Life in Monochrome

Understanding the 1985 Fiat Croma.

Image: Automoto.it

Platform sharing, the practice of developing superficially unique vehicles for different marques within an automotive group based on a common architecture, is so widespread today, so obviously logical and cost-effective, that to do otherwise would seem perverse. Back in October 1978, however, a ground-breaking deal was signed between Fiat-owned Lancia and Saab to develop a common platform upon which each maker would build its own large D-segment contender. Lancia chief Sergio Camuffo led the programme from the Italian side. The platform would be called the Type Four and feature a transverse-engined front-wheel-drive layout. Alfa Romeo would later(1) sign up to become a partner in the project.

The attraction of the deal to all parties was clear: Lancia’s large car challenger was the Gamma berlina, a fastback saloon introduced in 1976. Its styling was an acquired taste but, more importantly, its idiosyncratic 2.5-litre all-aluminium flat-four engine was widely regarded as insufficiently refined, and inappropriate for a luxury car. Moreover, it developed a reputation for mechanical frailty(2) and the Gamma sold poorly as a consequence(3). Fiat also needed its own large saloon to replace the 132, which dated back to 1972(4).

Saab had just launched the 900, a heavily re-engineered and extended version of its 99 model that dated back to 1968. The 900 was a very competent car and would sell well, but Saab recognised that the underpinnings were reaching the limit of their development, so it needed a ‘clean-sheet’ new model for the future.

Image: Motoring Research

Alfa Romeo, owned by the Italian Government since 1933, was a perennial loss-maker and did not have the resources to develop a badly needed new large saloon. Since the demise of the attractive but expensive and slow-selling 2600 berlina in 1968, the company had no competitor in the full-size saloon market(5).

So, all four marques had every incentive to co-operate in developing a shared platform. The first of the new cars to be launched were the Saab 9000 and Lancia Thema, which were unveiled almost simultaneously in May 1984. The Fiat Croma arrived in December 1985, while the final car based on the shared architecture, the Alfa Romeo 164, was launched at the Frankfurt Motor show in September 1987, Fiat having acquired Alfa Romeo from the Italian government in the previous year.

Image: italicar.co.uk

The Saab, Lancia and Fiat shared not only a platform, but doors and door apertures as well(6), giving them a similar appearance in side profile. The 9000 and Thema were, however, clearly differentiated: the Saab had a fastback profile featuring a large hatchback with fixed triangular rear-quarter windows either side, while the Lancia was a conservatively handsome three-box saloon. Each sported its marque’s distinctive front grille, so there was no danger of confusion between them.

This, however, left Fiat in something of a bind: how could it distinguish its own Type Four car, given the constraints of the apparently identical centre section? Giorgetto Giugiaro’s Italdesign had worked on all three cars in conjunction with their manufacturers and came up with a solution that was something of a compromise, in both stylistic and practical terms.

The Croma was always intended to be a five-door car, but it was given a truncated ‘bustle’ tail and was 95mm (3¾”) shorter than the Thema, robbing it of load space. The hatchback was of a clamshell design and the bonnet was designed to match. This created a rather abrupt meeting of straight lines and curves at the base of the A-pillar which, to my eyes at least, looked a bit too utilitarian for a large car, even one intended to be practical above all else.

That, in a word, was the nub of the problem for the Croma. With the Thema intended to exemplify traditional Lancia luxury and the 164 embodying Alfa Romeo’s sporting heritage, what was left for the Croma but practicality? The exterior design details seemed to reinforce this worthy but dull image: the black plastic ‘five-bar’ front grille and rectangular headlamps looked like they had been lifted straight from the Uno supermini and enlarged to fit. The rear lights were neat but rather plain, and unusually small for a large car. The bumpers were made from textured black plastic, another practical solution, certainly, but one that looked rather cheap.

Image: secret-classics.com

The Croma’s case wasn’t helped by it being the last of the trio sharing the apparently identical centre section to be launched. Automotive journalists seemed rather underwhelmed by its ‘similar but not as good’ styling. Writing in the January 1986 issue of Car magazine, Roger Bell described it as “competent rather than inspiring” and “as predictable as Halley’s comet.” For all that, Bell recognised that it was an important car for Fiat, representing a major investment and complementing the Thema in a two-pronged “attack on the already crowded executive car sector.”

Bell cited the fact that the Croma and Thema were “built on the same lines to identical standards” with “lavish anti-corrosion measures” including “over 40% of the bodywork…made of galvanised steel” as an indicator that Fiat was serious about banishing its past reputation for frangibility.

Image: fiat.com

Bell was impressed with the cabin, saying that “there’s no doubting the Croma’s practicality or spaciousness, which is good by any standards.” He did, however, criticise the interior volume “sacrificed by notching the rear door” and the absence of a split folding rear seat, except on the top-tier 2000 Turbo model.

