WITH THE TURIN CROWD

It was absolutely fabulous. The city was red-carpeted, a perfume specially distilled, and the glitterati partied till dawn. And all for two cars. Phil Dourado reports
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The Independent Culture
IT WAS the toothbrush rather than the red carpet that made me wonder how far they would go: a little fold-up job in a case with the words "Bravo" and "Brava" engraved on it. They had red-carpeted the whole of the centre of Turin, too. But street beggars standing, hands outstretched, on red carpet is not an image that makes you feel particularly good about attending a lavish press launch.

The limited edition toothbrush made me look more closely at the bits and bobs that make up a hotel bathroom. Yes, the miniature bottles of shampoo, conditioner, even the shoe-cleaning kit, all had a message; that the launch of two new Fiats - the sporty Bravo and family-friendly Brava (but the company don't say they're his 'n hers) - was such a special event even the bathroom accessories had to shout about it. I looked more closely at the rest of the room. On the table was a bottle of Bravo and Brava perfume, especially distilled, so the card said, by leading local perfumiers, with the bottle designed by Fiat's stylists. Next to it was a silver wine pourer containing bottle number 4,735 of 12,260 bottles of 1989 Bricco Rocche Barolo, dedicated, "to the Bravo and Brava".

Out in the arcades of Turin, the upmarket clothes' shops carried the same message. Even when window-shopping, you were reminded that you were here for a higher purpose. Nestled within the window displays were gleaming pieces of car: a hub cap peering out from between the Armani suits or part of a dashboard resting in the corner of a display of wedding dresses. When Fiat launches a new car, even two new cars, it goes to town. Or, more precisely, it takes over the town.

Fiat spent pounds 4 million on bringing the world's press to its home town to join in the launch of the pair of cars that are intended to take a slice out of the lucrative Volkswagen Golf market. The cost included air fares, hotel bills, entertainment, wining and dining 1,207 journalists and a couple of thousand of Turin's high society. Mini-bar bills alone for 1,207 journalists must take some adding up.

Can a car reviewer's critical faculties remain untouched by the razzmatazz and lavishness of the hospitality that enhance the product on such occasions, I wondered. Not being a seasoned car reviewer, I asked around among the 50 or so British journalists in Turin who were. "Things have changed," said the only woman in the group. "Some of the manufacturers used to give you a car to drive for a week and you'd find bottles of whisky left in the boot for you. It was all a bit blatant. It's not like that any more."

The straightforward bribe is easier to resist than the feel-good factor associated with having a great time at a three-day fiesta, courtesy of the company you have to write about. There's a whiff of churlishness about questioning the product once its people have gone to such lengths to give you a good time.

James, another veteran I consulted in Turin, has worked on both sides of the fence: having been a car industry press officer, he now has a column that's syndicated throughout the world. Yet the stakes in the cut-throat small to mid-range car market have become so high and the attendant hospitality so lavish, even such a seasoned operator admitted to being caught with his guard down on occasion.

"At the launch of the Fiat Tipo, the invitation to the evening event said simply 'dinner', followed by 'entertainment'," he said, "When we were asked to move through to the entertainment area after the meal, we found Jose Carreras on stage waiting for us. How do you remain unmoved by an hour and a half of Jose Carreras giving a private performance?"

When they engage you on an emotional level, you're in trouble, as all good advertisers know. Just as powerful as the ingrained social mores that tell us we shouldn't be rude to a gracious host by writing nasty things about them is the effect of the grandeur of the occasion. Fiat's cars used to have a reputation for unreliability and, as with old Rovers and Datsuns, a liking for rust. These reputations tend to take years to turn around. I began to question them after just one lunch, where the bottle of Italian designer water I picked up from a bowl of ice told me that it, too, had been bottled especially to celebrate the Bravo and Brava. I had to fight off the feeling that anyone who can put on a spectacle of such a scale and with so much attention to detail must be able to make one hell of a car.

At the UN-style press conference - 1,200 journalists, massive auditorium, giant-screen displays, simultaneous translation headsets - there was the only hint of stroppiness. An informed Australian journalist asked why five-cylinder engines in the new range wouldn't be available in the right- hand drive market. Did Fiat see right-hand drivers as second-class citizens? A special, over-powered four-cylinder engine would probably be developed for them was the answer, delivered through gritted teeth.

Which prompts the thought, of course, that if you do allow too much criticism to creep into what you say or write, you might not be invited along next time.

These days, the fear of being shut out of a story is real, what with Hollywood stars only granting an interview to British papers if they can choose the journalist, sports' writers being banned from football club grounds for being too critical of the home team, and IBM telling a British journalist he was no longer welcome after he asked a question about Windows 95 at a New York press conference. So, does your name get quietly struck off the guest list in motoring review circles? "I got into trouble once for test-driving a new car while wearing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle mask through the whole of the photo session," said the editor of one prestige car magazine. The manufacturers thought that it didn't reflect too well on their new baby's image. "But, it soon blew over," he said.

I gave up all pretence to objectivity at the end of the gala dinner on the last night. Thousands of Turin's movers and shakers sat in open-air splendour after a five-course meal, served by white-gloved waiters in the gardens of the Palazzo Reale. At the stroke of midnight, the illuminated but dead fountain in the centre of the courtyard burst into life, like that Opal Fruit commercial on TV. That was just the beginning.

A son et lumiere appeared from nowhere, with a medieval sun chasing a medieval moon across the walls of the palazzo. Millions of bubbles from concealed bubble-making machines sprayed out over the courtyards, as confetti - or was it rose petals ? - cascaded down from the roofs. Vivaldi's Four Seasons swirled out from hidden speakers as fireworks shot skywards all around us: Busby Berkeley meets Fellini. The new cars appeared, spotlit on plinths scattered around the diners, to rapturous applause from society types and journalists alike.

I was won over. It almost blotted out - but not quite - the chilling moment when Signor Agnelli himself (Mr Fiat to you and me) had addressed the glitterati and told them Turin's industrial success was the product of its long tradition of military discipline and a powerful bourgeoisie. Even that was almost forgotten during the red-carpeted walk back through the streets to the hotel at one in the morning, flanked by Turin's famous flag-throwers and drummers, and alongside fire-eaters and jugglers who had been drafted in for the occasion.

As for the cars themselves, the spectacle gets in the way of my recollection. "They drive like a car in a class above," said one of the real motoring journalists over lunch. "The chassis is incredibly rigid, makes for beautiful cornering," said another, "You can have a conversation at 80 miles an hour without shouting," said a third. I don't know about that - but the fireworks were wonderful. !

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