A photo for Sunday: 2001-2007 Fiat Stilo

Driven To Write comes face to face with the car that (arguably) sank FIAT.

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2001-2007 Fiat Stilo

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.

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2001-2007 Fiat Stilo: like a fridge, said Fiat.

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.

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As seen at Ikea. I hate going to Ikea.

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.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

24 thoughts on “A photo for Sunday: 2001-2007 Fiat Stilo”

  1. About the best you can say for the three-door Stilo is that at least it isn’t the five-door version. It would be a stretch to say the ‘3p’ has dated gracefully, but the fiver is frankly diabolical in both its proportions and detail refinement. Mind you, the bare wheels and whitegood paint on this particular three-door don’t exactly do a lot to bolster its credentials. (Plus they highlight the fussiness of the rear bumper treatment below the rubbing strip, which is an incongruous touch at best.)

    I suppose the Abarth had some nice five-spoke wheels and came in a rather vivid and fetching blue. That has to count for something, right? (And the ‘Sky Window’ slatted sunroof looked quite cool in the brochure. Not that you’d touch it with a bargepole in reality.)

    A small correction if I may, though, Richard – the Bravo/a, in common with any other ‘original’ Tipo-platformed car, retained a technically vaguely interesting but decidedly non-independent rear axle with semi-trailing arms. (The Mk1 Punto uses something quite similar; the Mk2’s previewed the Stilo’s arrangement.) The arms themselves move independently, of course, but the rear wheels are nevertheless connected by a beam in a way that you don’t get with, say, struts. In any case, in engineering terms, even torsion beams are closer to fully-independent systems than they are to dead beam axles. The Stilo had plenty of problems, but realistically, its suspension specification wasn’t one of them – general consensus was that the switch made a big improvement to the ride on the ’99 Punto. (Although if you want to be impossibly anal about these things, a point of trivia – as a result of the shared underpinnings, is there any bigger car than the Delta in recent memory that retains a 4-bolt PCD?)

    In my head, I invariably cannot think of the Stilo without referencing the 307, in part due to their debuts alongside each other at Geneva 2001. The interesting question to me is not why the Stilo tanked – that much was evident even at the time. The question – to me at least – is why the 307 was as successful as it was. It is now generally regarded as the first unequivocal piece of evidence that the wheels were coming off the Pug wagon. I remember the media coverage well at the time and it didn’t say anything even close to that. I remember this because I struggled to square the praise from the comics with my personal experience, which included the interior door handle surround literally coming off in my hand when I went to get out of a delivery-mileage car. I looked this up just now and I was genuinely shocked to find they made well over three million of the wretched things, not including non-European production. I can’t immediately find a similar figure for the Stilo but a sixth of that total is probably a rough ballpark figure. To put it mildly, the Stilo was very far from Fiat’s finest work, but I am not persuaded it was so much worse than the 307 as to justify that sort of discrepancy.

  2. My understanding of the Stilo’s suspension was that it was a step in the direction of the Golf’s, focussed on ride not handling. In that sense the Bravo/a had a set-up less like a Fiat’s and aimed, like the whole car, at aping the concurrent Golf. Car (Nov 2001) criticised the “dull and inert handling” and lifeless steering. They liked the interior best out of a group consisting of the 307 and Civic. The Peugeot won the test by default and they concluded by recommending the Focus.

    1. Power of hindsight and all that. I wonder if said journos would still rank the 307 above the contemporary Civic now.

  3. Surely this is the Fiat that looked like a fridge.

    In fact, Richard, the DTW collective memory is fragmenting here. I thought that the Tipo was the car accused of being white goods. Or maybe every other mid range Fiat attracts that criticism.

  4. Did I once read that the recessed tailgate was supposed to give the impression that the side panels were the twin hulls of a catamaran or the two fuselages of a Lockheed fighter or two cannelloni on a plate or something equally fanciful and unlikely?

  5. To my eyes one of the best looking cars of its class at that time – Fiat and Alfa Romeo had some really attractive cars 15 years ago (Ok, the Stilo Multiwagon was not one of them).
    I especialyy love the versions with a very huge panoramic sunroof, which could make me forget the absence of any traces of italian style of the dull dashboard.

    1. I would have prefered the Renault Megane – and almost every other car rather then an Astra or a Focus.

  6. I had forgotten the Megane. That was a very good one indeed. Nobody else liked it but I liked the saloon and the estate versions but actually all of them looked correct and distinctly French. The Megane had a large range of engines too. They covered the bases with that car. So did Ford and Opel. The Opels lacked some really cushy trim variants though. I´ve never seen one with leather (and if I did it was black). Ford´s Ghia Focus presented a cosy interior. Any of those three are better than the Fiat.