There was a wide range of engines on offer, from the entry-level 1,585cc 82bhp (61kW) SOHC unit to a 1,995cc 148bhp (110kW) DOHC turbocharged four. A 2,492cc 158bhp (118kW) V6 was offered in some markets. Diesel engines came in 1,929cc and 2,499cc capacities, either naturally aspirated or turbocharged. The standard gearbox was an end-on five-speed manual, with an AP three-speed automatic optionally available on the 2000 i.e. version. Bosch anti-lock brakes and self-levelling suspension were offered as options on upscale models.

As regards the Croma’s Dynamic qualities, Bell commented that “for a luxury express, the ride / handling balance seems just about right. Steering is soft but accurate, sharper on tight lock than around the straight ahead position. High-speed stability is impeccable, fast sweeps are taken with security that inspires confidence.”

In summary, Bell described the Croma as “faithful and forgiving, all right, but not especially rewarding. It commands respect rather than adulation. It does practically everything expected of it more than passably well without stirring the soul. It is not that sort of car.” Given the sort of car the Croma was intended to be, this verdict seemed to be perfectly acceptable.

However, the Croma was hiding a design flaw that only became apparent when the magazine ran one on long-term test later that year. Reporting in the December 1986 issue after 10,000 miles, Bell noted the car’s lack of torsional rigidity(7) and consequent body-flex, which elicited numerous creaks and groans from the interior plastics and even caused the tailgate catch to come adrift on two occasions.

Bell’s initial modest enthusiasm for the big Fiat had been dampened over the course of the year, now stating that “the Croma offers nothing its rivals don’t already have. There’s nothing new in it at all – no innovation, no clever solutions to familiar problems, no fresh styling. Even now, it feels old.” The last comment was damning for a car that had been on the market for less than a year at that point.

Image: autoevolution.com

The Croma was subjected to a major facelift in January 1991, intended to make it look less utilitarian. Bumpers were now body-coloured instead of textured black plastic and the clamshell bonnet was replaced with one of conventional design. Some would argue that this destroyed the Croma’s front / rear symmetry, possibly its only interesting stylistic feature, and the shallower headlamps gave it something of a beetle-browed appearance.

In any event, the facelift did little to stimulate interest in what had already become a forgotten car. Production was terminated in 1996 without any replacement. Fiat sold a disappointing total of around 438,000 Cromas during its eleven-year career, the majority in Italy. The Croma name was revived in 2005(8) for Fiat’s last tilt at the large car segment, which ended ignominiously.

Why did the Croma fail? It wasn’t a bad car, but it brought absolutely nothing new or innovative to the market. Its necessarily(?) dowdy appearance made it easy to overlook. Moreover, Fiat had lost a lot of its previous large car customers by keeping the increasingly outdated 132 / Argenta on the market for too long, so the Croma would have needed to achieve significant numbers of conquest sales to succeed, and it simply wasn’t up to the task.

(1) I have been unable to ascertain with certainty when Alfa Romeo joined the Type Four programme.

(2) The Gamma had a major design flaw whereby the power steering pump was driven by the timing belt and could cause the belt to jump under certain conditions with the steering on full-lock, destroying the engine.

(3) Lancia, recognising the failure of the Gamma berlina in the market, introduced the Trevi, a three-box version of the smaller Beta berlina as a stop-gap model in 1980.

(4) Fiat would facelift the 132 heavily in 1981 and rename it Argenta as a stop-gap model pending the arrival of an all-new replacement based on the shared platform.

(5) In 1979, Alfa Romeo would belatedly introduce the Alfa Six, a design that actually predated the 1972 Type 116 Alfetta. It was an ungainly looking car, appearing to be (but was not) an Alfetta with an extended nose and tail. It sold poorly before being replaced by the 164 in 1987.

(6) The Alfa Romeo 164 shared no external panels with the other Type Four cars. It was designed by Enrico Fumia at Pininfarina.

(7) Improving torsional rigidity was, allegedly, one of the reasons behind Saab modifying the design of the Type Four platform before launching the 9000 in 1984 (crash safety being another), then extensively re-engineering it again in late 1991 to produce the CS, with its revised extremities.

(8) The 2005 Croma was written about here.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

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

75 thoughts on “Life in Monochrome”

  1. I can´t say much about the driving which by most accounts was of ordinary character. The initial exterior and interior design was consistent industrial design though. The poor reaction is more to do with reviewers not understanding the basics of plain industrial design detailing and principles. For a car like the Fiat this type of design was appropriate and, as Daniel noted, there was not much else for ItalDesign left to do anyway. Still, even in isolation, the neat and severe solutions look entirely sensible to me. The interior photo shows a very comfortable bunch of seats, by the way way. They do look good.
    Other firms used clam-shell bonnets before and after: the BMW 520 of the same period, the Renault 18 and now Skoda are using it on the Octavia or Superb.

