Test venue: Trough of Boland, Lancashire
Fiat looks to have finally turned the corner after several sets of poor results. The Italian manufacturer has recently posted a profit for the second successive quarter. Hot on the heels of the positive financial numbers is the British launch of the new Croma model, which went on sale in mainland Europe at the end of May.
Croma goes on sale in the UK on August 20th and will be followed in early 2006 by a new Fiat Punto. It is now 10 years since the last of the first Croma models was wheeled off the production line, but Fiat's entry into the burgeoning and highly-competitive D-segment is a first class car.
Fiat UK chose the backdrop of the Gibbon Bridge Hotel, near Longridge in Lancashire, to show off the first pair of four engine derivatives it hopes will compete against the likes of the Vauxhall Vectra, Peugeot 407, Ford Mondeo and Renault Laguna. Management in Slough claims that one in five new cars sold today are D-segment motors, although success in the fleet market will be vital to the success of this cross-over brand which is neither a saloon, an estate or an MPV. For example,, it is over 11 cm higher than the Mondeo and 47 cm longer than the Citroen Xsara Picasso.
Croma will be sold throughout the UK dealer network in three trim levels - Dynamic, Eleganza and Prestigio - and will feature four engine options. A 2.2-litre, 16-valve petrol engine and a 1.9-litre Multijet turbodiesel will cater for initial sales, although a more powerful 200 bhp, 2.4-litre, 20-valve unit will be introduced in September 2006. A smaller 1.8-litre petrol engine will be made available in early 2006.
Fiat claims a top speed for the 1.9-litre engine of 121 mph, rising to 134 mph for the 2.4-litre Multijet unit. You will reach the speed limit in 8.5 seconds in the range-topping diesel and see a combined fuel consumption of around 35 mpg with the automatic and an impressive 46 mpg with the manual 1.9-litre engine.
At first glance the new Croma is a spacious and quite stylish car, offering the performance associated with the class-leading Mondeo and Vectra, but with considerably more rear headroom and space for passengers.
Fiat's clever marketing strategy centres around advertising the Croma's vastly-improved rear interior space and refinements to the aerodynamics and general build quality, which have made the new model a very quiet car to drive, particularly at speed on the motorway. The appointment of a former BMW and Volkswagen Quality Control executive has further helped the company bolster its quality image.
Fiat is aiming for 60% fleet sales and around 45% of models sold will be the mid-spec Eleganza version. The company is also hoping for improved residual values on the new model and a 5* NCAP rating, like its rival the Renault Laguna. But what is the new Croma like behind the wheel?
Fiat chose a delightful scenic route through the Trough of Boland and across the North Lancashire fells to advertise the Croma's all-round capabilities. The route passed Stonyhurst College - where J.R.R. Tolkien reputedly wrote much of his blockbuster 'Lord of the Rings' and passed through the award-winning Waddington village and across the spine of the fells to Kirkby Lonsdale, returning to Longridge via a variety of A and B roads and a southbound stint on the M6.
Fire up the engine with the ignition key situated below the transmission and you are greeted with a very quiet and refined engine. I opted for the diesel model for the 100-mile test drive and was impressed with the noise levels in the car. The six-speed transmission was slick and effective, although the engine's torque characteristics mean that you need to be careful with gear selection.
Power comes on stream at around 1,700 rpm in the diesel model I tested, but if you are cruising leisurely in third and fourth gears, the engine quickly loses power on an uphill ascent if the revs drop below 1,500 rpm. You definitely need second gear on a climb.
That aside, acceleration is impressive throughout the rev band and overtaking is made that much easier by the precise gearchange and torquey motor. The car handles with confidence - benefitting from Fiat's rear Multilink suspension system - even on a winding and narrow fell road, and the standard ventilated disc brakes inspire confidence. Petrol-engined cars are fitted with five-speed manual transmissions, although a sequential automatic gearbox is also available for the 2.2-litre unit.
Fiat has priced the Croma competitively, even though the base Dynamic model is equipped with an impressive array of standard accessories. These include seven air bags, a CD player, remote central locking, front and rear electric windows, ABS, power-assisted steering, air conditioning, 16-inch alloy wheels, ESP and an adjustable steering wheel.
Climate control, larger alloy wheels and a leather steering wheel bolster the price of the Eleganza model and tinted rear windows, a Sky dome sunroof, in-dash CD changer and rear window blinds are standard in the Prestigio model, with prices starting at £15,745 for the 2.2-litre Dynamic, rising to £20,345 for the 1.9-litre Miltijet Prestigio Auto.
Fiat is placing far more importance on next year's Punto, but the Croma is a brave entry in a fierce market segment. It is enjoyable to drive, offers excellent all-round visibility, is practical, refined and offers a little more for your money than a conventional D-segment company car.
Fiat dealers now have to convince the paying public that it is back on track and the Croma really is better than the tried and trusted Ford Mondeo, the ever-popular Vauxhall Vectra and offers the build quality of the Volswagen Passat or the style of the Peugeot 407.
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