Fiat Takes A Swing At Golf… and Misses

The 2001 Fiat Stilo was an attempt to take on the Golf at its own game. It missed by a country mile. We recall Fiat’s millennial C-segment failure.

2003 Fiat Stilo three-door (c)

Ever since its introduction in 1974 and over eight different generations, Volkswagen’s C-segment stalwart has been always readily identifiable. There have been variations in the quality of execution, but all retained enough distinctive DNA to make them unmistakably part of the lineage. This was about more than just appearance. It encompassed dynamic characteristics as well as the cars’ tactile and aural qualities.

This was exactly Volkswagen’s intention, to engender a sense of comfortable familiarity that made it easy for Golf owners to move from one generation to the next when the time came to change their car. The Golf not only became an aspirational car for potential customers, but also the benchmark for other manufacturers. Volkswagen even produced a television advertisement in 2009, poking fun at competitors’ efforts to match its qualities, with the tagline, “Why drive something like a Golf, when you can drive a Golf?”

Volkswagen’s sector-defining model has, of course, evolved hugely over its 46-year lifespan. The size and sophistication of the latest generation is a world away from the first (1). The evolution has slowed down noticeably over the past three generations, suggesting that Volkswagen is approaching the limits of what can be achieved within the constraints of an internal combustion engine powered C-segment hatchback (2).

Over the same period, Fiat’s approach to its C-segment challenger could not have been more different. The 1969 Fiat 128 was the quintessential Italian small car: lightweight and sharp handling, with an eager and rev-happy OHC engine. When it was replaced in 1978, its successor was not given the rumoured 138 model designation, but a name, Ritmo (3).

1978 Fiat Ritmo (c) Autoweek

The Ritmo was a sharply styled and resolutely modern looking car, with neither exterior brightwork nor a conventional front grille. Instead, it had large plastic bumper shields, circular door handles and funky wheel designs. The first to drive the new car outside Fiat were in for a surprise: instead of reprising the dynamic qualities of the 128, the new car was softly sprung and comfort-orientated, far more French than Italian in character.

The Ritmo was replaced in 1988 by the Tipo. The new name brought another change in direction, this time to car as industrial product design, resolutely rational and practical, and with a fully galvanised body finally to lay to rest one of the marque’s historic weaknesses. A new platform brought back some of Fiat’s traditional dynamic qualities, but many did not notice as they could not get past its ‘car as domestic appliance’ appearance.

1988 Fiat Tipo (c) auto-forever

1995 brought a successor with not one but two new names and two distinct styles, the Brava five-door and Bravo three-door hatchbacks. Fiat tuned the suspension of the Brava to suit comfort orientated customers, while the Bravo had a firmer setup to provide a more sporting feel at the expense of ride comfort. Both cars adopted the contemporary fashion for organic curves. They were again radically different in appearance to their predecessor and not in any way immediately identifiable as a Fiat (4).

1995 Fiat Brava (c)

All this time, while Volkswagen was amassing a growing band of loyal Golf customers, Fiat was sowing confusion and losing market share with the constant reinvention (and renaming) of its challenger.

Paolo Cantarella, Chief Executive of Fiat Group since 1996, looked enviously at Volkswagen’s success and decided that his company’s next C-segment car would have to take on the Golf directly on its own terms. Cantarella stipulated that it should be an engineering-led commodity car with an emphasis on packaging and practicality. There would be no more experimental designs. These were the guiding principles behind the design of the car that would be named Stilo when launched in November 2001.

The Stilo was designed in-house by Fiat’s Centro Stile. Exterior styling was by Mauro Basso, the interior by Peter Jansen, under the supervision of design director Peter Fassbender. As with its predecessor, the three and five-door models were each given their own identity. The five-door was 71mm (3”) longer and 50mm (2”) taller than the more rakish three-door. The styling of both was boldly angular and geometric, with an impression of heft created by the broad shoulders below the DLO.

2001 Fiat Stilo five-door (c)

The impression was matched by reality: the Stilo tipped the scales at a minimum of 1,090kg (2,403lbs) which was 25kg (55lbs) heavier than the comparable Golf Mk4 and a substantial 80kg (176lbs) heavier than its predecessor. The base spec 1,242cc 79bhp engine struggled with the weight and performance suffered, with a 0 to 100km/h (62mph) time of 13.8 seconds and a top speed of 170km/h (106mph).

The switch to a torsion-beam rear axle after the fully-independent setup on the Bravo and Brava was criticised as a retrograde step, but this was exactly what was fitted to the Golf Mk4 and the Stilo’s ride and handling characteristics were no worse than its safe but rather inert German rival.

The Stilo was a notably spacious car in five-door form, longer and higher than the Golf by 105mm (4”) and 85mm (3½”) respectively, and with a wheelbase that was 88mm (3½”) longer. The five-door was designed to have almost MPV-like levels of versatility, with sliding split rear seats, a forward folding front passenger seat, and drop-down tables in the front seat backs. Unfortunately, the drab greyscale colours and poor interior materials and finish were a world removed from the class-leading Golf Mk4.

The name, Style in Italian, was regarded as ironic by observers who thought the Stilo as conspicuously lacking in this quality. While not as expertly honed as the Golf Mk4, the Stilo nevertheless had a robustness and cleanness of line that was appealing. A capacious Multiwagon estate version followed in January 2003 with a substantial 263mm (10½”) stretch in length behind the rear axle. By then however, the Stilo had already been dismissed as an also-ran.

In early 2004 the base 1.2 litre engine was replaced by a 1.4 litre 95bhp unit mated to a six-speed gearbox. At the same time, the high(er) performance Stilo Abarth version with its five-cylinder 2,446cc 168bhp engine was lightly revised. The most significant update was the replacement of the jerky Selespeed paddle-shift transmission with a five-speed manual gearbox. Consequently, the 0 to 100km/h (62mph) time was improved from 8.9 to 8.5 seconds and the top speed increased from 200km/h (124mph) to 220km/h (136mph).

