Driven To Write comes face to face with the car that (arguably) sank FIAT.
Three or four themes entwine here. We’ve had a Fiat Tempra on sale and here is its semi-successor. We’ve been doing colour and this car is white. This car lacks chamfers on the lamps. And finally, we’ve discussed in a tangential way the demise of the three door car. This is a three door Fiat Stilo. The first one of these I saw in the metal lurked in a corner of Cambridge in 2001. Isn’t odd that I still remember that with such burning intensity?
At the time I thought the detailing less than refined. I still hold that opinion today. The scallop under the side rub-strip lacks finesse. For a class of students who were designing an electric trike I held a car-park seminar on wheel arches and bodysides. I get the feeling the designers of this car could have done with the same preparation. The rear wheel arch does not finish off in a very satisfactory way: there’s a surface between the wheel arch rim and the bumper that flares in a way you’d never draw. We looked at this very image a few days back.
With this car Fiat wanted to convey impressions of Golf-like seriousness. The playful looks of the Bravo and Marea weren’t cutting it, they said. Really the problem lay in the performance and quality more than the witty interior mouldings and cheerful detailing of the Bravo/a duo. The Stilo ditched the Bravo’s independent rear suspension for the same stodgy set-up most Golfs use, semi-independent torsion beams. Refinement and maturity, they said.
In place of the space-age shapes what livened up the Bravo/a, the Stilo got a giant slab of slush-moulded dashboard which did feel soft to the touch but also looked massive, dark and too much like a single lump of recycled rubber. It did not match the door trim at all, oddly. A lot of the budget went into that single lump of recycled rubber: the rest of the cabin lacked for delight and any surprise as a result. While Fiat might have felt that the austere forms and gloomy colours would rival VW’s mirthless geometries, they didn’t achieve the same satisfying level of finish and assembly that has been moistening the glands of middle class buyers for several decades now.
As luck would have it, Ford turned up the notch on design and handling with the Mk 1 Focus so the Stilo hardly constituted a reply to that. The Golf Mk 5 appeared in 2003, putting even further distance between it and the Stilo; then Ford showed it was serious with the severe Focus 2 in 2004. The Stilo got caught in the cross fire or beaten to death. Not more fun than a Golf nor better to drive than a Focus. It didn’t beat the Opel Astra on any particular count either: the Astra G had more body styles and more engines. The Stilo ought to have at least matched the 1998 Astra G. But it didn’t. Between the Focus, the Golf and the Astra, the Stilo did not stand a chance when it really ought to have been so popular as to be invisible.
It’s part of DTW’s collective memory that in replacing this car, Fiat´s chief designer Michael Robinson, described the 2001 Stilo as looking like a fridge. While I don’t call it a great success, it answered the brief set out by Fiat’s management, rightly or wrongly. I don’t hold with drubbing your products. It makes the existing owners irritable for one thing.
Back to refinement, the Stilo added weight to achieve better insulation. And this led to criticism that the engines weren’t up to the job of pulling the car’s mass. I would imagine the 1.2 litre engine was there to keep thrifty Italians happy. For busy Britons and hurried Germans, Fiat’s 5-cylinder 2.4 litre engine could be had plus 1.6 and 1.8 petrols. And that 5-pot is same engine that powered Lancia Lybras and Kappas.
The Lancia connection doesn’t end there. Chillingly, the underpinnings of the Stilo went on to do service in the Lancia Delta of 2008. As ever, Fiat Group doing everything they could to ensure Lancia faded away without grace. What ought to have been the case was that the Lancia should have a spanking new platform which then went to Fiat at the same time or a bit later, not cast-off, underperforming lard from seven years earlier.
The more I think about this car the more I see a pivotal point in Fiat’s downward spiral. Sure, the Bravo didn’t lead classes, but the Stilo compounded its failings and added a few more. The C-class car is where the money is in the middle market and with the Stilo, Fiat ejected themselves from the game. That makes the Stilo historic.
Unless someone knows otherwise, there was no four-door version of the Stilo.