Road Test: Fiat Bravo

A round of applause for Turin; it's given up chasing the Golf market and rediscovered its soul in this striking and plush five-door. Bravo indeed, says John Simister


Specifications

Model: Fiat Bravo 1.9 JTD 120 M-jet
Price: from £15,000 approx (range likely
to span £10,500-£16,500 approx). On sale June
Engine: 1,910cc, four cylinders, eight valves, turbodiesel, 120bhp at 4,000rpm, 188lb ft at 2,000rpm
Transmission: five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 121mph, 0-62 in 10.5sec, 53.3mpg official average
C02: 139g/km

They brought in the Cirque du Soleil for the Bravo launch. Acrobats, clowns, dancers, enormous birds, pieces of Fiat Bravo floating overhead, all in a giant marquee. Fiat is still the industrial epicentre of Italy, and at the new hatchback's debut in Rome there was no chance of forgetting that fact.

When a new Fiat is launched, often the spectacle takes over and the point gets lost. Trying to put maybe 1,000 journalists in 100 cars in one day, and expecting them to come away with meaningful conclusions, is a doomed hope when the test route has just one gentle bend and an 80kph speed limit.

But I tried, I really tried, even though it meant striking out far from the route, struggling with supremely vague sat-nav instructions and nearly being lynched by irate fellow journalists on my not-very-tardy return because I was driving one of the few cars with the new engine. Which, of course, was the one everyone wanted to try.

You can sense that the new Bravo is vitally important for Fiat. It has been created in just 18 months from concept-freeze to production, an industry record achieved because most of the design and engineering, including testing, was done by computer using virtual cars, components and test routines. Real prototypes weren't created until the end of the process, by which time most of the flaws had been fixed and the tooling developed. So Fiat could not only speed up development time and cut costs, but also try many more variations of component design before settling on the best solutions.

The Bravo's design, masterminded in-house by Frank Stephenson, is a fusion of Grande Punto and what the old Bravo/Brava of 1995 might have become had the Stilo not intervened. It's a good-looking car, a bit long in the front overhang but with a forward-leaning, athletic stance. The nose isn't quite as Maserati-like as the Grande Punto's, but it's still smooth and simple, and there are some interesting details. Among them are the chrome-ringed red Fiat badges, and the way the tailgate cuts at an angle into the rear window's lower corners, adding to a look that Fiat describes as being that of a five-door coupé. There will be no three-door version this time.

Did I mention the Stilo? I did. The word was uttered just once during the Bravo's presentation and then only in a question-and-answer reply. It was meant to be Fiat's attempt at building a car like a VW Golf, and it flopped thanks to its terminal dullness. Fiat now realises that Golfs are best left to Volkswagen and Fiats should be convincingly Italian-flavoured, with all the design flair and driving enthusiasm this should mean.

The new Bravo is built on updated Stilo-derived underpinnings, but it has a racy interior with recessed round dials under a cowling and a very short gear-lever. The centre console is angled towards the driver, like a BMW's used to be, and the whole interior looks and feels quite plush. The dashboard, upper door casings and cloth headlining are padded, and top models - called Emotion and Sport - have a metallic gloss black console panel and leather trim. Most of the storage compartments and pockets have a felt or rubber lining, but on the doors and dashboard below hip level, the padding gives way to hard plastic as it does in most mainstream cars.

Fiat claims class-leading passenger space in the Bravo, although rear kneeroom is nothing special. The rear seats fold down usefully low because the cushion flips forward and the backrest then occupies the vacated space.

I mentioned a new engine. It's a lightweight, powerful 1.4-litre unit whose turbocharger installation is designed to give it the power and pull of a 2.0-litre with a fuel efficiency closer to a regular 1.4's because you won't be using all the power all the time. The weight reduction helps to save fuel, too.

This new T-jet engine comes in two versions with either 120 or 150bhp, the same outputs as those produced by the two 1.9-litre M-jet turbodiesel engines also offered. These are familiar from other Fiat Group and General Motors cars. The final engine is a non-turbo petrol 1.4 with 90bhp. You'll notice that there are no larger-capacity petrol engines.

I tried the new T-jet engine in 150bhp form, under the bonnet of a Sport-trim Bravo. It's less sophisticated than Volkswagen's high-output 1.4, the TSI engine, because it has neither a supercharger to supplement the turbo at low speeds nor direct injection, but it pulls quite vigorously once past the soft-edged low-speed response. Its torque peak of 152lb ft arrives at a diesel-like 2,000rpm, but it spins happily to 6,000rpm.

This engine comes with a Sport button; press it and the torque curve changes, with a new, higher peak of 170lb ft arriving at 3,000rpm. Even thus Sported, though, it doesn't feel like a true 150bhp car.

Not so the 150bhp diesel, which has the languid muscularity typical of the breed and easy cruising in the highest of the six gears. In fact, all Bravos have six-speed transmissions (no automatics yet), apart from the 120bhp diesel. That car, matched to non-Sport trim (softer suspension, smaller wheels and slower-responding steering) is reckoned by those who drove it to be the most comfortable and likeable Bravo, but I managed only the two 150bhp models in Sport form. These felt firm over bumps, but they also felt pleasingly wieldy.

You don't get the cornering response of a Ford Focus, though. And the City button, which makes the electric power-steering lighter, is a gimmick given how light the steering already is at low speeds.

But these Bravos are solidly made, quality objects with very good paintwork. There's a good view forward from a fairly sporty driving position, a smooth gearchange and firm brakes. The view aft is not so good, though. Rear parking sensors are optional.

So is Fiat's Blue & Me system, a cheaper, more hip alternative to the full Connect sat-nav/stereo. Blue & Me, developed with Microsoft, has sat-nav and voice-activated controls, a Bluetooth link to a mobile phone and a USB port for an MP3 player. The navigation uses a USB pen drive that contains the map, and the whole thing will cost about £300 when the Bravo goes on sale in the UK in June. The rest of the car is promised to be similarly good value.

So, should you buy a Bravo? It's not the greatest drive in the class, but it looks good, is good to be in and is spectacularly better than the Stilo. Try one; you might be surprised.

The rivals

Citroën C4 1.6 Hdi 110 SX £15,440

An intriguing-looking car with a unique fixed control panel in the steering wheel's centre. Comfortable, with livelier performance than you'd expect. Deserves to sell better.

Ford Focus 1.8 TDCi Sport (115bhp) £15,845

Still the best car in the class for the keen driver, and this diesel-engined version pulls vigorously. The design is a bit dull, though, especially the interior.

Vauxhall Astra 1.9 CDTi 120 Design £17,500

Seems expensive in this company, but the Astra is well finished and its looks are striking. Driving qualities resemble the Fiat's, and the engine is the same.

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