A Fiat family hatchback...that actually looks good. What's going on?
Yes, Fiat is in the midst of a resurgence, what with the very pleasant Grande Punto, the cheery Panda and the soon-to-be-a-legend 500 winning fans all over, so we were looking forward to seeing if the new Bravo would follow suit. And when we drove a couple of the diesels - the 118 and 148bhp 1.9 multijet versions - back in January we were pleasantly surprised by their solidity and ride quality; not characteristics associated with the inept Stilo they replace. This car is a real test for Fiat; get it wrong and it could all start to unravel again, but do it properly and it's got one heck of an enviable product lineup to entice people with. Getting an influx of Golf, Focus and Megane buyers into their sparse showrooms was pure fantasy for Fiat even last year, but the Bravo could change all that.
Well, don't keep me in suspense - will Fiat be fighting them off at the forecourts?
We'd love to say yes, but... It's just not quite there, which is a real shame because there's a lot to like about the Bravo. Walk around this car and you'll find no angle stricken by the ugly stick, and what's especially impressive is that it was designed and developed in under two years - albeit using the old Stilo chassis - mostly from a desk in front of a screen. And because aesthetics are usually the thing that tugs hardest on the heart strings come new car time, Fiat will probably have little trouble accomplishing its tentative target of 4000 UK sales by the end of the year.
You seem to be placing a lot of emphasis on how it looks. I'm suspicious.
Yeah, hands up, you've got us on that one. Let's just say Fiat might want to instruct its dealer network to offer some sort of buy-before-you-try incentive. Simply put, if you buy a Focus or a Golf you'll have more fun behind the wheel. It feels planted and body roll is kept to a minimum during cornering but the steering feel is wholly artificial and the ride is irritatingly fidgety. Still, you'd never guess it's based on old Stilo architecture, such is the improvement. If there's one glimmer of hope, it's the turbocharged 1.4 petrol T-Jet engine, which is superb, giving punchy but linear power delivery and hitting 62mph in 8.5 (or 8.2sec in Sport models that get an overboost facility to generate an extra 20lb ft of torque). It's kind to the planet too: 36.9mpg and 167g/km CO2. Plus, at 148bhp it's pushing out over 100bhp per litre - pretty impressive for a family hatchback costing just a shade over £14,000, and definitely the first thing we'd point out in a bout of stat-flexing at the pub.
Did you say £14,000? Now it's starting to look a little more appealing.
Exactly. Prices are keen across the entire range, and if you can look past the distinctly average driving experience there's a lot of car to be had here for the money. It's loaded with kit, like the clever 'Blue&Me' option developed with Microsoft, which picks up the signal from your bluetooth equipped phones and MP3 players then lets you control them through the multi-function steering wheel. It's also got a voice activation system that actually works, so although ours began randomly asking questions in the office car park, it only needed to be told once to shut up. The fit and finish is mostly good as well, with some very un-Fiat soft-touch surfaces on the dash and a pretty solid feel. It is, however, blighted by some truly horrendous scratchy plastic on the door linings and behind the handbrake.
So what if my budget doesn't quite stretch to a T-Jet - will it still be worth a look?
That's a good question, because many of the Bravo's highlights come from the upper echelons of the range - namely the engine, trim and headline-grabbing options. That said, basic trim levels are still pretty generous and the options aren't too pricey either - even the poverty-spec models get air-con, front foglights and ABS as standard. The Bravo is definitely aiming to compete on price and kit, so you're better ticking a few boxes and getting some toys to get the most out of Bravo ownership. And consider that the 150bhp T-Jet Sport, with sports seats, chrome twin tailpipes, standard Blue&Me, 17" alloys and cruise control costs less than a basic 5 door 1.6 FSI Golf, which has nowhere the kit and is down nearly 40bhp.
We wish Fiat had spent a bit more time developing the Bravo and made it drive properly to match its strong showroom appeal. It's great on paper, just don't expect to be blown away from the driving seat, that's all. Five years ago we might have expected mediocrity from Fiat, but the Grande Punto and 500 have raised the bar to a level the Bravo just can't reach.