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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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”.
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.