Innovative designs, and better built than one expected from Fiat.
Prior to the inexorable rise of the crossover, the C-segment hatchback was the bedrock of the European automotive market. Every mainstream automaker knew the vital importance of success in this class, the champion of which was the VW Golf. The Volkswagen Group prospered on the enduring success of this car, while other manufacturers strived to match its qualities and capture its appeal in their own offerings. Some slavishly tried to build near-replicas(1) of the German car, an effort lampooned by Volkswagen in its witty and memorable 2009 ‘Just Like a Golf’ television advertisement(2).
The success of the Golf was, however, something of a double-edged sword for its maker. So concerned was Volkswagen not to inadvertently kill the golden goose that it allowed the Golf to evolve only in cautious, iterative steps from one generation to the next. This was, of course, exactly what the market wanted, to the extent that the well-recorded deficiencies of the Mk3 model caused only the mildest of dents in the car’s reputation.
Fiat, by contrast, had been wildly inconsistent in its C-segment offerings following the demise of the highly successful 128. That car’s replacement, the Ritmo(3) was a modernistic looking three and five-door hatchback, but its soft suspension and cosseting ride were much more French than Italianate in character. The Ritmo was in turn replaced by the Tipo, a classic piece of industrial design that majored on space and practicality but looked too much like a domestic appliance(4) for some tastes.
When the time came to design a replacement for the Tipo, Chris Bangle was senior designer at Centro Stile Fiat under the leadership of Design Director, Ermanno Cressoni. Bangle had joined Fiat from Opel in 1985 and had been associated with some striking and distinctive designs such as the Fiat Coupé, Fiat Barchetta roadster and Alfa Romeo 145.
These designs were evidence of the degree of creative freedom enjoyed by Centro Stile at that time. Pete Davis, another American and fellow alumnus of Bangle’s at the Art Centre in Pasadena, California, had followed Bangle from Opel to Fiat. When Bangle moved on to BMW in 1992, Davis replaced him and was keen to maintain Bangle’s non-conformist legacy in the design of the new model.
A major innovation for Fiat’s new C-segment challenger was that the three and five-door versions would have radically different bodywork which would share nothing from the A-pillars rearward. They were even credited to different designers, the three-door to Peter Fassbender, the five-door to Mauro Basso. Coincidentally(5), Renault was designing its first Megane, the C-segment replacement for the 19, at around the same time and alighted on exactly the same innovation. That said, the silhouettes of the two Renault variants are quite similar, whereas the Fiat designs are entirely different, with the three-door, called Bravo, having a much more upright tailgate than the five-door Brava.
The styling of the Brava and Bravo was smoothly rounded and organic, as was very much the fashion in the 1990s. Instead of a formal front grille, both shared a pair of body-coloured ‘nostrils’ separated by the simple five-bar Fiat logo, albeit in much reduced form than on earlier Fiat models. The main engine air intake was located lower down in the front valance. Explaining the lack of a grille, Davis stated that “I don’t think Fiat should have a face. It doesn’t have to be dependent on front-end graphics for distinctiveness, unlike a BMW or a Merc.” Instead, “it has to have simplicity, essentialness…and controlled decoration.”
Davis was particularly pleased with the A-pillar to front wing junction. He described this as giving the A-pillar “a lot of strength, a root” and placed great importance on getting this detail right, stating: “You have to work this out first – and when you’ve done it, the rest is easy.” In holistic terms, Davis described the designs as “very sculptured.”
It was at the rear of both variants where their sculptural qualities were most in evidence. The rear three-quarter panel, including the C-pillars and roof rails, wrapped around the rear of the car and continued unusually far inboard to abut the edges of the tailgate. On the Brava, this panel was pierced with three separate horizontal slots to accommodate the rear light assembly. On the Bravo, a single-piece lens housed abutting circular units for the rear lights, giving the impression that they were separate units. In both cases, the rear quarter panel assembly looked complex and expensive to produce.
Inside, both variants shared the same curvaceous dashboard moulding. An interesting distinction, however, was that the Brava was fitted with large semi-circular main instruments for speed and engine revolutions, bookended by quadrant-shaped dials for fuel and engine temperature. The Bravo had four conventional circular dials, two large and two small, displaying the same information. Davis explained the reason for the difference was that “the three-door is sportier…so it gets round dials” whereas “with the five-door, we wanted to make the dial graphics as legible as possible for older buyers.” Another innovation was a custom-designed integrated radio / cassette unit rather than the standard single-DIN slot unit that was nearly universal at the time.