Autocar magazine tested the revised Stilo Abarth in March 2004 and remained unimpressed. Journalist Matt Saunders said it retained its “decidedly tepid [and] fundamentally lazy character”. Rather cruelly, Saunders dismissed it as “the Crystal Palace Football Club(5) of hot hatchery; a great first division performer, but not quite up to the top-flight.”

That, in a nutshell, sums up the Stilo’s problem: it was not a bad car, but simply not good enough to achieve significant conquest sales against talented opposition. Moreover, it inherited almost nothing in the way of customer goodwill or brand loyalty from its underperforming predecessors.

A mid-life facelift did little to help its prospects. Stilo production in Europe ended in 2007 and three years later in Brazil. It was replaced by a new model that resurrected the Bravo name. This was little more than a hasty rebody and fared little better in the market. Such was Fiat’s embarrassment over the failure of the Stilo that, at the press launch for the Bravo, it was allegedly never referred to by name, but instead as “our previous C-segment offering”.

2011 Fiat Bravo (c) carbuyer

Over nine years on the market, total Stilo sales were just about 767,000. In January 2014, the US investment brokerage firm, Sandford C Bernstein, published a report written by respected automotive industry analyst, Max Warburton, listing Europe’s ten biggest loss-making cars made during the years 1997 to 2013. With an estimated loss of €2.1Bn, the Stilo is second only to Daimler-Benz’s Smart ForTwo on the list. The Stilo’s failure merely perpetuated Fiat’s decline in this market segment, a decline that has continued largely uninterrupted to the present day.

(1) One could argue that the Mk1 is actually an outlier in the Golf lineage. Its crisp exterior, styled by Giugiaro, modest size and lightness of construction give it an Italian rather than Germanic character. Ironically, given the theme of this piece, it would have made a much more natural successor to the Fiat 128 than did the Ritmo/Strada. The first Golf to embrace fully what are now the essential qualities of the model was the heavier and more solid Mk2.
(2) Moreover, the latest Mk8 Golf has a distinct whiff of cost-cutting about it, with touchscreens replacing high quality physical switchgear for its secondary controls.
(3) Strada in the United Kingdom.
(4) So generic was the design that the Brava and 1997 Citröen Xsara are virtual clones of each other.
(5) Crystal Palace FC is, at the time of writing, residing comfortably in the English Premiership, the country’s top football division.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

96 thoughts on “Fiat Takes A Swing At Golf… and Misses”

  1. Hi everybody! I relate to this post, being a Fiat Ritmo fan since I was a child and having driven a Fiat Brava 1.6 16v SX for seven years. As for the Ritmo, the first generation was by far the coolest while the second gen was probably the better built, although I think that’s what really hurt the Ritmo. It lived during a time of dismal quality at Fiat and suffered for it. I owned the booted Regata version for several years and while it brought me great joy, it also needed constant care and attention because despite being fairly reliable, small bit and pieces kept falling apart. It also had a rust problem, not surprisingly.

    The Brava on the other hand was absolutely reliable, solid, with excellent fuel economy, and good, safe handling despite its comfortable suspension. Only three things marred the experience: the exterior door handles disintegrated under the Mediterranean sun, some interior plastics became gooey and sticky, and the driver’s seat couldn’t hold its vertical position. In its defence though, all this happened well over the 100,000km mark.

    The Stilo was always a bit of a disappointment to me. When owning the Brava I always looked at it as its obvious replacement, as I’ve always been partial to Fiat, but the Stilo never really warmed my heart. The Bravo Mk2 was a better car to aspire, with beautiful styling and apparently better dynamics than the Stilo it replaced, but again it never really spoke to me as it had lost the revvy 16v Fiat engines for boring diesels, weak 1.4 litre 8 valvers, and turbocharged engines that placed the Bravo a bit outside my budget. The final nail was that I never read a review of the Bravo that placed it better than just ok, especially about its handling and refinement qualities, which are important to me, so yes, another disappointment.

  2. Interesting, Fiat fanclubs still rank the Stilo as one of the most “posh” 21st century Fiats, only surpassed by the Croma or some very-special edition 500s. Many blame the failure of these cars on the fact that Fiat had a weird engine cross-licensing contract with GM, so a certain number of cars had to be equipped with Opel Ecotec engines instead of the well-known Fiat F.I.R.E. blocks (which probably were also more reliable on the long run). Another often highlighted strength of the Stilo is the interior. Although it is expected of Fiats to have a well-though out and comfortable passenger space, but the design still looks fresh and they coated almost everything in colorful plush-like material. There’s little debate that the interior of the 2007 Bravo and the Turkish Tipo feel a lot cheaper – which probably explains how they lost so much money on the Stilo.

  3. CAR had an interview with a Fiat official when the Stilo was presented. The Fiat man told them that the Bravo/Brava had been competitive for about a year and was outclassed later. He said they knew they had to make a seven year quantum leap with the Stilo and he was sure they’d managed to deliver.
    How can experienced car people be so wrong?

  4. Vehicles that are named after a characteristic or aspiration are doomed to fall short aren’t they? Apparantly there was an Indian market Royal Enfield 350cc Bullet motorcycle that was marketed as the “Machismo” and must have been pumping out all of 14hp. My favourite misnamed car has to be the Mitsubishi Charisma.

    Compared to that little lot the Fiat Stilo doesn’t fail too badly. In 3 box form especially it looks rather smart in the nose; calm, restrained, classically elegant looking and quirky. Rather than having a “Feature grill” that is raised and sticks forward it very visibly is cut back into the front of the car. A neat clever inversion. Was it aerodynamic? Much of the Alfa Giulietta berlina type 105’s wind cheating was attributed to a lower centre to the nose, with the front wings raised slightly, similar but much more subtle to the Stilo. Five door versions look too between types though: hatchback, MPV or embryonic softroader?

    1. To be fair to Mitsubishi, I think they actually called it Carisma without the ‘h’, and I am sure their press office would retrospectively claim that any similarity to the other word was entirely coincidental.

    2. The Stilo’s drag coefficient is around 0.31, so pretty good.

  5. Interesting and thought provoking piece. I wonder whether it has been the inconsistency of design approach which was the eventual downfall of FIAT’s mid-liners, or just the poor build/ quality/ rust issues over time. Of course the Ritmo/ Strada was famously ‘built by robots’ which was supposed to provide reassurance about their build quality, but still developed a reputation for unreliability.

