Understanding the 1985 Fiat Croma.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.