Time to Lay to Rest the Curse of the Big Fiat?
By Andy Bannister
One of the more positive consequences of future model-sharing between Fiat and Chrysler could be the chance to end the jinx which seems to have beset Fiat’s repeated attempts to offer a larger car that buyers will take seriously.
I’m not talking about the products of the company’s more upscale divisions, Lancia and Alfa Romeo, but a modest flagship for the Fiat range proper, to compete with the likes of VW’s Passat or Ford’s European Mondeo.
Currently, Fiat’s top model is a strange semi-MPV “comfort wagon” called the Croma, an ill-fated product of the short-lived platform sharing arrangement with GM. It uses the same Epsilon underpinnings as the former Opel Vectra and the Saab 9-3.
The Croma, launched in 2005 and recently facelifted, is almost universally ignored by buyers, unsure of what it is trying to achieve. It might possibly appeal to the type of people attracted to a Volvo estate, or possibly a Subaru, except for those F-I-A-T letters on the front grille.
Despite a rush of new, wealthier customers to Fiat showrooms across Europe, keen to snap up examples of the retro-styled 500 city car, the company still has some way to go to have any credibility among buyers of cars larger than the 500 and its Panda and Punto hatchback siblings.
Fiat’s big car woes go back an awful long way, and are perhaps best defined by the incredibly ambitious luxury saloon the company launched back in 1969, the V6-engined 130. It took Italy’s premier car maker into dangerously uncharted waters.
Quietly elegant, with a crisp, understated body, the all-new 130 was an absolutely serious attempt to take on the best products of BMW, Mercedes and Jaguar at their own game.
Its new twin overhead camshaft engine was courtesy of Ferrari designer Aurelio Lampredi, and inside it offered a cosseting ride and a distinctively Italian (and rather understated) interpretation of the modern European luxury car. The price tag was similarly ambitious – this was no cheap imitation, by any means.
At the time Fiat was on a roll and for a short time this flagship car radiated a confident image of “La Dolce Vita”, seeming the proud embodiment of Italy’s post-war economic miracle. Unfortunately for Fiat, this heady atmosphere all-too-soon evaporated when the new vehicle failed to live up to its promise.
It was so large and costly it left a yawning gap in the company’s range between it and the next-biggest Fiat saloon car, the 125, so trade-ups within the existing Fiat family were extremely unlikely. It also was born at a time when much of Fiat’s volume sales were still made up of antique rear-engined models like the 500, 600 and 850, which were hardly the ideal showroom bedfellows.
Despite its pedigree, the original 2.8-litre engine was underpowered, a fact not fixed until a 3.2-litre version appeared a couple of years later. Not long after, European large car sales collapsed as the 1973 oil crisis and recession begin to bite.
Meanwhile, Fiat – once maker of a diverse range of vehicles including some impressive little GT and Spider models – embarked on a new path of pioneering cheap, stylish, small front-wheel-drive cars – including the 127 hatchback. This remains overwhelmingly what the company is best known for today.
Despite being effectively a fish out of water, the 130 saloon soldiered on until 1976, with a pitiful 15,000 made over seven years. Little-loved when new and forgotten nowadays, it was ironically a far more exclusive product than its prestigious rivals.
Fiat’s management never replaced the 130, pinning their executive hopes instead on the equally disastrous new Lancia flagship, the Gamma, but the monumental failure of the big Fiat percolated down to ensure that henceforward the company’s badge always sat uneasily on any model aimed at buyers of larger-than-average cars.
With the 130 gone, Fiat’s range-topper was the modest 132, which despite its name was much smaller and humbler than the 130. It had typically boxy 1970s styling, an uninspiring interior, a mediocre reliability record and sales which never achieved their predictions.
It somehow threw away the sports saloon reputation of its mechanically-similar predecessor, the 125, and quickly got left behind by other European rivals which were faster, better-looking and more innovative. By the time Fiat managed a half-decent facelift and power boost to create the 2000TC model in 1978, the 132 was old-hat.
Never a company to be daunted by failure, however, Fiat decided on an expensive relaunch for the aging 132, grafting on blocky front and rear ends and a plastic-fantastic interior to create the 1982 Argenta, a classic stop-gap model if ever there was one.
The choice of name was particularly disastrous in the UK, where the 132 2000 had been a modest success. The Argenta was launched around the time of the short-lived Falklands War between Britain and Argentina. Having a new model with a name one syllable away from the enemy in the South Atlantic was hardly brilliant news for Fiat’s beleaguered UK dealers.
In mainland Europe, Fiat even tried to make the Argenta fast and sexy, marketing one version with a supercharged Volumex engine borrowed from Lancia. True to the Fiat big car tradition, it, too, bombed in the marketplace.
Fortunately, help was at hand in the minds of the company’s product planners, who were busy readying their contribution to ambitious Type Four project of 1985. This would create new executive cars for Saab (the original 9000), Lancia (the Thema), Alfa Romeo (the 164), and for Fiat a hatchback called the Croma, styled by design maestro Giorgetto Giugiaro.
The Saab, Lancia and Fiat actually ended up looking remarkably alike thanks to the use of many of the same styling elements, particularly the doors, whilst Alfa Romeo’s version had an entirely bespoke body.
Fiat’s Croma, with its cheaper trim – many models had black bumpers and plastic wheel covers – looked like the poor relation in this quartet. One of its few claims to fame was it offered the world’s first direct-injection diesel.
Although the car was by no means the spectacular failure of its predecessors, it was never remotely desirable even in its first flush of youth, and lingered far too long on the market.
The Italian company’s next, even-more-forgettable attempt at a biggish car was called the Marea, an extended version of the smaller Fiat Brava.
It did relatively well in markets like Brazil and Turkey but was another also-ran in Europe, an ideal rental car or taxicab, although for most operators a Nissan or Toyota proved a safer bet for a long and trouble-free life.
Given the lack of fondness with which the original Croma was regarded, it was something of a surprise for that name to be dusted off again after seven years to adorn the Marea’s successor. The current, GM-derived Croma is, in truth, a decent, if rather pointless, car, as unremarkable as its first-generation namesake.
The question is, will replacing it ultimately with a Fiat-badged derivative of the next Dodge Avenger/Chrysler Sebring be any better? It is going have to be a real stand-out design, like the new 500, to prevent history repeating itself, yet again.
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