    I was a fan of the original Tipo (and still am). My sister had one of the more rare, later 3-doors and really liked it. It was also critically acclaimed at the time and won the ECotY if my memory serves me correctly, and eventually came in a sporting Sedicivalvole version which got a lot of plaudits. The Bravo/a was also well received by the motoring press and the design of the Bravo at least was seen as interesting and different, with unusual rear lamps (and was in the same gravy as the wonderful Multispace). And, wasn’t this the car relating to which Cantarella is meant to have threatened physical violence should the build quality not be up to snuff?

    The Stilo, therefore, was a bit odd and seemed designed to look German rather than Italian (rather like the C5 MkII wanted to be more German than French). A neighbour had a three door which I thought looked pretty good, with a rising chiseled shoulder-line sweeping into the rear lamps. The Bravo that replaced it was, I thought, a highly underrated design and was one of the nicer compact hatches of its generation.

    1. One of Fiat’s problems was that when they presented a new car too much of it was new, the best example being the 128. These cars then had to stay in production excessively long to earn back their development costs. Most other manufacturers carried over at least fifty or sixty percent of the’content’ of a car, mostly engines and suspension and sometimes complete platforms. Over their long production run Fiats became uncompetitive.
      Their other problem was a lack of choices in the engine compartment. You either went for the small Lampredi from the 128 or the big Lampredi from the 124 with nothing in between.
      When the cars became larger and heavier they were severely underpowered and not even the ones with the large engines like Ritmo 105/125/130TC or Tipo sedicivalvole were a match for their competition. Cars like Tipo and Stilo were relatively heavy and didn’t have adequate engines where the Golf’s engines continuously increased in size and power as the car got bigger and heavier.
      Fiat also missed the progress in suspension design and tuning of the Eighties and their products became ever more underwhelming dynamically.
      Combine these dynamic deficits with a car that’s as terminally ugly as the unnecessarily tall and top heavy looking Stilo five door and it’s no wonder the thing didn’t sell.

    2. At least the Mk1 Bravo is famous for something. I´d forgotten about the re-use of the name on the Stilo´s successor. The headlamp stands out as its worst feature. The rest is Giugairio bland. 2007 t0 2014 were its heyday and it was up against the Mk2 Focus during that time, along with the smooth and capable Golf and Astra and Megane. One Citroen offered a less interesting car for the money, from 2010 Citroen outblanded the ultra bland Stilo. This is the centre of the car market where modest deficiencies are fatal and excellence the basic obligation for participation. There´s a reason VW, Opel, Ford, Peugeot and Renault do well in this sector and it´s because of laser-accurate benchmarking and attention to detail and at least one USP or core talent. Wait – why did I list Peugeot? Well, they got back there in the end after 18 years in the wilderness.

  6. Image, sales success and (own) experience are often very contradictory.

    At the beginning of 2002, the best-wife-of-all was offered the chance to drive a Stilo free of charge for a few weeks.
    We lived in Munich-Schwabing, the office was 3 minutes walking distance from our flat, so there was not often the opportunity to experience the car.
    So she took the opportunity to go on holiday with her mother and granddaughter to an island in the Baltic Sea. She drove to Kiel to pick up the two girls and delivered them there again after a week and set off on the same day back to Munich. 1200 km of distance in one day.
    Years later she was still raving about how comfortable and convenient this trip in the Stilo was.

    Despite the positive experience (of the woman), we did not become buyers of a Stilo. Our living and working situation did not require a car, and for occasional weekend excursions, after all, the Alfa Spider was parked in a (sometimes remote) garage and also needed a run.

    But even today she turns her head around when she sees one (which has become very rare) and says in a dreamy voice: “Look, a Stilo”.

  7. Hello Daniel, thank you for this nice review. I didn’t know the Bravo/a had independent rear suspension – but I remember positive comments at the time about the Bravo’s dynamics.
    It’s baffling to see how many different cards Fiat played since retiring the Ritmo, a wholly coherent project. Since then, each model managed well in one or two aspects but virtually nothing was carried over to the successor.
    An exception, I think, is the rear styling of the 3-door Stilo continuing to this day in the 500: hatch, rear window and C-pillar profile sharing the same plane (curved surface in the 500) and the rear lights’ placement at the bottom corners of the rear window.
    Finally, this story reminded me of the existence of the Fiat Palio. The fact that it overlapped with two generations of B and C-segment Fiats (in some markets) mostly unchanged frames it as a fallback option for those unconvinced by the new models but still loyal to the brand.

  8. Good morning all. I’m actually a fan of the Stilo’s design and was sorry that the style wasn’t used elsewhere in Fiat’s range. I like the robustness of that shoulder line and thought it was clever the way Fiat altered the proportions to make the three-door noticeably sleeker, but not so different to appear unrelated, like the Brava/Bravo.

    The Multiwagon estate version also had a practical separately opening rear window in the tailgate:

    S.V., I agree that it Fiat’s inconsistency in approach that stopped it achieving any decent momentum from one generation of its C-segment hatch to the next.

    Richard, Mitsubishi compounded the sin by dropping the silent ‘h’ from the word charisma for the model name, making it Car-isma, so a bad pun as well! Was there a three-box (i.e. saloon) Stilo? I don’t recall it.

    1. Hi. I loved the opening rear window on my Stilo’s tailgate. It was hugely practical and easy to use.

    2. Hello, Daniel. Back in 2003 or 2004, there were a few rumours in Brazil that the Stilo would get a saloon version to replace the Marea. It never materialised, and the Stilo Sportwagon was never released here, so the Marea lived on until 2007 in both saloon and estate versions.

      Fiat replaced the Marea with the unbelievably narrow-bodied Linea, whose press release mentioned the Civic and the Corolla as contenders. The Linea never came close to make a dent on their market share, so Fiat threw in the towel after its sales flop.