  2. Thank you for reminding us of the Croma, a fine but undeservedly overlooked and forgotten car.
    I remembar a press test declaring it the best Fiat since the 130, which was high praise or faint praise, depending on your point of view.
    Maybe people wanting an Italian car of that size simply were prepared to do the full Monty and bought a Thema instead of the Croma. The Croma was the poor relation to the Thema anyway with a bit too much cost cutting like using nearly the same engines just without balancer shafts and so on. In the late Eighties somebody I knew had the only Croma I ever saw in the hands of a customer and he held it in high regard as a comfortable and fast long distance car.
    There’s one thing that always should be kept in mind with Tipo 4 cars: you should never, never, ever have an accident in one of them because they don’t simply lack rigidity – torsional and otherwise – but they simply collapse in the case of an impact.

    The Croma’s (and Tipo’s) clamshell bonnet never looked like a real clamshall to me but just like a thick lid sitting on top of the wings rather than something that was wrapped over them, BMW 02-style.

    1. What about the Saab 9000 crash safety? those Folksam studies rated it very well. I owned an Aero for seven years (hence my nickname, “B234R” is the code name of the 9000 Aero engine), although fortunately I didn´t have to find out if it was really safe.
      It seems the Croma and Thema doors fitted in the 9000, but the Saab ones were a lot heavier to withstand side impacts. I imagine Saab engineers shivering when the discover the lack of rigidity of the Croma/Thema design.

    2. b234r: From what I understand, Saab’s engineers diverged from Sergio Camuffo’s specifications quite early in the Tipo Quattro programme. There were a number of reasons for this, but one of them was undoubtedly that Lancia’s specifications were far removed from those Trollhattan would have considered as minimum standards in terms of passive safety and deformability. In the end, the number of shared components between Thema and 9000 amounted to about a dozen internal bodyshell pressings. I’m not even sure the doors were interchangeable, despite looking almost identical. According to Autocar’s Micheal Scarlett, reporting on the cars’ introduction, the main benefit from Tipo Quattro for both FIAT and Saab’s perspective was not so much cost, so much as time saved. It brought them to market faster.

      It’s also worth bearing in mind that while passenger safety was a core value within Saab’s engineering department, a very large portion of Trollhattan’s sales were directed towards the North American market, where impact regulations were rather more stringent at the time. The US had for instance proposed a 40 mph barrier crash test mandate at one stage. This wouldn’t have been lost on the Swedes. FIAT on the other hand, had no ambition to sell either Thema or Croma in the US. Lancia beefed up the Thema bodyshell considerably when it received its mid-term facelift. I would imagine the facelifted Croma was similarly improved.

    3. Hi Eóin. “Time saved”? With due respect to Michael Scarlett, that sounds a dubious assertion, given that it took over five years to get the first of the Type Four cars to market after the agreement was signed. One has to wonder how long it would have taken without the agreement!

    4. Here’s a crash test video of the Croma

      and of the Saab 900 (not directly comparable, not really good but significantly better than Croma which is seemingly made from aluminium foil or wet cardboard

      Interesting video footage (trigger warning: might make you want a CX immediately)

    5. Thanks for posting those video links, Dave. That last one (the comparison Fiat Croma/Mercedes W124/Audi 100/Citroën CX) has been stored on my hard drive for years now and every once in a while I watch it again -as I did today- because it is just so impressive. This was filmed around 1986/87 when the CX had already been on the market for well over a decade. So impressive.

    6. I read that journalist Paul Frere worked as a consultant in the Thema development, he and project leader Bruno Cena tested a Thema prototype fitted with independent rear suspension and another with the Saab rear axle. They found the IRS prototype was more agile and resposive, so in the end each car had different suspensions. I guess that if in a common programme basic things like suspension designs aren´t shared, that´s not a promising start.

      The Croma crash test was made by Auto Motor Und Sport in 1991 and to be fair with the poor Croma some of the other cars used like the Legend and the Maxima performed almost as badly.

      I´ve always coveted to own an Alfa 164 one day, I just wish it´s a bit more safe that the Croma!

    7. Saab insisted on using their own beam axle because it gave better control over a skidding car on Swedish gravel roads. To achieve this the suspension bushes were tuned to make the rear wheels steer in the opposite direction to the front to tighten the corner radius, something that’s normally avoided at all cost above pedestrian speed.

    8. The test shown in the video comparing the FIAT, CX, Mercedes and Audi where the cars traverse a number of low frequency humps in the road at a consistent speed is almost designed to make the CX look good. It’s exactly the kind of road surface challenge for which the oleopneumatic set up was designed to meet – and doesn’t it show? As most know, what that set up does less well is manage higher-frequency ridges, pot-holes, etc., over which the CX and its ilk tend to shudder, a sensation which is exacerbated by the otherwise serene nature of oleopneumatics. I note from other tests which I have read that many air-sprung cars suffer the same problem.

