What’s the big IDEA?
Turinese ideas have flowed many a year, largely with a great deal of success – on paper at least – diminishing returns, alongside awkward timing often diverting the flow. Having the relative novelty of seeing a perfectly unkempt example in person recently and referencing Mr. Editor Doyle’s take on the Lancia version, we must rewind the clock to 2004. A time when Fiat actively sold a wide array of distinctive, smaller, handsome-enough cars we arrive at today’s subject – the Fiat Idea.
The junior-MPV was very much en-vogue in early February of that year at the Idea’s UK launch. Designer Fabrizio Giugiaro of Italdesign (son of Giorgetto) shoehorned five seats into an almost kei dimensioned car: 1.70m wide, 1.66m high and 3.9 m long, with a wheelbase and package from the Punto of just 2.51m.
Alongside attractive pricing sat simple trim levels – Active, Dynamic and Eleganza – prices starting at £10,000 and rising but two and half thousand more. The Italian carmaker’s targets included Vauxhall/Opel’s Meriva, Renault’s Modus, Colt from Mitsubishi, the Citroën C3 Picasso and the Hyundai Getz. That final mention coinciding with one F. Giugiaro (allegedly) penning said Korean.
As with their Japanese brethren, the technicians had to think outside the one-box shape to conjure up much needed internal space. Much was made about Idea’s 32 possible seating configurations or the 27 storage areas whilst managing to squeeze in the (then) world’s smallest and most advanced second generation common rail direct injection turbodiesel, according to Fiat. That engine being a 1.3 litre, 70bhp and 133 lb ft unit with sixteen valves – good for 99mph. Petrol power came in with the long established 1.4 FIRE engines, good for 95bhp, 94 lbs/ ft and a spirited 109mph v-max. Did such bolides samples such highs? No shadow of a doubt!
The Idea’s seats emerged from the furtive minds of the CONI Sport Medicine Institute, the Rome based Olympic committee. With a biometrics team headed by Professor Dal Monte, efforts prioritised passenger posture, comfort and support. Which sounds positively amazing – almost as if no-one else had considered these parameters before. Where did the competition procure their mini-MPV seats – the granite supplier?
The road tests conducted on HM. the Queen’s highways some seventeen years ago proffered encouraging results. Internal affairs rightly praised. The exterior lauded for its simplicity. Chris Chilton’s January 4th summation for Autocar gave the reader a clear (ahem), idea of what to expect; the car rolled a bit when hustling B-roads and understeered at seemingly any given moment, wet or dry. Clearly not your usual Ferrari then, Chris. But the steering wheel city (or dualdrive) button made tight manoeuvres the proverbial doddle.
Honest John called the Idea a spade, awarding the car just one star out of five. Comparing the drive to Fiat’s other pocket-sized machine, the Panda, the former is again found lacking in the fuel mileage and driving entertainment departments, whereas thumbs up are once more for the clever interior and dashboard. HJ favoured the latter all round.
London’s Royal Automobile Club pinned the score of a solidly mid-table 61/100 to the Idea’s lofty (and optional glass Skydome) roof. Andy Enright is also the first to allow a little more love for this Italian novelty to flourish. Eloquently using the word brio alongside personality, he extoled that yes, the Idea is different but all the better for it. He places the car’s styling as highly as the space and versatility. Good egg.
But as we all know, the reviewers’ opinion is but a broken lightbulb when the thorny issue of sales leap forth. European buyers taking more of a shine towards Idea, the continent including Blighty snapped up a total of 61,293 in the first full year on sale. This would be Idea’s best for as time ticked by, those numbers ebbed faster than their flow; mid thirties gave way to mid twenty thousands, tailing off rapidly – 2012, just less than 3,000 sold. Seventeen for 2013 and one solitary example for 2014 which one hopes was spectacularly discounted. Over its twelve year lifespan, a total of 210,000 Idea’s challenged neither Punto nor Panda’s mantle.
Fiat’s UK branch pulled the plug on Idea exactly three years in, but not before a mild facelift and small price hike in 2006. British buyers could hardly contain themselves with the chrome-effect grille and indicators now cozying up inside the headlamps. Internally, a few plasti-chrome trinkets were added.
The scourge of the SUV put paid to the mini-MPV market as tastes grew exponentially. The Idea and its contenders stood little chance of being anything but a used purchase. Who wanted a clever interior perched within a decent enough exterior when you could now have height, space and aggression in a single package? That any survive borders a miracle.
With British roads hardly awash with Ideas, (Autotrader had just two examples at time of writing, both well under a thousand pounds with a mere Mille overall still registered, we’re lucky to have found a specimen with the highest Eleganza spec motioned by petrol power. First registered in the Bristol area and covering almost 116,000 miles in its lifetime, the car sports some unusual purple splashes to bonnet and roof. One is at a loss as to what caused these between red and blue slops to seemingly lay eternally on the typically city patinated orange paintwork. A ding here, a scrape there are perhaps best seen as badges of honour.
The car’s mechanical history follows suit, MOT failures are rather too familiar but maladies appear easily rectified; lights, brakes, tyres, etc. Only in later life do we hear of oil leaks and perishable rubber problems which highlights the robustness of the Idea in the first hand.
Family picnic-induced sticky fingers, parents driving under duress, typically British weather and a life mainly confined to urban environments are scarcely the exponents of a cherished motor car. The interior seemed to be holding up but for obvious reasons one cannot assess too closely, although our Idea has managed to hold its own over the salty winters.
For how long though is unknown. Stoic thriftiness may see a sudden change of heart come the next expensive annual check-up; this left field choice sashaying into a Bratachian, per chance? Shame, for this purple-spotted, Italian rarity sits as well today as it did all those years ago.