    3. Hi Eduardo. That’s interesting about the Linea. I understand it was based on a stretched Punto platform and it had a large rear overhang for a big boot, hence its unusual proportions. It was not a looker:

  9. Hello, everyone. I, for one, am unreservedly on team Stilo. I owned two of them so far, a 1.6 coupe and 1.9 jtd wagon, and loved them both. Except for a (very) few niggles, which were the result of the high mileage and not very thorough maintenance (both of them were used cars), I rate them above their contemporary counterpart from VW. I loved the style of the coupe, the sound of its engine and the gearbox. I loved that they were very well thought out, having, for example, a dedicated air vent for the rear seats and two very large storage spaces in front of the passenger’s seat. They were very comfortable and punchy. The 1.6 engine is a delight, but there is a design flaw in the placement of the ECU unit for this particular engine, which makes it act erratically in high mileage, older cars. The 1.9 jtd gave me no trouble whatsoever. Had the car for 3 years, bought it when it had more than 220000 km on the clock and l, save for some minor oil leaks, was as reliable as a grandfather’s watch. I think the Bravo that came after it was, in fact, a step back in style, product quality and usability.

  10. “some interior plastics became gooey and sticky”. Is this the same thing that happened with the Lancia Lybra whose glove box felt like it was made of Blu-Tak.
    I remember Peter Davies of Fiat being very proud of this car when it came out. They had seemingly benchmarked the Golf and done a Fiat version. They over-reacted on the design front. The Bravæ were all nice looking cars, inside and out. What let them down was that the dynamic attributes were just average. Fiat threw the rubber duck out with the bathwater when they did this car. I will never forget the rubber lump that was the dashboard or the curiously unrefined way the exterior was resolved, mostly below the rub-strip level.
    I don´t think it was a terrible car but simply way too ordinary. It´s problems stem from the overall fuzzy and rough management at Fiat.

    1. Achei que só no Brasil a Fiat não tinha sucesso com médio

      Google translate:

      I thought that only in Brazil Fiat was not successful with medium [cars]

  11. The Stilo was a direct outcome of the MPV crazy during that period, insofar as its design was packaging-led to an extreme degree. Those seemingly vertical sides (with the exception of the three-door’s) and the lack of sophistication in its execution are what kills the car, appearance-wise, rather than any product design approach (which worked rather better, in different flavours, in the Tipo’s & Ritmo’s cases).

    The parents of a friend of mine owned a Stilo back in the day, which was shockingly unreliable – the highlight of their ownership being an occasion when, right after the Stilo had been serviced at the Fiat dealership, its brakes set themselves on fire. I’m not making this up.

    1. that’s a very interesting thought. The Stilo 5dr indeed looks like a two box MPV (and MPVs are cars I loathe even more than SUVs).
      It’s a pity that there was no five door version of this one

      The brakes going on fire most probably wasn’t a problem of the car itself but the result of the service.
      Fiats with rear disk brakes have a habit of these brakes getting stuck with resulting shrieking noises, overheating and a lot of smoke. When you’re lucky the brake disks turn blue and soft because of the heat and have to be replaced and if you’re not you ruin the wheel bearings or melt a tyre.

    2. It’s not merely a thought, it’s what people working at Centro Stile at the time (who weren’t involved in the Stilo project) told me – the car’s basic concept and precise proportions were dictated by product engineering. Centro Stile very much played second fiddle to other departments in the process.

      In fairness, Fiat were far from alone in following this trend of semi-monovolume, packaging-led design – the Peugeot 307 had also been significantly influenced by this trend, and one can assume that it was only Wolfsburg’s inherent cautiousness that prevented the basic Golf V from becoming more Golf Plus-like.

      Yes, the brake issue was very much due to poor maintenance (courtesy of the local main dealership), but this was only the most dramatic of several episodes documenting the Stilo’s lack of finesse. It was quickly replaced with a Daihatsu, by the way, which proved to be an exceedingly trustworthy companion.

    3. Doesn’t this one look infinitely better than the bus-like original 5dr?

    4. It has certainly translated well into five-door form. Its profile reminds me somewhat of the Mk2 Punto.

  12. Oh, dear. It looks as though my enthusiasm for the Stilo’s styling is not widely shared!

    I still like the five-door from the rear three-quarter view, although the side rubbing strip is oddly shaped for such an angular design:

    1. Hi, Daniel.
      I’m with you on the Stilo’s styling. I think each derivation has its charm, but my favourite is the three door coupe. I think it’s one of the best looking “everyday” modern cars and it’s styling has only gotten better with time.

    2. Daniel, even though it probably won’t do you any good now, I share your enthusiasm. The 5-door is a feast for the eyes. And yes, the side rubbing strip is oddly shaped, I have to admit.

    3. The side rubbing strip could be worse… and it actually was, for late Brazilian models, with such a hideous partial chrome trim. Ugly taillights were also added in 2008 or so:

    4. Hi Eduardo. Those facelift tail lights are mimicking the style of the ones on the three-door Stilo, seen on the blue example posted by Dave above. You’re right about those rubbing strips; they are not an improvement!

  13. The Stilo; almost forgotten here until our walk yesterday…

    Some air in the tyres and a wash and brush up and she might sparkle once more? Almost fifteen years old, 135,000 miles on the clock and many MOT failures unfortunately leads this car to be abandoned in a pub car park, so maybe not. Parts of me want to rescue this car. But my head, along with my wife say otherwise. “Why are you taking a picture of that..?”

    And two billion of lost money is criminal. As asked above, how could experienced people get things so wrong?

    1. Hi Andrew. I’m afraid it would be like bring a stray dog home, lots of trouble…

      I hadn’t noticed before, but Fiat even positioned the exterior door handle quite differently on the three-door to the five-door version, even incorporating the lock barrel into it on the former. Nice attention to detail!

    2. Andrew, read again carefully the words of Daniel (“… lots of trouble…”), unless you want to hear from your wife “Told you so”. (Well, I hate it when my wife comments on my bad decisions like that).

  14. In the same period the Reanult was producing the Megane II that sold 3,1m exemplares, I would like to see how divided per version. That was a design that you do not forget, im my opinion.