      It is a fascinating video clip, though.

    9. What happens with the cars during the break test? It looks like three of them experience the linear momentum turning into rotational force so the car spins around the veritical axis. The CX just carries on after a slight deflection to the right (driver´s view). That´s not what I´d have expected at all.

  3. Good morning, Richard and Dave, and thanks for your comments. Regarding the clamshell bonnet, Richard, you’re right to describe it as a logical industrial design solution, but it was indeed rather severe. Dave’s description of it as “a thick lid sitting on top of the wings” is apposite and the impression heightened by the uncomfortable way it fails to conceal the rounded bottom corners of the windscreen and looks completely unrelated to the lower edge of the side DLO:

    The other examples cited of clamshell bonnets are all much better resolved. The BMW ’02 Series was a delightful piece of design, neatly integrating both bonnet and boot lid into the waistline crease:

    The Renault 18 took a different approach, by continuing the bonnet shut-line into the lower edge of the DLO:

    Incidentally, wasn’t the 18 a nice, tidy design, understated and easily overlooked, but very neat?

    A current example of a well integrated clamshell bonnet is the Škoda Superb, assisted by the razor-thin gap between bonnet and wing (Mercedes-Benz, take note.):

    1. Thank you Daniel for the reminder of how well resolved the Renault 18 was – the Croma clamshell looks awkward in comparison. And don’t forget how well Saab did it with the 99/900; always a delight to pull the release lever and see the leading edge pop up and forward, allowing one to then lift the rear as the front pivoted down in front of the grille. Small pleasures…..

    2. That Superb looks great. I wonder whether there will be a replacement?

    3. BMW clamshell bonnets started with Neue Klasse and were used until E12/E21 but only Neue Klase and 02 had clamshell boot lids as well. BMW bonnets moved like described for the Saab 99/900 and BMW deleted their front hinged bonnets after E30/32/34 because new EU regulations demanded headlights that should be visible at all times even with an open bonnet.

    4. Excellent article and thanks for the mini tutorial about clamshell bonnets and boots.
      Your photos and commenting really help Daniel.

    5. The Skoda Superb will have a successor. And so is the VW Passat. As the last only cheap competitors of branded brands.

  4. I think the Croma had a few things going against it. First, it was a large FIAT and I don’t think that the market at the time really wanted a large FIAT. Second, I think that most buyers associated large cars as falling into either ‘executive’ or ‘luxury’ categories, even during the mid-eighties, so I am not sure that ‘practical’ cut it as main selling point. Third, it always came across as a competent but rather ordinary car – no pizzazz; whereas the 9000, Thema and 164 in particular really had something about them.

    1. If you wanted something with bad quality and a hatch you could get a Renault 25.
      If you wanted something large and Italian you could get a Thema or 164 which didn’t cost that much more than a Croma.
      If you wanted a quality executive express there was a W124 or E34 which were in a completely different league of their own.
      If you wanted something cheap and large you could get any number of Japanese ‘white goods’ cars which were flair-free but reliable.

    2. Thema or 164 didn’t cost that much more than a Croma. But for an Italian market and Italian institutions. And Fiat could sell Croma abroad too.

  5. The Croma wasn’t helped in the Netherlands by the fact that “Croma” remains one of the most popular brands of butter for cooking over here (croma.nl). Cue endless puns.

    Otherwise the main problems, I think, of the Croma were first: as you mentioned, Fiat had neglected the market segment and the Croma wasn’t special enough to make conquest sales. A story that sounds depressingly familiar for Fiat. The other problem would be that the market as a whole was moving away from D-segment cars from non-premium brands, something which eventually the other Type Four partners would also fall victim to. I’m not sure how long that phenomenon has been around, but it stands to reason that the brand with the least ‘premium’ image, Fiat, would fall victim first, especially after not paying much attention to the segment for a while. The same phenomenon has spread to the smaller D-segment (Mondeo et al) and C-segment. Basically only premium brands sell ‘ordinary’ cars larger than the B-segment now (the odd C-segment model survives, but the writing’s on the wall there too). Mainstream brands have found their saving grace in the SUV, alas. Fiat’s course is even more remarkable, for all intents and purposes having ceased to be a car brand in Europe and instead becoming basically a prefix for 500.

    I agree with Richard that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the Croma’s design: big cars from non-premium manufacturers were probably always a little utilitarian (Citroën excluded – obviously). In that sense I think it filled its brief very nicely. I generally rather like Italian design from the nineties anyway: it strikes me as a very nice balance between the formality of ‘classic’ seventies and eighties design and a smoothness in the detailing and metal pressings probably made possible by technical progress in that era. There are the weaker details mentioned elsewhere and the extra line on top of the Croma’s c-pillar irks, though.

