If you never left the confines of the city of Turin, you could be mistaken for thinking that the only car manufacturer in the world is Fiat. To say that the residents of the city are loyal to the company, which was founded there over 110 years ago, is an understatement of mammoth proportions. Practically every car, every truck (IVECO) and every 4x4 (Jeeps admittedly, but owned by and badged as Fiat) on the road is a product of Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, whilst those from other manufacturers are tucked away discretely in the furthest corners of car parks, from where I would imagine they are moved only at night by their rather embarrassed owners.
With an eye on the region’s high-volume entry-level saloon market, currently dominated by Japanese and Korean products, Fiat is bringing the new Tipo to the UAE.
Woe betide the young suitor who turns up at his girlfriend’s parents’ house in Turin driving a German/French/British/Japanese built motor vehicle; papa would not be amused, the door would be slammed firmly in his face, and young Maria would be sent in tears to her room, after being warned again about talking to ‘that’ sort of boy…
No, Fiat rules the roost at home, its range of low-cost smaller vehicles such as the 500 (in its many guises), Punto and Panda having strong appeal in a market where value for money and fuel economy are more important than luxury and performance. Of course those latter commodities are rather more sought after in the Middle East, so although the Fiat Chrysler Automotive group enjoys great success out here with its Jeep, Dodge, Maserati and Chrysler products, your chances of seeing a Fiat badge in the GCC, other than on the occasional 500, are slimmer than a Milan catwalk model.
So with an eye on the region’s high-volume entry-level saloon market, currently dominated by Japanese and Korean products, Fiat is bringing the new Tipo to the UAE, in four-door saloon version only for the time being. Built at its factory in Bursa, Turkey, the Tipo is described as a mid-sized car but, I was told at the briefing, is “large enough to seat five full-sized adults comfortably”. Never one to accept statements like that at face value, I immediately set to work putting the front seat in a comfortable position for my 184cm frame, then went and parked myself in the seat immediately behind.
Much to my surprise, I found that for once, reality matched the marketing department’s claims, that I really could sit upright in the back of the car and with adequate legroom, too. On that basis alone, compared to many similarly sized vehicles in the sector, I can definitely see the Tipo winning the approval of taller rear-seat passengers. That same seat splits in a 60/40 configuration, thus extending the four-door car’s 520-litre boot, or in the hatchback, the 440 litres of space under the parcel shelf.
Externally, I think the car’s appearance is a cut above many of the other vehicles against which it will be compared, the front styling in particular showing that Italian designers have still got what it takes, whilst the little boot spoiler on the saloon is also functional, helping bring the car’s drag coefficient down to a respectable 0.29. When open, that boot gives access almost to floor level, making loading easier.
Back in the driver’s seat, the ergonomics of the cabin were perfectly comfortable, although as to be expected at this price point — the Tipo will go on sale in the UAE at between Dh51,000 and Dh63,000, depending on specification and options — the dashboard is a pretty utilitarian expanse of hard black plastic, broken up in the case of my vehicle with an optional seven-inch colour touchscreen for the infotainment and navigation. This is supplemented by on-wheel controls and an in-dash information panel, all of which proved to be quite logical and clear to operate, which is not always the case, so again, first impressions were positive. The top-spec version of this “Uconnect” infotainment features audio streaming, a text reader and voice recognition, Bluetooth interface and iPod integration, plus a rear-parking camera as an option — not bad for a budget-priced car.
Before heading out on the road I was keen to see just how effective the AC appeared, since a key point raised in the technical presentation was that as a result of development work done in desert environments, Fiat claims the temperature of the air coming from the conditioning vents would, at an outside air temperature of 50°C, drop to 18°C within 15 seconds of start up. Unfortunately, the outside temperature at the time of my test drive wasn’t much more than 18°C anyway, though the car had been parked outside all morning so it felt rather warmer than that in the cabin. But I can say that yes, the air from the vents was noticeably cold pretty quickly, not ‘tepid’ as is often the case with smaller-engine vehicles, so for now I’ll accept Fiat’s claims at face value; I look forward to conducting a more challenging test when the Tipo arrives in Dubai later this year.
Fortunately the engineers at Turin know there are still drivers in this world capable of using a gearstick, so the 1.4-litre 16-valve petrol engine car I drove featured a six speed manual box. Thank You Italy, for being a nation of driving enthusiasts. So, as it was I found myself engaging first gear and pulling out into the busy streets of Turin, alongside its rather exuberant local drivers, which is when I discovered that the Tipo is a lot like me in the morning — alright once I get going, but rather slow to get out of the starting blocks. My first couple of attempts to pull out on to roundabouts led to my becoming rather over familiar with the approaching bonnets of locally driven cars (Fiats, naturally). After those experiences, I tended to look for larger gaps, and prepare myself accordingly. A lack of torque from the 94bhp engine below about 2,000rpm proved to be the only negative in what was otherwise a perfectly acceptable driving experience, and whilst in heavy, crawling rush-hour traffic that might not be much of a problem, trying to dash from pillar to post across busy inner city junctions was more of a chore.
Fortunately, in the Middle East we will be receiving the moderately more powerful 1.6-litre, 110bhp engine, mated to a six speed automatic gearbox. Despite having an all-steel monocoque structure, at 1,280kg the Tipo isn’t a particularly heavy car, and is capable of returning fuel economy of a fairly miserly 8.4 litres per 100km, though I’d be keen to seen how the 1.6-litre-powered car performs with the AC running full blast in mid summer.
Once out on the open road the Tipo was comfortable enough to drive, with good visibility, decent brakes and safe, neutral handling. The simple, low-cost McPherson strut front suspension and torsion beam rear is never going to win any prizes in the high-speed handling stakes, but could be pushed towards its modest limits safely, with both Stability Control and Traction Control combining to help the car ease its way briskly through the occasional sweeping bend. Other driver aids include Hill Start Assist, Panic Brake Assist, Electronic Rollover Mitigation and the wonderfully named Motor-Schleppmoment-Regelung, used to prevent the wheels from locking up if you shift gears abruptly on a loose surface. I’m guessing that particular control system was bought in from Germany!
With five-year warranty coverage in the Middle East for mechanical and electrical components, the Tipo is worthy of consideration by prospective buyers looking for a moderately priced saloon, and if the main purpose of that vehicle is routine commuting with two or more adult passengers, the interior space and legroom could well be a deciding factor. If Fiat’s claims of AC efficiency are borne out, those passengers are going to be comfortable, and even when equipped with a few useful options such as the larger infotainment system, Fiat’s new offering is not going to break the bank. For drivers who aren’t interested in rushing from point A to point B, but are happy to arrive there at ease, the Tipo just might be the car that brings the Fiat name back to the streets of the UAE.