  15. I had a Bravo 1.9 turbo diesel. It was one of the first with the new common rail engine. This caused a problem on the drive home from collecting it, as it broke down. I had to wait 7 weeks for the part, a sensor, to arrive from Italy as there weren’t any in the U.K. as it had only just been released. Apart from that initial problem, gave 3 years and 100,000+ miles trouble free motoring. Never returned to FIAT though, mainly down to stying than anything else. Did test drive a 500 a few years ago but the boot is too tiny for my needs at that time.

  16. Oh dear. I had a 128 as a loaner for a weekend in the 1970s, and I thought it was a gem, despite the build quality. When the Ritmo arrived I was horrified by the bizarre lack of beauty. I considered the Tipo an improvement – less grotesque.
    I quite liked the Bravo – it had character – but spannering one left a bad taste ( plastic connectors would break when separated – certain suspension parts were only available from Fiat as complete assemblies ). I still have the plastic cam-belt tensioner that I replaced simply as a safety precaution. A work contact had a Marea Weekend ( Brava Estate) from new, and it spent lots of time at the dealer for attempted repairs.
    I lost interest in subsequent models – most local Stilos would lose their (plastic) fuel filler flap fairly early in their short life, which I took as a sign that they were best avoided.

    1. The plastic cam belt tensioner pulleys were the cause of many destroyed engines from the Fiat emporium.
      On my second 156 the tensioner pulley for the cam belt snapped at 4,000 kms resulting in a nice view of the crankshaft through the large hole in the engine block. The replacement engine after two weeks broke the tensioner for the balancer shaft belt, giving very intersting running characteristics with the whole car hopping up and down.
      In the end they reduced the cambelt change interval to 60,000 kms…

  17. It´s not a coincidence that the sort-of MPV look went away in the next product cycle. The Civix and 307 of the same period are not very happy entities. VW tested the waters with the Golf Plus and gave up. Paul Horrell at Car thought the idea was the knees of bees. It´s not the packaging that kills the Stilo, it´s the detailing and lack of finesse. It had the bad luck of being up against the Focus, Astra and Golf all which offered something better than the Fiat. The Fiat emobodied mediocrity plus 15% as a guiding principle.

    1. I rather liked the Golf+ – it was replaced by the Golf SV which was larger and even more MPV-like. You beat me to mentioning the 307 which was definitely influenced by the MPV trend in a rather unhappy way, a shame given the 306 was a very attractively designed hatch and even benefitted from its mid-life face-lift which cleaned up some of the less tidy bits of the original.

  18. Somebody in Xi’an loved the Stilo:

    Also on the BYD stand at Geneva in 2011 were shameless petrol engined Aygo, Corolla, and Camry clones, and a strange three-way Megane / Eos / A209 hommage convertible.

  19. I don’t think style- ooh, that word again,- or styling continuity was really FIAT’s problem. Every generation Honda Civic looks different enough to it’s predecessor that they could be cars from a different manufacturer. In this segment Honda has no style continuity, yet they sell Civics by the bucket load (Admittedly they keep the same name, so there is some ‘Brand recognition’). The big difference is perceived quality- the Honda Civic and the Golf have it; the FIAT equivalents don’t.

    For everyone who has FIAT ownership horror stories there is someone else whose FIAT drove to the moon and back with no problems at all. Yet FIAT’s are associated with trouble. I think it takes more than one vehicle generation to establish a reputation for quality but it is quickly lost. Most FIATs sold now are the 500, I think they could make and sell that car in big numbers indefinitely if vehicle legislation were to stop evolving. The 500 is a different beast though, selling to people who want a “Designer car” let’s say and for them nothing else will do, as well as families that want a second car. For them it isn’t the end of the world if their back-up car is often in the workshop as they have a main car to rely on.

    1. Styling continuity isn´t the issue – Renault, Opel, Toyota and Suzuki and Nissan have no or little continuity. Ford, too, for the most part. That´s no sin. You can have styling continuity and get it wrong e.g. the TT.
      No, Fiat´s trouble lay in the execution. It wasn´t good any area such that at least some people had to have it.
      The point about the 500 is one I have made – model changes don´t have to be 3-6 years; some products could do with 10 and the odd few 15-20. I argued Lancia could be a 10 year model cycle company. And the Fiat 500 is like the old Mini. It didn´t need to change (though could have been gradually improved more than it was). See also Beetle, 2CV, Renault 4 and the Toyota Comfort (I think) city car is another.

    2. The reference to the Toyota Comfort intrigued me – I looked it up and it was principally sold as a taxi cab – sort of a Japanese Crown Victoria (similar rear light design, oddly enough).

    3. Oh yes, the FIAT ownership horror stories. My mother had a 127 and she hated it because it never started. She (gladly) lent it to me when I moved to Munich and needed a car. But I didn’t know anything about the starting problems of this darned car, it always started for me. When I gave the car back to her, she hated it even more.

    4. The Toyota Comfort is a marvel. It ran from 1995 to 2017; even in 1995 it looked in conventional terms, outdated. It is a simple three box saloon, probably styled only to appeal as a taxi. But the point is that any car that can serve as a taxi can handle the easier work of daily family driving.

    5. Here’s the aforementioned Toyota Comfort, :

      For some reason, it reminds me of the Mercedes-Benz W201 190

      And here is its dashboard:

      Does anybody else spot something odd in the second photo?

    6. Yes – the duplicate pedals are because it’s popular as a driving school car.

      I too made the 190 connection – it’s the combination of the front wings and the rear boot height. The design is a lot more sophisticated than it first appears.

  20. I liked the Stilo – it’s a very neat and chunky design.

    Sadly, however, the competition upped their game too much for it to succeed (Focus, Golf and Mégane, as have been mentioned). It’s dangerous trying to compete with rivals in their areas of speciality. I see the Stilo has bumper inserts much like the MK3 Ford Mondeo – perhaps an attempt to signal its intended Volkswagen-like character.

    I had a look at the Stilo’s brochure, and even that was a slightly sad copy of the Golf’s.

    I think Volkswagen hedged their bets by producing both the normal Golf and the Golf Plus. The regular Golf outsold the Plus version by quite some margin, of course.

    I’d never heard of the Fiat Palio – it was interesting to look it up.

