RoadTest: The car industry tries to be a broad church. Big, small, short or tall, there's a model for you. Yet the dramatic growth in what are being called mini people carriers leaves us in a quandary.
Just how many abnormally tall people are there on the road? Are thousands of them hunched at the wheel unable to straighten up?
These cars seat only five passengers, and are only a couple of millimetres wider than their regular siblings upon which they are based. Yet they are much taller. Either we're all getting taller or top hats are making a comeback.
A patient industry soul has been busy trying to explain it to us. The automotive equation reads thus: maximum volume for minimum road space. In places such as Japan and on the crowded streets of Rome and Paris, road space is at a premium. Even in Dublin at 8 a.m., it's in pretty short supply.
If ground space is so limited, the only way to get bigger is to go up. So, we get small tall cars - and the taller they are the less you have to recline the seats, thereby reducing the length. Ingenious.
And Fiat's big little Idea? It's up against the frontrunners in this market such as the Opel Meriva, Ford Fusion and Honda Jazz.
In design it has the requisite stretched look, yet with a degree of style that's due in part to the influence of Fiat's favoured design house, Giugario's Italdesign. It's the only justification for the Idea acronym which stands for Intelligent Design Emotive Architecture.
Based on the Punto platform, the Idea's wheelbase is stretched to 2,508 mm, but it has a shorter front overhang than on the Punto. In height it's a full 18 cm taller at 1,660 mm - plenty of room for your feather boa to keep its plumage.
The longer wheelbase means there's more legroom up front, although the driver has to contend with a cluttered footwell. The Idea's two footrests leave a rather cramped space for the pedals, which are too close together for quick changes. Not that you will be left-foot-braking in an Idea, but it may prove tricky for seven-footers with big feet.
Seating is firm but comfortable. The upright positioning and vast surround of glass offer excellent visibility and a feeling of security when mixing it with the heavy traffic in rush hour.
To earn its MPV tag, the Idea's rear seats slide to increase boot capacity or leg room and can be reclined independently. They can take three children comfortably, but are too tight for the same number of adults.
Boot access is unhindered. With rear seats down, it offers a respectable 1,420 litres, one of the biggest in its class. The cabin also has lots of well-thought-out storage.
There are two engine options: a 1.4-litre petrol or the critically acclaimed 1.3-litre Multijet. We tested the latter and found it rather rough around the edges, coming as we did from the high-end of the diesel market in previous weeks. The rattle at idle is disturbing and in low gears the noise intrudes into the cabin. As for the all-important fuel consumption, we managed 47.4 mpg during our travels.
Good steering is greatly helped by the "city" button which lightens the wheel at low speeds. In tight car parks you can spin the wheel with your finger and swoop into any slot.
The Idea belongs in the city. With the 1.3-litre Multijet, you have to work to get it up to speed on main roads, especially on the motorway. If you relax at all it seems to slip back down to suburban speeds. Ride and comfort were competent on main roads, but rear-seat passengers suffered more from back-road undulations than front-seat occupants. This is due in part to the torsion beam-suspended rear set-up that lets the back wheels skip from one bump to another.
The designers seemingly gave little thought to us right-handers in Ireland and Britain. Fiat is far from the only firm guilty of this. Most manufacturers carry over left-hand-drive controls straight into right-hand drive models. The sporty Mazda RX-8 with its handbrake rubbing the leg of the driver is an example.
Several features would be ideal for left-hand-drive models but prove annoying on the "wrong" side of the car. Monitoring the central instrument panel takes a more conscious effort than normal and the speedometer is virtually at that other side of the car (it's easier to ask the passenger what speed you're doing than to look yourself).
The radio volume control, which doesn't protrude enough, is at an arm's reach and furthest from the driver, when it should really be the closest.
Overall, the Idea has the cabin size to compete with the entry end of the MPV market. The fact that the €16,995 starting price is a Fiat Open Book, or on-the-road, price means it should do well in this price conscious segment. But the more expensive versions are brushing up against superior players like the Ford Focus C-Max and Renault Scenic.
Whatever the logic of these little big cars, the industry will happily deliver them if the demand is there.
ENGINE: 1,251cc 4-cylinder 16-valve multijet common rail direct injection diesel; 70bhp at 4,000rpm and 180 Nm at 1,750 rpm
PERFORMANCE: Top speed 99 mph: 0-62mph in 15.4 seconds
SPECIFICATION: Test car was top-range Emotion with A/C, electric windows, parking sensor, 15" alloy wheels. Standard on all models are: ABS with EBD, dual front airbags, Radio/CD and roof-level parcel-shelf and storage pods
MPG: Urban 45.6, extra-urban 62.8, combined 55.4
PRICE: 1 16,995 to 1 22,495 (Open Book on-the-road prices)