    1. I think the Croma wasn´t a sales failure after all. In those years if a manufacturer only sold in a significant way in its domestic market, that was enough to pay the bills. The Croma sold well in Italy, probably the vast majority to customers that upgraded from a Regata or a Tipo and didn´t ever think about buying a car from another brand (the local dealer is around the corner, you know). Probably a lot of Cromas were sold to taxi drivers or the Italian government, too.

    2. It´s quite chilling that “mainstream” cars are the preserve of what were once called volume manufacturers. If I was to guess at the future some mainstream brands will die completely; and Audi, BMW and Mercedes are going to be strongly challenged by Kia/Hyundai/Tesla. Ford and Volvo are rebranding their e-cars to try to re-establish themselves with people unmoved by heritage. I read that Ford´s CEO has split Ford into Ford carbon and Ford E. That says a lot. They will be shuttering heritage factories and trying to dump the labour with them as they do so.

    3. Here’s an ‘official use’ Croma -Carabinieri of course got Alfas…

    4. Hi Tom. That detail at the top of the C-pillar is, I think, a cap covering the joint between the roof and rear quarter-panel. Strangely, it didn’t feature on either the Thema or 9000, so maybe it was a cheaper and more expedient solution for the Croma.

    5. The seam is present on the others, though the execution is tidier.

      I’ve noticed how the Croma’s clamshell hatch design resembles the Uno’s. To me that seems an unfortunate starting point from which Giugiaro apparently developed the design features which differentiated the Croma from the Thema.

    6. Sorry, I have no idea how that second picture got into my clipboard!

    7. Oh dear… well hold your mouse over the image, it will say it is a Saab 9000… Someone doesn’t want that image crosslinked. Daniel could you please try to fix this?! Ouch.

    8. b234r: Fiat has always been strong on its home market, but there was a time when it was strong Europe-wide. It’s true that the Croma probably sold well enough in Italy to make a profit, and we don’t know Fiat’s expectations. In hindsight, Fiat’s strategy was a poor one, if they seriously intended to only sell strongly in Italy, but only in hindsight. What’s really undone them is that they held on to that strategy for too long.

      Richard: it’s reasonably certain that the car industry will go through some seismic changes and that’s assuming that there will remain a viable market for personal mobility devices vaguely recognisable as ‘cars’. On the other hand, it might offer newcomers chances to build some exciting things. In truth, car technology had stagnated a little of late (excluding increasing amounts of electronics, but those don’t seem particularly useful or adding to the experience of driving). Fortunately that Car article you linked to was written by mister AROnline himself, so that would account for the quality.

      Daniel and gooddog: that’s probably it, a cheaper and nastier solution to the problem of covering the joint between the roof and rear quarter-panel (gooddog: no politics! 😁).

      It’s remarkable how different the cars eventually were (and with that in mind maybe something of a missed chance that the Saab or Lancia diverged a little more in design as well, like the Alfa), not to mention their respective afterlives. Didn’t the Saab-built Lancia Deltas get reinforcements, too? One slightly wonders about the use of the alliance, though it probably did start as a cost-saving scheme, but just got out of hand a little as differences between the individual manufacturers turned out to be harder to bridge than anticipated. Frankly, it sounds as the material for a historical article or even book, if someone can manage to unearth the inner workings of the whole thing.

  6. A bit out of topic but what was so wrong with the Renault 25? A nice example with top trim options was in my neighborhood and I always thought of it as a smart and sporty alternative to the forementioned Italian trio, Saab and Opel.

    1. Big cars depreciate quickly, Renaults depreciate quickly, a big Renault is always going to depreciate very quickly indeed. And then there’s the rust issue – the Renault 20 /30 suffered fairly badly….

    2. Hi Constantinos. I had exactly the same thought: the Renault 25 was a much more accomplished and better resolved design than the Croma. It had a properly integrated clamshell bonnet and tailgate, and much more pleasing proportions:

      Thank you for your kind words about my comment and photos on clamshell bonnets. Glad it was useful! 🙂

    3. I thought the same thing. I´ve had a turn at the wheel of a R25 and looked at them very closely. They aren´t a low quality item at all. They don´t reach the heights of the famed Mercedes 200E of the same period but nothing much does. By any other yardstick the R25 is a lovely machine. It looks amazing too.

    4. The Renault 25 suffered from terminal electrical/electronical unreliabiliy, pain peeling off after no time, rattly and fragile trim. Initially it wasn’t even comfortable because it had the hard suspension that was en vogue chez Renault at that time (the 21 suffered from that, too).

