created the biggest rival to the Prancing Horse. Now subsumed into VW’s vast empire, Lamborghini models combine Audi build quality standards with impeccable all-wheel drive engineering and spectacular design. Today’s range includes the razor-edged Revuelto hybrid and the bestselling Urus luxury SUV.
|Types of car:||Supercars|
|Best-selling car:||Lamborghini Urus|
Decades before Ferrari was founded, Maserati was showcasing Italian sports car brands to the world. The five Maserati brothers started racing cars before branching out into manufacturing, but Maserati’s golden age came following its relocation to Modena under new family ownership in 1940. That year also saw the marque’s second successive Indy 500 win.
Changes of ownership have plagued Maserati, and the company was liquidated after an unsuccessful period under Citroën’s ownership. It’s since been owned by De Tomaso, FIAT, Ferrari and now Stellantis, bringing it back into the Citroen fold. Today’s elegant model range includes sedans, crossovers, sports cars and supercars – the latter including the gorgeous MC20.
|Founder:||Alfieri, Bindo, Carlo, Ettore and Ernesto Maserati|
|Types of car:||Sports cars|
|Best-selling car:||Maserati Levante|
While Maserati have dabbled with sedans, Pagani Automobili S.p.A. has taken a different approach. Horacio Pagani’s pugnacious approach to car design and manufacturing has seen some of the world’s most exotic vehicles bearing his name in the last three decades.
Paganis are symphonies of speed, reflecting Horacio’s background working alongside Lamborghini and Zonda. Each new model looks and performs more outrageously than the last, from the Zonda’s circular quad exhaust system to the Huayra Roadster, which can generate 1.8 G under acceleration alone. There are no SUVs here, and you’ll need a Bugatti budget to purchase a new Huayra.
|Types of car:||Hypercars|
|Best-selling car:||Pagani Zonda|
A long-established marque with a checkered history, Alfa Romeo has manufactured some absolute duds. Witness the Arna, a disastrous collaboration with Nissan which combined Japanese design and Italian build quality, when the opposite would have been far preferable.
Yet it’s impossible not to love driving an Alfa. Even with its heavy steering and impossible transmission, a restored GTV6 coupe makes your soul tingle, while looking utterly gorgeous. Today’s Alfas may be FIATs in fancy frocks, but the Stelvio is arguably one of the world’s most stylish SUVs. The diminutive 4C Spider combines modern driving dynamics with The Graduate-era sex appeal.
|Founder:||Nicola Romeo (he took over a company originally called ALFA)|
|Types of car:||Sedans, SUVs, sports cars|
|Best-selling car:||Alfa Romeo Alfasud|
If you haven’t heard of Mazzanti, you’re not alone. Founded in 2002 as a partnership between coachbuilder Luca Mazzanti and classic car restorer Walter Faralli, the company lasted just eight years before Faralli’s departure. Mazzanti opted to continue developing exotic sports cars single-handedly, under the Mazzanti Automobili brand.
Mazzanti has hitherto launched just one model – the Evantra. Various iterations have included models powered by 6.2-liter Corvette V8 engines. Only five Mazzantis are produced each year, and prices are available only on application. As Italian sports car brands go, you won’t find a more exclusive marque.
|Founded In:||2002 (known as Faralli & Mazzanti until 2010)|
|Types of car:||Supercars|
|Best-selling car:||Mazzanti Evantra|
While Mazzanti has little history, Fabbrica Italiana Automobili di Torino arguably has too much of it. The Agnelli family turned Italy’s premier car manufacturer into a family dynasty to rival the Mafia. Founded in 1899, this Turin-based brand has always specialized in affordable vehicles, with spin-offs including the 124-based Lada Riva – the world’s third best-selling single-generation car.
Today’s FIATs are unashamed throwbacks to the company’s post-war golden age. The 500 and its supersized variants are modern takes on the world-leading people’s car, while the 124 Spyder celebrates Italy’s heritage of drop-top roadsters, despite being a lightly restyled Mazda Miata.
|Types of car:||Hatchbacks, sports cars|
This is the point where Italian car purists will sigh deeply and gaze up to the heavens. Lancia was a jewel in Italy’s automotive crown, but its luster palled when chronic rust problems corroded its reputation. It withdrew from many overseas markets, eventually reduced to selling rebadged Chryslers.
Lancia should have been one of the great Italian sports car brands. It dominated world rallying with cars like the Stratos and the peerless Delta Integrale hatchback. It developed exquisite engines, launching beautifully balanced driver’s cars throughout the Sixties and Seventies. Today, it sells just one model – the underwhelming Ypsilon hatchback.
|Types of car:||Family cars|
|Best-selling car:||Lancia Ypsilon|
The Abarth name is another that will cause cognoscenti to take a deep breath – but this time in respect for a true hero of Italy. Carlo Abarth may have started his career racing scooters, but he quickly branched out into creating four-wheeled performance vehicles.
For readers (and writers) of a certain age, the Abarth scorpion logo came to differentiate cooking FIATs from something truly special. Today, Abarth has retaken its rightful place as a standalone marque, albeit featuring heavily adapted FIAT 500s. Abarth’s red, yellow and black logo remains the coolest one ever to adorn a production car.
|Types of car:||Family cars|
|Best-selling car:||Abarth 595|
Frequently asked questions about Italian car brands
While Italian sports car brands like Ferrari and Lamborghini are arguably better known Stateside, FIAT has long been Italy’s most popular car brand. Iconic models like the 126 and Strada cemented its status as a manufacturer of honest, enthusiastic little people’s cars, perfectly proportioned for the narrow streets of historic Italian cities.
Maserati has done the best job of blending Italian style and performance with the opulence you’d expect to find in a luxury car. Open the doors of a Levante SUV in a Maserati showroom, and you’re transported into a world of hand-stitched craftsmanship that only the best luxury car brands can match.
Despite being designed as the opposite of luxurious (early models didn’t even have a glovebox, instead presenting an open coil of suspended fabric), the FIAT Panda remains Italy’s most popular car. It sold over 105,000 units in 2022, dwarfing the second-placed Lancia Ypsilon (40,000).
The most sold car in Italy is the FIAT Panda. Even the legendary Cinqucento (marketed as the 500 in some countries) and its modern namesake haven’t managed to top the 7.5 million Pandas sold since the latter debuted in early 1980. Today’s Panda isn’t on sale in America, but it’s the same lively and affordable supermini it’s always been.