If the Brava and Bravo’s exterior styling was highly distinctive, its mechanical layout was entirely conventional, with transverse inline four and five-cylinder petrol engines and four-cylinder diesel engines driving the front wheels. The entry-level model featured a 12-valve 1,370cc petrol engine producing 79bhp (59kW). Above this were 16-valve 1,581cc and 1,747cc units producing 102bhp (76kW) and 111bhp (83kW) respectively. The range-topping petrol unit was a 20-valve five-cylinder 1,998cc unit producing 145bhp (108kW). This was good for a 0 to 62mph (100km/h) time of 8.5 seconds and a maximum speed of 132mph (213km/h). The diesel engines were 1,929cc or 1,910cc units in normally aspirated or turbocharged form producing between 64 and 99bhp (48 and 74kW).
The cars stood on a shared 2,540mm (100”) wheelbase. The Brava was 4,190mm (165”) long, while the Bravo was a substantial 170mm (6¾”) shorter at 4,020mm (158¼”). Suspension was also the segment norm: MacPherson struts at the front and a beam rear axle with trailing arms and coil springs at the rear. There were different suspension set-ups for the Brava and Bravo. The former was tuned more for ride comfort, while the latter was tuned for sharper handling.
The Brava and Bravo were launched in September 1995 and went on to win the European Car of the Year award in 1996, a second consecutive victory for Fiat, following the Punto’s win in 1995.
Car Magazine’s Richard Bremner tested the Brava and Bravo at launch and his findings were published in the October 1995 issue of the magazine. A flavour of what was to come was revealed in the review’s title, “Now that’s more like it!” Bremner went on to describe the new pairing as “funky and fun” with “that kind of fizzing Latin brio by the bucketful.” He explained the difference in the target demographic: the Bravo was “sportier because it’s aimed at the keener, more youthful driver” while the Brava was “more family-orientated and a little softer.”
The different bodystyles advertised the difference in focus but had practical benefits too. According to Bruno Cena, Fiat’s head of engineering, the Bravo was 20% stiffer than the Brava and, with less mass behind the rear wheels, wieldier to drive. The cars were no lightweights, however: Cena claimed that they were “twice as rigid as the [Mk3] VW Golf – and two and a half times as stiff as the old Tipo.” He explained that quality, refinement, robustness and durability were Fiat’s priorities in developing the new cars. Bremner found ample evidence of this, including the way the doors closed with “a pleasingly muffled crump” and the switchgear’s “satin precision comparable to Honda’s.”
Bremner’s first test car was a 1.6-litre Bravo. His initial impressions were positive: “the clutch feels light, the gearlever slides home swiftly and easily” and bumps on an unmade road were “absorbed with greater ease than expected.” Driven energetically, the Bravo “feels so agile and composed” and “fights understeer with a zeal that soon has you increasing your speed.” The brakes were “light but progressive and feel reassuringly firm underfoot” while the car had “the best [gear] shift of any family Fiat in years and the other controls have the sensitivity of the finest Europeans.”
The five-door 1.8-litre Brava felt “a shade less agile” but “we’re talking degrees here.” Both cars were happily free of extraneous noises. Fiat CEO Paolo Cantarella allegedly said to the engineer responsible for NVH, “If this car squeaks and rattles, I’m going to physically harm you.” Bremner concluded that the engineer should have remained unbruised and the Brava and Bravo “don’t represent a great leap forward in the development of the motor car, but they do leap ahead of their class.”
Reputations and perceptions in the motor industry, good or bad, are enormously difficult to change and, for all its qualities, the Bravo / Brava, although a strong seller and pretty reliable in service, never came remotely close to displacing the Golf as the market leader. It remained on sale in Europe(6) until 2001 when it was replaced by the mediocre Stilo, which was a real backward step for Fiat and a deserved failure.
(1) The 1986 Nissan Sunny N13 (sold elsewhere as the Pulsar) was one such pretender to the Golf’s throne, a blatant copy of its stance and proportions, with its broad C-pillars and upright tailgate.
(2) The TV advertisement may be viewed here.
(3) Sold as the Strada in the UK because FIAT was concerned that Ritmo wouldn’t appeal to British ears.
(4) It is unusual for a designer to criticise their predecessors’ work, but Pete Davis said that the Tipo “looked like a refrigerator.”
(5) Unless anybody has evidence to the contrary.
(6) And in Brazil until 2003.