    1. I have a certain affection for the Palio, having driven one in its native environment. The car in question the property of my then girlfriend, who was trusting or crazy enough to toss me the keys one morning. It was basic, yes, but it did the job it was intended to do well. To a slightly naive gringo, the equipment choices were interesting – no heated rear window, but a seriously chilling air-con unit, able to cope with the dead heat of Pernambuco in January…

      I’ve been trying in recent months to source a die-cast model of the Palio, actually, but the only way I can find to buy one is on Mercado Libre, and it doesn’t seem to be possible to create an account on that without a Brazilian Post Code or ID card number (not sure which) so I’m foiled for the moment…

    2. Hello Michael – which generation of Palio would you be looking for?

    3. The Palio was part of the European sales catalogue under the namws of Palio weekend (estate) and Strada (pick up) and is available for nearly the same prices as a die cast model.

  21. It is little wonder Fiat lost the plot with the overweight Stilo by drawing upon one of the worst versions of the VW Golf in the mk4 (before VW’s return to form with the mk5 Golf) instead of seeking to build upon the success of the Bravo/Brava, the same goes with Peugeot for the 307 compared to the 306.

    In Hot Hatch terms they also lost the plot with burdening the 168 hp 2.4 20v Abarth with Selespeed instead of a manual at launch, at the same time Fiat also could have arguably gotten away with carrying over the 148 hp 2-litre TS 16v 4-cylinder into the Stilo (to fill the gap between the 1.8 and 2.4 units) or even developed a turbocharged version of either engine putting out about 200-220 hp to slot beneath the 247 hp Alfa Romeo 147 3.2 GTA.

    The neat and chunky if bland styling of the 3-door is one of the few positive aspects of the Stilo.

    1. Oh, the 306 to 308 was a major loss of plot. Look at Ford, VW and Opel and Renault as examples of tweaking the products for the market and the 308 which lost the feeling of the 306 entirely. That was such a loss as the 306 was a delightful car in all its versions. The 308 was a potato with “better interior quality”. So what?

    2. The 307 wasn’t bad looking and spacious inside, but the 308 that followed it was horribly overwrought looking. A comparison:

    3. Neither of them work for me. I barely recall the 308 – it´s the 307 which lingers in my mind as an unsatisfying podge. The 308 is the podge with more details and that lame black cheater panel ahead of the side mirror. Then consider the crisp loveliness of the 306. Sheesh.

    4. An acquaintance of mine ran a 307 for well over a decade and it was pretty reliable as I recall. No argument about the 306 (which he had previously) being a much nicer looking car though:

      He now has a 2008, so clearly happy with Peugeot.

    5. The 307 hasn’t really aged all that well, and i guess it always was a bit podgy, but i remember being really impressed when i saw one IRL for the first time – it just looked so modern and different, especially in blue!

  22. Hi Charles, Eduardo,
    Ideally I’d like the 2003 model, although if I can’t find that I’d go for the 1995 one, as the 2003 one is very similar. Thanks very much for posting those links, Eduardo. It looks like the model(s) I’m interested in are sold out – I guess I’ve left it too long to start looking…

    1. Yes, but not quite. It’s a manual transmission car (odd for a taxi?) but the pedals in the left-hand footwell look like an auto setup. Weird!

  23. Quality and reliability is THE major drawback with the vast majority of European cars. They are for the most part not well built, offering marginal reliability. Add to that the cost of spares and the time it takes to repair them when they (inevitably) fail…. well….. $ & time & inconvenience comes as part of the package. Not really a good purchase for the owner, they represent a pending financial crisis which few understand until after they get bit (after which they eventually migrate to what they percieve as a ‘safer’ brand). In terms of reliability and quality, FIAT have been one of the worst euo-box builders (hence the saying that FIAT = fix it again Tony). They have been punished by the market and deservedly so. It’s such a pity as they could do so much better. Probably too late now, since all new designs are getting so heavily prescibed by onerous EU bureaucracies, govts, various institutions and vested interests (finanical, coercive etc.) of one sort or another.

    Putting quality and reliability aside to consider design and performance, just what do we find? There is NOTHING innovative or interesting within these designs, at least since after the Ritmo of the ’70s. They are all just bland “me too” iterations of the standard front wheel drive hatchback euro-box thing. Warmed over copies of what someone else already does (and likely does it slightly better) are not going to be enough to consistently persuade anyone to prefer your brand over another. What FIAT needed was something innovative and unique to FIAT. Someting people could look at and immediately understand and desire enough to purchase with their own money. Copying a Golf is not that.

  24. They didn’t sell the Stilo here in the US(any Fiats, actually) but one impression I got from reading UK car magazines twenty years ago was that they made a significant error in pricing. It seems Fiat offered Stilos primarily in high spec and hence high dollar form. If one wanted something cheap and cheerful one was forced to special order it and I’ve never read anything good about the Fiat dealer experience in any country.

    A couple of questions:

    Didn’t Fiat make a big deal about the Stilo’s construction being a hybrid unibody/space frame and that tech would be the future of the brand? Whatever happened to that plan?

    Also, was the Stilo GP model developed by Prodrive any good? A hot hatch with a fairly large capacity quint sounds like my kind of car, but the standard Stilo Abarth seems to get pretty poor marks.

  25. Good Afternoon Daniel

    The Linea is a bit unusual. I think perhaps you have given us a picture from one of the better angles. Anyway, Eduardo mentions it as being narrow bodied and that reminded me of a comment from LJK Setright.

    Setright opined that a sporting car really ought to be as narrow as it could reasonably be designed to be. A narrow car, he felt, made for a better drive on a winding B-road (narrow), as well as being more convienient to thread through busy town and city streets. Not so long after he said this a well-known UK automotive magazine had an article where a Peugeot 205 GTi was driven back to back with a Lamborghini (can’t recall which one, but likely it was a Diabolo) right across Scotland. During their adventures the drivers swapped cars and redrove several sections of the trip more than once. The Peugeot was unbeatable on the tighter winding roads. It was compact. It was much narrower than the Lamborghini. The Lamborghini was unable to exploit its extra power and grip in tight going- too wide for these situations.