    5. I recall driving both Renaults, 21 and 25 when they were on sale. Admittedly both were new cars, but neither were afflicted by ‘hard suspension’. To my recollection, both rode beautifully on pockmarked Irish roads. The 25 stands out in my memory as being very surefooted. I was impressed. The 21 (it was a Savanna Estate) was also a very under-rated car – far better finished than an equivalent Peugeot 405 as well.

    6. I sat in a Renault 25 once. A 4 banger at the lower end of the spectrum. The car was about two years old at the time. Ride was good, but it seemed flimsy and it was remarkably noisy.

      Someone in my street had a well equipped V6. I’ve never sat in it, but he said it was the worst car he ever owned. Apparently the talking computer in the car wouldn’t shut up for five minutes or so after he drove mentioning all the things that were wrong with the car. Not sure if that’s true.

    7. Agreed, Eoin. The R25 has a super smooth ride. That was one of the things I noticed about it. The word “wafty” springs to my mind and it was very agreeable and not a lot different to my XM´s waftiness. Jaguar owners would recognise the quality.
      Criticism of Peugeot earns barring orders and bans, Eoin, note. The 405 was the second best car ever made ever and above reproach. The only known fault was spring failure on the rear passenger ashtray after 250,000 miles but easily fixed with an engine-out cambelt change.

    8. In the mid-Eighties French manufacturers had a short perios in which they insisted on making their cars hard sprung. Affected were the first productin run of the BX, Renault 21 and 25. All three became much softer after attracting permanent criticism.
      The 25 marked kind of a low point in Renault product quality and Renault did design and build the Safrane the way it was for only one reason, to show the world it was no 25. The 25 became better with its facelift but then it was too late.
      Series I 25s with large parts of lacquer having come off the metallic paint were standard sight on the road.

    9. A 25 V6 bought cheaply at auction was my mother’s favourite car. A very fully optioned, one owner ex Surgeon’s car, that when new had cost him as much as a then BMW 7 series was fairly reliable very very comfortable, trouble-free transport for many years. For a three speed auto V6 it was surprisingly economical too. The incredibly gifted local mechanic installed a transmission oil cooler for her to forestall any problems with the GM based automatic trans and it was a lovely car to travel distances in. (It was quite fast too, 220 km/h + being easily achievable). The electrical gremlins we’d been warned about and that made the car so cheap had been exorcised by the first owner under warranty and his five year ownership, and the few remaining only manifested under rainy weather and were finally cured by replacement of a cracked distributor cap. The warnings didn’t just come from flashing lights but also from a well modulated male voice which also warned of doors left ajar, my mother called him ‘Jeeves’. The only other problem of note was a jammed open thermostat replaced cheaply with one from the local LandRover dealer, the LR/Peugeot/ Ford/Jaguar diesel V6 sharing it’s thermostat with the PRV V6 and being much cheaper than the Renault part, despite being the same actual item.
      Sadly at 450,000km it was badly damaged in a nose to tail accident on the local motorway being rear-ended by a truck unable to stop leaving the car considerably shorter but my mother unharmed, and was replaced by an identically reliable ‘pop-up light’ Honda Accord.
      Part of the fuel economy was, no doubt, the very low 0.28 Cd partly achieved by careful shaping and detailing, these cars aren’t ‘aero blobby’ at all. I don’t have any pictures of it in electronic form, but it was the standard wheelbase version, not the turbo limousine in the picture in Daniel’s post, with the wider headlights and 5 stud wheels of all the V6 versions, like this one. It may be that some individual cars can be better than the make or model’s reputation suggests if they are well serviced and looked after.
      It looked just like these with the lower body plastic cladding that lasted well even in the harsh sunlight here in New Zealand. Definitely one of Robert Opron’s better works…

    10. The 25 was from an era when even small Italian and French cars had at least electric window winders for more comfort at their highway toll booths and larger cars had electric everything when at the same time Benz even built S-classes with manual windows.
      The 25 even had a monopoly on its IR remote control for its central locking for a limited time, granted by Valeo in return for Renault’s effort to bring the system to market. If I remember correctly the IR receiver sat at the underside of the driver’s door mirror.
      In the late Eighties there was another consultant on the same project as I who had a 25 with electrical support for everything, including a fault-prone voice computer. It was always fun to watch him approaching his car waving his arms to conjure the gods of IR control.

  7. No one has commented on the fact that Giugiaro replicated the Croma hatch design on the contemporary Mazda 626 hatch – or was it the other way round ?

    1. On the only V6 Croma I’ve seen the branding looked the same, but it was black instead of red.

    2. Here’s a standard engine bay – the car in the picture above also has a ‘sports’ air cleaner that does nothing but produce noise

  8. The current Tipo saloon is larger than the Croma in every external dimension except wheelbase, which is 23mm shorter. Fiat’s biggest saloon at present is also 185kg heavier.

