Fiat has every right to be Cross but tantrum, or not, it might not save Tipo
Four years ago, recalls Iain Robertson, sometime Italian car giant, Fiat, relaunched its Tipo model, with a comprehensively well-considered ‘offer’ to both private buyers and business users and it should have sold like ‘hotcakes’ but, sadly, it did not.
By any reckoning, selling a total of 670,000 Tipo models, in either 1.4/1.6-litre saloon, hatchback, or estate car forms, in the four years since its introduction, can be considered as a moderate success. However, Fiat is a company that should have sold in excess of twice that number in that period, were trading conditions anything near ‘normal’. Yet, I am not and I am sure that Fiat is not blaming the pandemic for any ‘lack’ of relative success.
Poor old Fiat has endured a devil of a time since the passing in 2003 of Sr Gianni Agnelli, its long-standing and immensely powerful company boss. It just about survived its strategic partnership with US giant, General Motors (GM), an agreement that was severed later that same year but not before GM had slashed Fiat’s domestic market share by more than half…it had been as high as 72%…in an all-too-familiar and destructive scenario and, for what it was worth, the Italians were thoroughly disgruntled by ‘their’ carmaker joining forces with an American one.
GM’s legacy to the automotive sector amounts to ‘give us your company and we can destroy it for you’! If you want some good examples, just look at Isuzu, or Subaru, or Saab, let alone some renowned brands in the US domestic market. It almost worked its diabolical ‘magic’ with Suzuki but that company was smart enough to formulate a decent divorce settlement up-front. More recently, look at the slaphappy manner by which Vauxhall-Opel was sold to the Gallic PSA Group. Fiat was just another casualty.
Yet, Fiat has asked for trouble over the years. I can still recall a deep conversation, in the late-1980s, with a former UK senior executive of the company, who admitted (freely but scarily) that Fiat used whatever sales it could generate in the UK market as ‘loss-leaders’. Its fleet deals were legendary, boasting among the highest per unit discounts of any popular brand. It had tried the North American markets largely without success, mostly failing through a lack of support (poor reliability and inadequate warranties).
Of course, its most recent association with the enlarged PSA Group, which is hoping clearly to exceed the world volumes of new vehicles attained by Volkswagen Group, which will do wonders for Gallic pride, is yet to bear any fruit. However, the French are notoriously nationalistic, perhaps even xenophobic. Quite how the Latin temperament will comply with French wishes is going to be fun to observe.
Three numbers (5, 0 and 0) have governed Fiat’s model planning for much of the past 13 years, since the Italian equivalent of BMW’s Mini was introduced to much acclaim. To a certain extent, it is understandable, as the car has been exceptionally well-received, even though its modern twin-cylinder petrol engine has been the subject of much derision. The reintroduction of Abarth (its equivalent of Cooper), with a colourful racing heritage and that ever so beguiling ‘Scorpion’ emblem, has put the Fiat 500 on an international map, in a way that the early-1990’s Cinquecento and Seicento models never could, by reinventing its original ‘Duova’ in the modern idiom.
However, the Tipo of four years ago, which is effectively an Astra/Focus rival (at £5,500 less cost!), has become something of an ‘also-ran’. It deserves better, with its ingeniously simple pricing model and genuine value for money proposition. Just as the Focus can now be obtained in a lifestyle, pseudo crossover form, complete with body addenda and slightly hiked up stance, Fiat, while late to the party, has decided to introduce a Cross version.
Revising the front grille design, so that it now extends below the level of the headlights, as well as introducing a 7cm loftier ride height, the new Tipo Cross presents a bolder, chunkier and more muscular exterior. The transformation includes a cliché skid plate, its bumper featuring a prominent hint of a ‘bull bar’, with side skirts and roof bars available exclusively on the Station Wagon version, while larger tyres help to create an even more robust appearance and LED headlamps hope to provide not just a new daylight running lamps signature but also safer nocturnal illumination. Inside the cabin, new, more heavily bolstered front seats feature the ‘Cross’ signature in a revised cockpit that is more digitally motivated.
While the latest 500 includes the ‘wordmark’ logo, which is a regurgitation of an early, original device used by Fiat on all of its models, there is not an ounce of subtlety to the shouty new FIAT that is sure to generate opinions and jibes from all quarters in coming months. Yet, there are other aspects of the Tipo that warrant acceptance, such as the distinctive, almost BMW 1-Series profile of the hatchback version, let alone the cavernous rear load deck of the SW.
Gone are the days of the ‘Italianate ape’ driving position. Providing a superb range of driver’s seat and steering column (rake and reach) adjustment, comfort and support standards are high. There is bags of space up front, even though the rear suffers from a lack of legroom behind taller front seat occupants. The driving experience is fairly good, the Tipo being firmly damped but not to the point of discomfort, or imbalance. Nice steering, good brakes and pleasantly weighted controls are all engaging characteristics, even though the engines could perform better.
Yet, the Tipo was no trendsetter, when it was launched, and this mid-life refresher, while significant, does little to liven up the car’s potential. It looks ordinary, perhaps even too neutral in its appeal and dropping the grille a few centimetres, while working eminently well for both Skoda and Seat, is not necessarily what Tipo needs to turn on new car buyers. Pricing details will be available soon and I can only hope that Fiat retains its advantage, otherwise, it will amount to little more than a lost cause.
Conclusion: Fiat produces worthy motorcars. The Tipo range is perfectly acceptable. Perhaps the Cross version may help it? Keen pricing is a key. However, Fiat needs to promote its Tipo and not hide its light beneath the proverbial bushel.