    There was an automotive innovation competition in Japan years ago (the ’90s or the ’00s- can’t remember which). It was for car industry engineers. I think it started with Toyota and spread to include anyone who wanted to join. The gist of it was to allow design and development engineers to let their hair down and go hog wild with ideas (bordering on absolutley crazy in some instances). There were cars which could flip upside-down and keep driving. There were cars with lots of wheels. Then there was an ultra-narrow Lexus LS400.

    The Lexus had been narrowed drastically. It was so narrow that it was a tandem two seater. Apart from the drastic narrowing, it was a standard LS400 in all other aspects- even the engine and transmission remained standard. The idea was to make it better suited to congested city traffic while retaining all the luxury conveniences and refinment of the original car. From the front it looked very different- dramatically changed. From the side it was the same as a normal LS400 sedan. It was beautifully executed, certainly innovative and very interesting. Does anyone remember this car? Has anyone got pictures?

    In later times a father and son built an ultra narrow car in the USA. This was the Tango. I think they had a similar idea about narrowness to the Lexus engineers.

  26. Thank you Daniel! I always thought about a “5-door coupé” Fiat Stilo and how good it would look, but never had the Photoshop talent to try it! I think that maybe if the Stilo hadn’t been a flop, Fiat might have been persuaded to do it, after all, it was the time when we were starting to see the “four-door coupé” phenomenon. I think it would have worked for the Stilo. Having said that, back then things were still rational in the automotive industry and I guess having a second C-class hatch in the range made no sense. Fast forward to today, with so much overlap and niche models being the “new normal”, it would have certainly worked out for the Stilo range.

    As for the gooey plastics I mentioned, it was a general problem back then when manufacturers were starting to use those sort of satin finish plastics for some interior bits, which I think was done by spraying a paint-like vinyl on the plastic part. The problem was that over time that plastic skin would dissolve under the sun’s UV or maybe in contact with the air’s ozone. Whatever it was, it made interior trim bits sticky, even staining your hands and clothes if you touch them too hard. I’ve had more recent cars without that problem, so I guess they figured it out eventually.

    1. Good morning Cesar. Glad you liked the Photoshopped Stilo. I did it quickly, not expecting it to look quite so different to the regular five-door, but it ended up being remarkably so. Would it have sold better? I doubt it, as I don’t think the Stilo’s problems were stylistic.

      You identify the problem with ‘sticky’ plastics precisely. It was a spray-on layer designed to give the plastics a satin or slightly rubberized finish. My previous Porsche Boxster suffered, albeit in a very minor way. The two rotary knobs on the radio became unpleasantly sticky. Fortunately, I was able to remove the knobs and clean off the rubberized layer with a solvent, leaving the perfectly acceptable plastic finish exposed.

    2. Making two five door versions with different roof heights was exactly what VW did with the standard Golf and Golf Plus. Fiat could have replicated this with offering the lower car with three and five doors and leave what was the standard five door as a Golf Plus equivalent.

      It took manufacturers some time in the Nineties to properly master the art of the soft touch surface. Audi A3s from the first production run suffered particularly badly with the whole dashboard surface coming off after relatively short time. These cars were recalled and got new dashboards. On my A4 B6 nothing looked worn even after 15 years and more than half amillion kilometres except for the light switch.

  27. I really like the look of the 3-door Stilo, but i can remember the disappointment when our family rented one when we were in Spain on holiday – the interior felt cheap, and it didn’t really drive all that well.

    Still, those protruding taillights are still the cats pyjamas, and i love that old early 2000s chiseled look.

  28. Good morning to you Daniel. I’m glad you mentioned how you solved the sticky plastic problem on your Boxster and how the underlying plastic was actually acceptable. There was a time when my parents owned both a 2000 Jeep Grand Cherokee and a 2006 Renault Megane Sedan. On the latter the satin finish interior plastic bits felt and looked quite nice and sophisticated when new, whereas the interior plastic of the Grand Cherokee looked well, a bit ordinary straight out of the showroom floor. Fast forward a few years and the tropical sun inevitably turned the Megane’s satin finish into a sticky mess even while the rest of the interior remained undisturbed. The Jeep’s interior, on the other hand, soldiered on looking exactly the same as when new.

    All this led me to a philosophical dilemma: What’s better an unsophisticated interior that is honest and rugged or an interior full of velvety smooth surfaces that are a joy to caress, but are delicate to a fault? Utilitarianism vs. hedonism, perhaps? What’s better in the long run? Because the Jeep’s interior plastics looked and felt ok, but ok for many years. I don’t know, like I said before, manufacturers are doing the satin finish much better now and perhaps more durable too, but in my current car I still treat and touch those surfaces with relative gentleness as even a fingernail can scratch them, so whatever joy they may bring to the driving experience is loaded with a bit of angst too, which kind of makes you question the whole thing. Oh well, the same thing has been happening for decades now with our collective acceptance of painted bumpers that scratch if looked at intensively. We were dumb to accept useless bumpers like the current ones, but it’s too late now. Anyway, that’s a rant for another occasion!

    1. Hi Cesar. I’m not sure how well the same approach would work on large areas affected by stickiness. In answer to your philosophical question, I’d go for durability every time over tactile sensation. As long as the plastics aren’t cheap and hollow sounding, who really needs them to be a tactile delight?

  29. Totally agree with you on the tactile vs. robustness choice. Good textured, solid sounding plastics, with accurate dimensioning go a long way for me. I’m always bemused by the incessant mention of “scratchy plastic” in today’s YouTube reviews of new cars.

  30. Back in 2002, I was looking to purchase a new car to replace the Lancia Y10 1.1 i.e. I was using. I tried the Stilo’s 3-door version with both the 1.2-liter and the 1.6-liter engine. For context, I’ll mention that I was also considering the two 1.6-liter versions of the Alfa 147, the 1.4- and 1.6-liter versions of the Renault Mégane coupé, the 1.4-liter and 1.6-liter versions of the Peugeot 307 and the Citroën Xsara, the 1.4-liter Peugeot 206 Quiksilver, and the car I ended up buying, the 1.2-liter, 16-valve version of the Renault Clio II Phase II.