  7. I see I’ll have to take up the cudgels for the five-door Stilo here. Details aside, I like its proud, upright stance and the large windows. The short rear overhang adds to making good proportions. It looks solid and compact and doesn’t try to be sporty.
    When I once sat in it as a back passenger, I was surprised by the airiness and space I had there. We should have more cars like it today instead of all those cramped wannabe racers – without resorting to minivans.

  8. According to good old Max Warburton – (we haven’t mentioned him for a while) – Fiat’s projection was for annual volumes of 380,000 cars. What they managed, with the help of massive incentives was 180,000 for the first two years, falling further thereafter. Warburton estimates Fiat lost 2729 euros per car and was quoted as saying; “The Stilo was a disastrous failure for Fiat and the company has arguably never recovered.”

    1. Simon has argued for the Stilo’s packaging merits and I think he has a point. The Stilo reverted to the Tipo’s sensible mode. I am sure I’d find the spaciousness welcome compared to the dark impression now standard.
      The way I see it the Stilo was designed to look very rational at the same time as Fiat didn’t know how to follow through on this promise. It may have been more rational to ensure an entertaining drive even as the style signalled seriousness. Fiat even had the example of the Focus which had a) a super drive, b) emotional styling and c) quite good but not Golf-level perceived quality. The Fiat could have targetted Opel which always tacked to a conservative line with a better Astra which meant more engines and bodystyles and more consistent design. The question perhaps is why the 307 did as well as it did given it’s not detectably better.
      With the Stilo Fiat ceded another sector. First large cars in the 1970s, then the C-D class in the 80s then the C-class over the course of the Bravo-Stilo-Bravo 2. I expect Kia and Hyundai have a lot of their potential customers now.
      What’s the secret? It’s not necessarily thrilling driving but reliability, consistent design, good dealers and quality. I’ve looked closely at Hyundais and Kias and nothing catches the eye wrongly, despite the affordable prices.

    2. It wasn’t just that the Stilo lost money on its own merits – the fact that Fiat was forced to discount them so much also helped push down transaction prices across the company’s range over the medium term (cue customers asking, “Why does a Punto cost as much as a Stilo when it’s smaller?”).

    3. PSA was on a roll in the early noughties, and still are in a way. I don’t know how or why, but they managed to lower their production costs substantially over their competition. If it was the implementation of the Toyota way or whatever, I have no idea. Perhaps they even dumped their prices to gain over the competition I don’t know, the point is they could sell similar cars to Fiat for about 20% less cost, and still make a profit. Fiats loss was the gain of Peugeot and Citroen. Though, price dumping hits in the long run, because it really isn’t a sustainable business model. And it seems PSA dumped itself to the brink of bankruptcy, if not over.

  9. The parents of a friend of mine used to own a Stilo. Its charms included smoking brakes, among other major failures. The Stilo’s looks were only the beginning of its problems, I’d guess.

  10. Thanks for bringing up rationalism, Richard. I think that’s exactly what I see in the 5-door’s design. The consensus here is that it should have been executed much better, and I have to agree.
    If I compare this to the Tipo that was mentioned here, and to an even bigger extent to what rationalist Fiats used to be in the sixties and seventies, these were times when a less than perfect execution was probably met with more forbearance than after 2000. Add to this the pleasure in engines and drive they offered back then.

  11. I love coming across these earlier debates. I don’t mind this three door Stilo – it’s fairly well proportioned and I like the way the shoulder line broadens out over the rear haunch. That front three quarter view strikes me as perfectly acceptable, if in a rather unremarkable way. The 5 door was stolid, though, and I always saw it as a latter day Austin Maestro (I am beginning to think I have an obsession about that car ..) – worthy of intent and concept, but dire of execution.

    I think the biggest problem that this car had was that it looked like a less remarkable and backward step from the Bravo/ Brava, both of which I really liked and which had great critical acclaim when launched (although they did seem to date very quickly). There was a series of cars like the Stilo and Seicento (and to a lesser extent the Punto II) which were less attractive and appealing than the cars they replaced.

    FIAT went into reverse at this point and has never recovered, albeit it now looks like the Chinese might be willing to take it away from the Agnellis for a daft price based on its ownership of the Jeep brand.

    1. Maybe Marchionne will play hardball and insist that if they buy Jeep they have to take the whole lot … maybe except for Ferrari.

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