  9. The entire Type Four platform smacks heavily of something GM would do, perhaps ironic since GM would later play a role (significant in Saab’s case) in each of these manufacturers’ futures. On one hand, Saab certainly comes off as the exasperated overachiever, what with their extensive use of exclusive parts for safety and Scandinavian preference. On the other, it seems like absolute hubris for the Italians to think that there would be space enough in the market for three incredibly similar executive saloons. I personally don’t see the need for the Croma; it only lessens the appeal of the supposedly upmarket Lancia (though with FWD and Fiat engines it seems all a bit of a charade anyway) and is a messy piece of styling unto itself. The Alfa further eats into the Lancia’s appeal from the other end since it comes off as more upmarket with its individual Pininfarina lines, Busso V6s, and interior design that could only be described as Brutalist. Perhaps the Lancia, then, is the ‘pointless’ one? The existence of the 8.32 and the fact that it is really quite attractive lead me to believe otherwise, though as GM later found out trying to have multiple ‘luxury’ marques competing with very similar products is a surefire method for self-cannibalization.

    1. The T4 was like the 1982 Century/6000/Celebrity/Ciera group at GM but with more idiosyncracy. The brandscape of sporty/luxury/economy was not really properly divided among the brands.

  10. The Fiat croma is a rare car to be spotted in Athens. I do not have seen any. The other three were easier to find. From less to more is, I think, Lancia, Alfa Romeo, Saab. These D segment cars with large chassis and 2.0 engines or beyond, were very upmarket then. In this price category, MB, BMW, Saab, Volvo, Audi, were dominating. Something very well made and of premium market feeling. At the 1.6 engine category, the market was very different, more varied.

  11. Almost nobody outside out of Italy wanted a large Fiat, however capable it might be. I think it’s that simple. One thing strikes me as odd: the torsional rigidity issue mentioned was only noticed in a long term test. Isn’t that something you notice right on your first drive? I know the issues it can cause may need some time to show, but how can you not notice a flexing body?

    1. Even here, where I think was and still is somehow an Italian-car-loving-country, few customers would buy a 2.0 Fiat in the 1980s. The existing Fiat 132, were all 1.6, never 2.0, and despite being an older car, it was easy to see it walking around. I have spotted once one dark blue Fiat 130 and I was very surprised, because I did not know this model. The one and only car of the type, the owner enjoyed 100% exclusivity! It was somewhere between Maroussi and Iraklio, and I named the neigborhood, “place of the Fiat 130”. Furthermore, these 4 companies were not active in the taxi sales here, so you could not see them around in this role. Maybe in the car-crazy 1990s, when every car merchant was importing whatever attractive used car could be found in other places, to cover the frenzy of the buying public, some Croma found their way here from neighbouring Italy.

  12. I remember a famous test, by the magazine AMS, that included crash testing the cars. Is it the one mentioned in this discussion? It should have been around 1990, I have never read it, the local magazines were referring to it. The Fiat cars had poor results, was it the Croma or the Tipo?

    1. German magazine ams did two crash tests.
      One had the Croma and the part covering it is shown further up in this thread, the complete film can be found on the internet.
      The crash test of the Tipo showed a disastrous result as the Tipo simply collapsed, even worse than the Croma shown above.

  13. How was it possible in the time of cad-cam and computer modelling used in the design of the structures? Did the euro-ncap existed back then? Is there an engineering-wise idea?

    1. We already had a discussion on this video some time ago on DTW.
      There is a remarkable difference between Fiat Croma/Honda Legend/Nissan Maxima and BMW E34/Benz W124/Audi 100 C4. The German cars behave so fundamentally different that you could say they were engineered to a different standard.
      At the time most these cars were designed nobody truly cared about crash safety. Tests were done by crashing cars into concrete blocks or collapsible steel harmonicas with full overlap at relatively modest speeds.
      The undoing came when tests with partial overlap started and test speeds became higher. A crash test with forty percent overlap at 60 kph is another dimension from hundred percent overlap at 30 kph.

  14. EuroNCAP didn´t exist until 1997. I suppose in the ´80s and early ´90s people thought that to die in a car accident was simply “that´s life” and mainstream manufacturers didn´t take safety seriously.
    Regularly I have arguments with car-loving friends, they prefered the good old times when everything was less regulated and they could speed as they wanted without fear of getting a ticket, the cars were lighter and nimbler, freedom and all that. I remember them that in Spain in 1990 5736 people died in the road, and in 2021 the figure was 1004.