    The 1.2-liter, despite the 6-speed gearbox, was pathetic. I think the performance figures given by the manufacturer were highly optimistic. It was, in fact, about as pathetic as the 1.4-liter versions of the 307 and the Xsara. All of these three cars (1.2-liter Stilo, 1.4-liter 307 and Xsara) struggled to maintain their momentum when going uphill on motorways, and going up Akrotiriou “avenue” (which has now sadly been renamed) in Chania was impossible at any gear higher than third. Overtaking seemed like a very risky business in any of these cars. The 1.6-liter version was merely adequate in terms of performance. It really needed the 6-speed ‘box.

    In terms of perceived quality, the Stilo seemed to be pretty good and solid. Much more so than my Delta, in fact. As far as grip and handling were concerned, its fat tires, generous wheelbase and tracks, rock-solid (although astoundingly heavy) chassis, and the well-calculated suspension geometry gave it bags of grip and very predictable handling, at least within its grip limits. The brakes were also head and shoulders above the competition. The steering, however, fell far short of any expectation. Even if I were to excuse the engine choices, this was the ultimate deal-breaker for me. Way too light, bereft of any semblance of feel and feedback, it gave you no information at all as to where your wheels were pointing.

    So, I had three factors that really went against the Stilo:
    1. Grip limits that were exceedingly high. You could easily find yourself getting fooled and running into trouble. The higher the speed at which you exceed the car’s grip limits, the more abruptly you lose control, and the less time you have to react.
    2. Engines that didn’t really have the power to pull you out of trouble should you encounter snap oversteer. Then again, the 1.6 could barely overtake safely, and the 1.2 made you think twice before you attempted to overtake anything faster than a half-asleep snail.
    3. Steering that inspired no confidence at all and didn’t make you feel it’d be by your side at or above the limit.

    I eventually bought the Clio, which was a delight in almost every possible way.

    1. I notice that there are three worthy contenders who are conspicuously absent from your list. What was it that kept them off the shortlist?

    2. I detested the Volkswagen Group; I still do, as a matter of fact. But back then, I wouldn’t be seen dead in one of their cars, not least because of their suspect influence on the automotive Press. As for the Ford Focus, I loathed its dashboard, and the 1.4-liter version was just as underpowered as the 307, the Xsara, or the 1.2-liter Stilo. Toyota’s Corolla E120 left me entirely unimpressed, so that’s how I came up with the longlist I mentioned above. After a bunch of test drives, my shortlist looked like this:
      1. Renault Clio 1.2 16v
      2. Peugeot 206 1.4 Quiksilver
      3. Alfa Romeo 147 1.6 (preferably the 120PS version)
      4. Citroën Xsara 1.6
      5. Peugeot 307 1.6
      I ended up ruling out choices 3-5 because the trim level/engine combinations I was interested in were either “not yet” available to us at the time or cost too much. As for the Peugeot 206, I did like its driving position far more than the Clio’s truck-like one (the Clio never allowed you to sit really comfortably behind the wheel), but I found its rear end a bit skittier than the Clio’s, and there was extra discouragement by this taxation by engine displacement thing, as well.

    3. I can´t argue much with that (I thought the Focus dashboard was very stylish and useful). There´s one car still not accounted for.

    4. @Konstantinos, very nice story yours about your past choiche, @richard, now i am curious, Lancia Delta?

    5. Charles has got it. The Astra. Sorry…. I can´t help myself.
      When I am out walking with the kid I am known to point at them and go “Astra!”
      We also do “Ignis!”.

    6. Not Richard’s favourite Astra iteration, but I’ve always liked the robust chunkiness of the J:

    7. I must say that I think the current Astra K is my favourite. Just very nicely done – proportions, details, the lot. I guess the new one, due soon, will get the ‘visor’ styling, which I rather like.

  31. Ah, yes. No, I hadn’t considered the Astra F at all. I always had a weird relationship with Opel as a brand. I dug the liftback Ascona C, the Manta, and the Kadett GSi as a boy of a single-digit age. I didn’t like the white, four-door Kadett C and Vauxhall Chevette two uncles of mine had. I really didn’t. Neither did I like the engines on the more affordable versions, the dangerously slow ones that littered Greek roads.

    What really poisoned the brand for me, though, was the Corsa B on which I was taught to drive by an exceedingly grumpy, rude, and arrogant old fart of a tutor, way back in 1997. But it wasn’t just him. The car didn’t feel “right”. Two years later, I went on to drive a similar car owned by a winter fling of mine. Although the car was well-maintained, my negative impressions of its handling were confirmed. That’s where I became really prejudiced against Opel – a prejudice that started to fade only in recent years, with the Astra J. The F, which a friend of mine also owned, seemed to be an OK car: pretty well-built, decent-looking, and its handling wasn’t bad. But it still couldn’t break out of the “box” I had put the brand in. Neither could the G and H. In fact, the H and the Vectra C were two cars I couldn’t stomach.

    Would I buy an Opel now? I might go for the Astra, actually. It drives well, goes well, there’s a decent dealership nearby, and it’s well-built. Its estate guise, with a diesel engine and in a high-ish trim level, but without leather (its optional leather upholstery doesn’t seem to cut it), seems attractive enough. I also like the fact that, in stark contrast with the Grandland, the fonts on its instruments and electric window switches are sized for adult humans rather than kittens.

    1. I wrote “the fonts on its instruments and electric window switches”; this can be confusing. I should have written “the electric window switches and the fonts on its instruments” instead.

    2. I concur about the Corsa B, Konstantinos. We had the misfortune to have one as a hire car in Majorca when the Corsa B was a current model. It had truly abysmal steering and negotiating twisty, hilly coast roads on the northern side of the island was a really laborious task.

    3. Oh yes, Daniel. It was a truly dreadful car. And its iteration that tried to appeal to the morons that killed themselves and others on the Limanakia Horseshoe in Vouliagmeni was even worse. You see, a car that already handled like a fully-loaded LIDL cart, becomes downright lethal when it gets cynically reskinned to be sold to Colin McRae wannabes that had one single, shared, half-functioning brain cell and even worse driving skills than yours truly.

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