CARte Blanche

by Philip Djaferis

A view of where Fiat is…

This is my favourite pet subject because I am passionate about Fiat and the sister brands of Lancia and Alfa Romeo.

I grew up in the 1950’s and started to really appreciate cars in the 1960’s.  At that time all these three brands had unique characters, work class products and all three had quite enviable reputations, class leading products and cutting edge design.  They could stand comparison with an peer whether german, British or French and in many areas they were superior.

Fiat was a design icon, had a range of cars covering a very broad spectrum of the market, from mini-cars like the 500 to exclusive grand touring cars like the 2300S. The 2300S sold at prices comparable to high en Mercedes or Jaguar models and was equally aspirational.

Image(Photo courtesy of Fiat)

In 1969 Fiat launched the trend-setting Fiat 128 which essentially set the blueprint for all modern front wheel drive cars. It’s design was of a charm and simplicity unsurpassed since.  It also spawned a series of derivatives which were all extremely successful in their individual niches. At the other end of the spectrum was the 130 salon and coupé which again were able to compete equally with similar German cars like a Mercedes 300S – the Fiat was arguably the car of superior quality.  The coupé by Pininfarina is a classic of serene elegance.

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What happened thereafter? We can’t blame it on the unions, albeit they were giving the management constant head-aches at the time.

It was not all doom and gloom but the 130 was Fiat’s swan-song in the upper segment – excellent products but they had a hard time convincing people to go for them rather than the ascendant Germans. The late 1970’s Ritmo hatchback and the 131 Mirafiori were bright spots.  The Uno of 1983/84 was another brilliant car which made other contemporary superminis look cramped and just second rate – the Uno was even outselling the VW Polo in Germany!

Somehow Fiat could not capitalise on their strengths by building even more quality into their brilliant designs.to the effect that their solid advantage in their home market started being eroded by Italians beginning to fall in love with the VW Golf and similar.  The alarm bells did not go off soon enough…

But what was up with Lancia and Alfa Romeo? Burdened by debt, and mismanaged by its owner, the Vatican, Lancia was gobbled by Fiat for one Lira in 1969.  Legacy models like the Fulvia and Flavia (2000) soldiered on for a while, but the first new Lancia under Fiat tutelage was essentially a disaster even though from some perspectives a sound concept.  The Beta saloon came with a fastback but rather bloated look – no elegance, no sportiness, no class…how could Fiat foist such a car on to traditional Lancia buyers? It had a sound front wheel drive transaxle, clever independent rear suspension at the back, good (Fiat sourced) twin-cam engines, but the build quality, rust protection and styling were all rather wanting.  The coupé which followed had decent styling but the quality issues were similar to the saloon, which was quickly restyled to give it a smoother and less bloated look…however, around that time a scandal blew in the UK involving rusting Betas – in the UK Lancia has not recovered from that negative advertising as the press keeps referring back to it even over 35 years later, when Lancias are arguably some of the best rust protected cars on the market.

The Delta, based on the Ritmo but with its own rear axle was in a sense the car that saved Lancia’s future. It was crisp, fresh, room, sporty and cutting edge.  The only Lancia to ever be voted Car of the Year.

I’ll skip forward to Alfa Romeo which joined the fold in 1984, clutched from the Italian Government’s hands after they made a mess of it.  A key failure was to transform large Alfas to front wheel drive rather than rear wheel drive.  Till the late 1970’s Alfa Romeos were considered the equals of if not superior to BMW but rather than investing in bullet-proof reliability along with best in class performance, they spent money on designing stupid dashboards and quirky design elements that nobody asked for or wanted…the large model 6 was a flop – totally unworthy of the Alfa Romeo brand – it was stodgy to look at, too complex mechanically and second rate in performance.  No wonder it flopped in the market.  

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The 164 which replaced it had elegant Pininfarina clothing but the front wheel drive concept buried it in the long run; the Alfasud might have been successful in the compact class with a FWD chassis but buyers of large cars demanded rear wheel drive, which followed the advice of motoring writers who preferred them.  Arguably, 99% of buyers would probably be better off with FWD but the market demanded RWD.  Manufactures ignoring realities of what the customer want have paid the price in many product ares and why should cars be different?

Well, enough of history and fast forward to 2012.  Where are these three brands today?

Fiat is on a life-support drip.  The 500 is keeping it barely alive in terms of market and brand awareness. The Bravo is ancient and despite its nice styling is largely ignored by ‘Golf Class’ buyers.  The Punto is now well and truly overtaken technologically by all its main competitors. The new Panda is great but its being hurt terribly by the VW Up! and its ‘co-religionsit’ Skoda and Seat. The Qubo and Doblo are pretty irrelevant even if very competent in the segments they sell in.  The new 500L looks promising but the engines on offer at launch seems quite weedy for the size/weight – its pretty porky compared to its half-brother 500.  I haven’t driven it yet but would assume that it would be OK in places like the UK, Holland, northern Germany and similar places which are pretty flat but I would not anticipate with glee a drive over a Swiss mountain-pass loaded with spouse, three offspring and luggage…a bigger engine please, and pronto! I’ve driven the 500 with the Twin-Air engine and its a delight!  

So, although the markets are depressed Fiat is bleeding market-share to those who are launching fresh product in their segments.  The onslaught of Hyundai/Kia must be particularly worrying and the styling of Kia, and specially the new C’eed (what a STUPID name) station wagon should be giving Fiat some sleepless nights.  Replacements for the Bravo and Punto can’t come too soon…

Where is Alfa Romeo? The Mito and Giulietta are decent products but are not drawing enough crowds…I mean buyers, because they simply not good enough to be best in class, and Alfa has to better than a Golf if the press is to wax lyrical about it.  Specially in terms of performance, handling and ergonomics it has to better the Golf let alone the Ford Focus, A3 or 1 series BMW; now it also has to contend with the renewed A class. As for the Mito it somehow has lost its lustre too quickly, and I wonder if it appears on shopping lists of those who eventually purchase a Mini or Citroen DS3.

The replacements for the 159 and 166 are sorely missed as is a spider and a coupé/GT.  Urgent!!! The story of the cooperation with Mazda bears promise.  I just hope that what eventually appears is different enough from the MX-5 – ideally with its own engines and even better, Alfa-spefiic rear axle.  Cooperation with Maserati for a large car also sounds promising but I wonder if we’ll ever see that…let’s see what will happen with the promised and necessary crossovers…

And what about Lancia? Chrysler seems to be driving it at the moment and the rumour mill tells us that there might be a new ‘Fulvia’ below the current Delta and twinned with a new Chrysler 100.  If they do this right it could resurrect the success of the original Delta…the replacement for the Chrysler 200 (Flavia) could also make waves if its competitive with the best Japanese.  In both instances though station wagon versions are a must for success in Europe.  Crossovers would do no harm either. Coupés would also be desirable. As for the replacement of the 300/Thema my outlook is bleak as long as the product keeps American proportions. Lancia buyers look for something looking Italian – elegant and sleek. The Ypsilon seems to be out on a limb as its irrelevant to the US market and beyond Italy is failing to make any significant inroads.  In my opinion it was a mistake to base it on the Panda platform. Perhaps some more effective marketing would help it? It was some unique USP’s – very compact mini luxury car, frugal engines, pretty good design, but outside Italy who notices it or knows of its existence?

The current situation in Europe looks bleak for the group. Market share is dismal, the product palette very bare and in many areas uncompetitive and the new product pipeline ostensibly delayed by several months/years.  The example of the Panda’s delay, allowing the Up! to come out simultaneously must be costing dearly. Fiat should dig deep into its roots and come up with designs and products which emulate the 128, Uno, Delta, Alfasud, X1/9…world-beater cars are what are needed again. The press will then take care of the free advertising… 

We want a great Fiat group again!

 

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