Cost gives Tipo solid start as Fiat begins turnaround
Changing perceptions is key challenge
I tried hard to keep an open mind about this week's car for several reasons. The buying public - you and I - are entitled to retain a measure of reserve when introduced to a new small-family hatchback from an automaker that hasn't made one for a long time.
By the same token, Fiat are entitled to claim their new Tipo is a totally new departure and that past absence is rendered irrelevant by renewed presence.
I can't write about it, however, without mentioning what has gone before. We Irish seem to remember the bad times more than others (Fiats such as the wonderful little '500' sell really well in the UK, for example).
But we seem to always recall the times when Fiats weren't so good; when balloon payments in finance deals amounted to more than some cars were worth.
So can this new Tipo 5dr banish the ghosts and herald a new era with this modern take on what a hatchback should be (there is a saloon and estate too)? More to the point: just what will it take to get you, or me, to buy one?
If first impressions are anything to go by, they have made a solid start. I use the word 'solid' advisedly because that is how the car felt from the outset: from the big, chunky steering wheel, to strong seating, sturdy dash, clunkier-sounding doors. Even the look of the car is substantial - indeed given its stretched appearance, it is easy to mistake it for a small estate.
They have some excellent diesels but I was glad to take the 1.4-litre petrol (120hp). I don't want to digress and get into the pros and cons of petrol vs diesel (I can hear you yawning) but it performed well for me.
I gave it a broad mix of work - long motorway drives and several dogged city journeys - and I have to say it impressed. The only area in which it suffered was fuel consumption. They claim 6-litres/100km (47.1mpg) but mine ended up with 8.1-litres/100km. And road tax is a hefty €280. The upside to that was how well it responded and worked in what is a big car.
The second major area with this new car is roominess. They claim three adults can sit across the back. Just about, I'd say, if one of them isn't that big.
But how many other hatchbacks in this class can make that sort of claim? Not many.
On the road, the car was solid (can't get away from the word) though there was noticeable up-and-down wheel travel and some road noise.
I won't say it was the smoothest cruiser I've been in, but it worked well considering everything. The only criticism of it in that area was the level of feedback that came through when I drove over those awful roads (they're everywhere) that had a divot, repair scars, chunks missing, etc. I felt for the poor old tyres being battered out there.
On better roads, it was absolutely fine; and in town I found it easy to park and get around in.
I suppose the ultimate test would be if I sat into this with all clues of its Fiat identity removed. How would I feel? That was part of my 'open-mind' approach. I scanned the cabin, dash, exterior and boot (440 litres is a good size) as part of the experiment. I could see myself saying: nice car - what price is it?
And price is where I suspect most of us would need least convincing. They're obviously doing two things on that front: making the car as inexpensive as possible while putting in a good amount of standard equipment.
It would be unfair to call it bargain basement - let's leave that to Dacia for now. But it is certainly in the region of making you ask yourself: what else out there will give me something similar for €18,000? The answer is not much (the list of rivals goes from the likes of the Citroën C4 to the Ford Focus with a huge number of others, such as the Toyota Auris in-between).
Would I buy it? For many of the reasons outlined above, especially the budget-sensitive bottom line, I would definitely look at it. Let's be honest. The level of engineering in virtually all cars these days is high; fit and finish are usually of a decent standard and people's demands are such that they won't settle for poor quality materials in a new car.
But my major reservation would be what my 2017 Tipo would be worth in three years when I'd be trading it in.
If it stands that test of time - as well as our collective predisposition - and residual values hold well, then people will be far more confident in buying one.
That is the challenge: for your dealer, especially, to convince you it makes economic sense both now and in three years.
Fiat had to start somewhere to turn things around. I think they've made a really solid beginning with the Tipo.
FACTS & FIGURES
Fiat Tipo 5dr hatchback, 1.4-litre petrol (120hp) Lounge spec. 6l/100km (47.1mpg) claimed; on test: 8.1l/100km. 139g/km; €280 road tax. Prices start at €17,995 for the hatchback; saloon from €16,745. Car tested with extras: €20,495.
Equipment includes: Uconnect 5ins touchscreen DAB radio, Bluetooth, USB, AUX-in and navigation system; TFT display, automatic climate control; LED daytime running lights, roof bars, 6-spd manual; electric windows, rear-view camera, rear seat flip/fold, full-size spare wheel, Dualdrive (can make steering lighter for parking, etc), 17ins alloys, electric door mirrors. Chrome, Safety, Comfort packs.