  15. It´s not the most profound comment but I did want to thank Daniel for selecting the metallic green Croma for the title image. It´s a car I usually imagine in mid-grey metallic or black. The mid-greeny grey is very attractive. I don´t think anyone is using this colour today which is odd as it does not look like it´s a colour that dates as much as the stronger hued metallics such as late 90s metallic green (Citroen) or golds (Opel, Citroen, Ford). I had a look for prices on series 1 Cromas and they are firm to muscular as John Coates would say. In comparison the rarer and more lovely XM is available for beer money. That tells you loud and clear that the XM is used-car poison. It´s not even as valued as a Croma 1.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Richard, but I’m afraid I can take no credit for the header image: our esteemed editor wasn’t convinced by my ‘monochrome’ theme and snuck it in when I wasn’t looking! 😁

      A Croma more desirable than an XM? Yikes, the world’s gone mad! I’d take the XM and live with the pain…

    2. We had used the monochrome image before in the DTW Top 100 cars series. Perhaps the simplicity of the Croma and their rarity makes them more appealing than the XM. I am not sure you are fully appraised of the amount of pain involved in stewarding an XM though, especially a Series 1 with UK-configuration. Mine is taking a short jaunt to a mechanic on Friday for appraisal. The leaking steering rack made him pause when I reminded him about it.

    3. A similar hue was used on the Genesis Mint concept, though with perhaps a little less yellow undertones and more ‘cool’ as is in vogue today.

      XM is way cooler! Sad that the only XM buyers seem to want will probably be the hideous BMW

    4. Yes, it´s a nice example. It seems a kind of “Series 1 1/2” with its partially painted bumpers. Perhaps it should have been like that from the Croma launch; the black trim is wide enough to absorb the parking knocks.

      I love that Fiat still put in the Croma the ´70s orange “Sicurezza bambini” sticker in the rear doors. Some Seats had them, too.

    5. A Croma is cheap to buy and easy to fix if you can get the spares. It is nothing particularly special but then it doesn’t ruin you as its owner.
      An XM can be and in far too many cases is a bottomless money pit where fixing one fault seamlessly leads to fixing the next one at sometimes shocking cost. Seemingly most people don’t think its character is worth the money.
      At the same time reasonable CXs are getting really expensive. They can be kept on the road with less effort than an XM and in return they are something truly unique.
      Given the choice between a CX and an XM I’d always take the CX and seemingly I’m not alone
      https://www.cx-basis.de/gebrauchtwagen.html

    1. I wish you good luck and lots of fun with your XM – and always at least one working hydractive sensor!
      May I ask what the calculated cost for fixing the leaking steering is?

    2. Dave: thanks. I will find out in a few weeks if the steering rack needs to be removed. If it does it will be probably at least another 600 euros. Previously the mechanic wiped the area dry and sent the car off 1 km for immediate inspection at the local MOT (“Syn” in Denmark) centre and hoped the car didn´t run long enough for it to leak much. It has no effect on the car´s performance. Many inspectors understand Citroen designed it cope with leaks whilst also trying to minimise them. It´s a law of physics that everything leaks if contains anything gaseous or liquid.
      The main reason the XM seems less desirable than the CX is the electronics but I would image a 2010 Corsa/Fiesta has more electronics than a 1989 XM. Most of them do nothing important (I hope!).

    3. Citroen hydraulic elements are designed to be lubricated by tiny amounts of oil seeping between the surfaces. This oil is collected (mostly by rubber bellows around the open end of the component) and returned to the reservoir via return hoses/pipes. One of the XM’s most infamous hydraulic components is a part where about a dozen of those pipes come together which looks like a porcupine and is nicknamed ‘octopus’ and is nearly impossible to get at for replacement in case it has cracked.
      Under no circumstances should any hydropneumatic component leak significant amounts of oil, let alone at places whout return pipes. Hydro pneumatic parts are produced under clean room conditions and reamed to tolerances in the regions of thousands of millimetres – that’s why they can’t be overhauled. They don’t have any seals but rely on the tight tolerances for oil tightness. If they leak, they’re shot and due to the high pressure in the system that’s downright dangerous.

  16. Thanks for the article, and everyone for the commentary too! I can’t add much to the conversation other than to note Saab did various improvements to the Vectra they were supposed to adapt directly as the NG 900. I also had to look up whether the Croma was sold in Australia (1988-89 it seems).

    438k cars in 11 years isn’t a great indicator of success, but even with the lack of commonality I expect the Group Four basis did actually save cost (did combining with ~350k Themas make the numbers add up for Fiat?).

    The personality-free styling, and somewhat pointless nature of the car (market moving away from the segment and lack of a reason to purchase it over competitors) reminds me of the Mitsubishi 380 – no question that one was a failure.

    1. Hi John, and thanks for your kind words. Wow, that Mitsubishi takes bland to a whole new level. It’s like one of those computer-disguised cars they use in TV adverts for other products. It’s no more interesting from the rear:

    2. The 380 is as dreadful as the Croma Mk2. The Mk2 Ford Mondeo (an excellent item in all respects) looks like the inspiration but all Mitsubishi did was make it worse in order to differentiate it. Amazing that Mitsumanagement wanted it like this. The headlamps are almost identical to the Suzuki Lliana.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: