Snatching defeat from the jaws of success

Over the last 30 years Fiat have done a superb job of making useless cars. Lots of them. They’ve generously shared this skill with Lancia and Alfa to varying degrees. Despite the resources that come with being one of the world’s biggest car makers, they’ve shown a talent for duds that would impress even British Leyland. 

I feel I can say that given that Alfa is my favourite marque, I love Italy and I own two Fiats. I don’t enjoy saying it either – Fiat is a great company with an illustrious history filled with many innovative and stylish cars. The trouble is that for every Fiat 500 and Mirafiori (incidentally, the best car name, like, ever) there’s a Brava/Bravo, a Croma or a Tipo. These are cars dashed off on a Friday after a lengthy Italian multi-course lunch. 

This hit and miss approach to brilliance hit its nadir in the 90s when Fiat churned out dud after dud after dud. It’s hard to understand why: here was an Italian company with access to the best of Alfa, Lancia, Ferrari and Maserati, producing cars that in some casrs bordered on embarrassing. The Marea, just one example, may well be the dullest car ever made.  

And yet, because Fiat is Italian, amongst the swill there were still pearls. Even in the 90s, when Fiat almost wilfully produced halfwitted cars, there was the Fiat Coupe. Designed by Chris Bangle – later of bizarre BMW design fame – it’s a sign of Fiat’s lack of confidence in its products that there are more Pininfarina badges on the car than Fiat ones. Pininfarina’s input was restricted to the distinctive dashboard. Fiat did the rest. The Fiat Coupe may split opinion but it’s hard not to have an opinion. For me, I love it. It looks brilliant from every angle: not beautiful but distinctive, purposeful. The interior is more of the same, the swathe of body colour simple but genuinely inspired. The Coupe drives as well as it looks: mine is a  20V Turbo, its 220 bhp at the time the fastest FWD production car in its class. The handling is good, albeit with slightly wooden steering, and the chassis decently weighted. All this in a car that seats four, has a decent boot, is well screwed together and as reliable as any 20 year old car has a right to be. 

Which makes the car’s place in Fiat history all the harder to understand. The Fiat predated the Audi TT. Arguably it was better packaged, more fun, more distinctive and better value. Audi still makes the TT, very successfully. Fiat doesn’t make the Coupe. Or any coupe. Neither does Alfa. 

Quite why Fiat didn’t follow up the Coupe with a Coupe mk2 is difficult to fathom. It seems to be symptomatic of a company beteft of strategy. Instead of ramming home its advantage, building on the distinctive Bangle style, it chose instead to abandon the niche sports car market and stick to the knitting: namely bland, boring hatchbacks and saloons. 

Fiat’s erratic development strategy, if that’s what it is, has blighted not only it but the companies it comes into contact with – Lancia and Alfa have hadsimilarly chequered histories over the last 20 years, limping from occasional highs – 156 and current Delta – to crashing boredom or seriously flawed (pretty much everything else). 

Contrast this with VAG’s recent history, which may have involved plenty of bland, workmanlike products but has at least been well executed and consistent. 

Lancia, Fiat and Alfa are perhaps the three most promising yet under- achieving car brands in Europe. Their capacity for brilliance is well proven. Sadly, so is there remarkable ability to trip over their own shoelaces. 

I’m well past expecting these three to dish up a sustained recovery involvinga range of cars I actually want to buy. I can hope though. In the meantime I’ll drive my £600 Coupe and be grateful that overlooked means under-priced. 

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