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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: April 20, 2012 @ 8:18 am

    Behind the scenes at Fiat design

    Neil Briscoe

    Deep in the depths of a faceless industrial estate on the outskirts of Turin, Fiat is having another go at being a maker of large cars. Well, larger anyway.

    For the past while, Fiat has basically ignored any new car development larger than a Punto. The Focus-sized Bravo has been allowed to plug along while we wait for its Qashqai-like replacement while the larger Croma is long since dead, a fate which shortly afterwards befell the quirky-but-good Multipla six-seat MPV.

    So it’s just been a diet of traditional small cars for Fiat since then. A new Panda. New variations on the successful 500 formula. A facelift for the Punto. Fiat has always done small cars especially well, but it really needs to crack the larger car markets if it’s ever going to start turning consistent profits. Small cars are tough to make money on, no matter how good they are.

    That’s why the new 500 L is taking shape within Fiat’s Centro Stile (design centre to you and I) in Turin, under the watchful eye of chief designer Roberto Giolito:

    “In the one sense, this is meant to be a larger 500, right from the beginning. But even the new Panda has taken some of the 500′s feeling, the same design, the same approaches. So for the 500 L we dedicated more 500 feeling to the styling, the visualisation. But even so, it would have been a pity not to use the more functional elements from the Panda to create a more functional 500 model. More to be used and abused in any condition.”

    What is a 500 L? Well, obviously it’s a spin-off from the dinky 500 hatch, right? Wrong. Actually it’s a half-way house between a compact MPV to replace the little-seen and little-loved Idea and a compact crossover to take on the likes of the Skoda Yeti and Mini Countryman, a car to which it bears a passing, if coincidental, visual relationship.

    Crucially for Fiat, it’s also a way to keep happy 500 buyers in the family when their lifestyles or children have outgrown the confined compartment of Fiat’s fashionable small one. Again, a similar task to the one that the Countryman does for Mini.

    Of the 500 itself, there is little mechanical carryover. It will share 1.3 MultiJet diesel engines and the dinky, revvy (and noisy) 875cc TwinAir petrol with the 500, and there are obvious styling references. But the platform is actually closer related to that of the Punto (hence the 4.14-metre length) and the cabin owes more to the new Panda in styling terms, with its ‘Squircle’ wheel and glossy, high quality surfaces.

    Persuading customers that it can “do” high quality has always been an uphill struggle for Fiat, but having prodded and poked a pre-production prototype it certainly looks and feels good so far. There’s leg and headroom in the back seats for full-sized adults (albeit the optional full-length glass sunroof robs an inch or so) and the front seats and driving position (in left hand drive) feel comfy. And it looks stylish too, with body coloured panels on the dash, a new touch-screen infotainment system that will  be standard on all models (Irish specs are still TBC though) and gorgeous two-tone seats even on the basic Pop model.

    Interestingly, Roberto Gioloto was in charge of the design for the controversial 1998 Multipla (the bug-eyed one that so polarised opinion). Given that the more conventional 500 L is, partially, a replacement for that car, I asked Roberto if he thought Fiat could ever again bring out a car with such ground-breaking design:

    “With the 1998 Multipla, we had a different construction, a spaceframe chassis, which gave us the opportunity to host many different layouts for engines etc. So the times with the Multipla were the times when we dreamt about building up a new lineup of products; low volumes, low investment, but big differences between the products. In these days, we are going into standardisation of parts, into creating a common literature among Chrysler and the Fiat Group. For this reason, costs are much harder, but the innovation in terms of usability, that is the key to design. Creating the right mixture among tradition and the future.

    “For this reason I would like to see the new products creating no turbulence with the environment. Especially creating the right path for innovation in a day by day sense, not just with dramatic emphasis.

    “But if the Citroen DS in the fifties, or the Mini the original Fiat 500 were adopted by the people as normal cars, then I trust the customer now to have this vision that our fathers had in those years. It’s a good perspective to have the same customers with the open mind to accept the new.”

    So that’s a no, then, with a maybe at the end.

    Quite apart from any styling issues though, here’s the crucial question. Can Fiat actually build and sell a large(ish) car with any level of success? It’s a thorny issue. The company is justifiably famed for its tiddlers, but the Bravo has been ignored by both customers and the Fiat itself while rivals like the Focus, Golf and Kia Cee’d have gone from strength to strength. The less said about the disastrous last-generation Croma the better. Fiat has major perception issues when it comes to selling larger vehicles.

    Attaching it to the 500′s coat-tails seems a smart move. The shape has translated to a quasi-SUV application about as well as Mini did with the Countryman – which is to say not entirely pretty but pleasingly chunky all the same. The practical matters of spacious rear seats and a decent boot have been taken care of and a standard five-year warranty should boost its image in quality terms. And it won’t be alone. A stretched seven-seat version follows next year while a chunkier, more obviously SUV-ish 500 X crossover (with optional four wheel drive) is waiting in the wings.

    Certainly, the 500 L is entering right at the heart of the market’s sweet point; there’s nothing more fashionable than a family-sized hatch with faux-by-four styling. If it drives well, and is priced right, then Fiat could finally break its large car duck.

    It needs to. Fiat’s last big hit was the 500 which is now a four year old design. The 500 L will also be sold in the US market, where it’s smaller brother has been picking up some healthy sales and critical approval. Fiat in Europe is currently under a strict new model development freeze (hence the dearth of new products for both itself and Alfa Romeo) which the 500 L signals the end of, and the beginning of a series of significant launches. With market share in Europe falling and the encroaching Korean (and eventually Chinese) opposition, Fiat needs this big-ish car to be a more than big-ish hit, right out of the gate.

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