Road Test: Fiat Marea
What influences buyers most when they are choosing a medium-sized family car? Style, says Fiat. Next up in importance come price, comfort and durability. Performance rates only 11th, spaciousness 14th, fuel consumption 15th. With owners, comfort gets the top rating, according to Fiat, followed by style, roadholding and quietness. Again, roominess, performance and economy are well down the list.

Fiat came to these conclusions by asking people who buy medium-sized cars. Having established what was wanted, it set about creating the Marea, on sale now as a four-door saloon and a five-door estate known as the Weekend.

Whether the Marea would have been any different without the benefit of some lateral market research is open to question. It is, after all, little more than a booted version of the five-door Brava hatchback. What matters is that the Fiat's new saloon comes across as a much classier car than the slow-selling Tempra it succeeds. Classier, even, than the Bravo/ Brava twins that spawned it. The two I drove - a 147bhp petrol and an amazingly fast and frugal turbo-diesel - impressed on more fronts than they disappointed.

Fiat Auto sold 86,000 cars here in 1996 - a record. This year, with an 18-model range of Mareas to back the popular Bravo and Brava (both lauded as leaders of fashion) it could do even better. Mechanically, the two model lines have much in common. Inside and out, though, the Marea does have a style it can call its own. Slimline headlights and slender nostrils give a particularly distinctive face.

On-the-road prices start at pounds 12,358 for the four-cylinder 1.6SX, so the Marea undercuts the cheapest Ford Mondeo by at least pounds 1,400. The 2.0 HLX on test is the most expensive petrol model - and vocally the most stimulating, with its transverse five-cylinder engine, unique at this level. Audi pioneered five cylinders; Volvo and Mercedes followed suit; so Fiat is in good company with an engine that's much smoother and more refined than a conventional "four", while cheaper and more compact than a "six".

Performance may well be of low priority, but it's one of the strengths of the 2.0 HLX. Dynamically, this 130mph Marea vies for class leadership with acceleration that's strong throughout the engine's rev range. According to official figures, economy is not bad, either.

Although longer than the Escort-sized Brava, the big-booted Marea is not so spacious as targeted rivals (Mondeo, Vectra, 406) in the next class up. But then this shouldn't matter, space being a low-order consideration, if Flat has done its homework properly.

Comfort? There's nothing wrong with the Marea's embracing front seats - those behind are short on leg-room - but the ride, on firm-ish suspension, is agitated and jiggly. Several rivals make a better job of smothering road acne.

While the five-cylinder Marea is no quieter than average, the noise it makes - a refined, double-edged snarl of real quality - will offend no one.

Durability? Who's to say at this juncture, though Fiat has made enormous strides in recent years to improve quality and reliability. Nothing less than Japanese standards will do these days.

Roadholding? There's no shortage of grip on generous tyres.

Keen drivers will enjoy the Marea's crisp handling, sharp steering and big-faced, half-moon instruments, if not its slightly tacky gear change (why a rough, stitched-leather grip when a smooth knob is palpably better?).

Assets include remote audio controls arranged round the steering wheel, an impressive-looking dash and plenty of equipment - but no air-conditioning unless you are prepared to pay extra.

The upshot to all this is that if you want to buy something a bit different and distinctive, the Marea is well worth a look.

FIAT MAREA 2.0 HLX

Specifications

Price: pounds 16,191 on the road. Engine: 1,998cc, five cylinders, 20 valves, 147bhp at 6100rpm. Transmission: five-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive. Top speed 129mph, 0-60mph in 8.5 seconds, fuel consumption 25-30mpg.

Rivals

Ford Mondeo 2.0GLX, pounds 16,286. Original Mondeo was a revelation, the best Ford in years. The Phase 2 car is sweeter, quieter, smoother, more mature. Marea can match or better Mondeo in some key areas, but not as overall package.

Nissan Primera 2.0SLX, pounds 15,805. Don't be fooled by drab looks. New Primera (looking much like old Primera) is a class act with much to commend it, and little against. Best handling saloon/hatchback in the class - and one of the best made.

Peugeot 406 2.OGLX, pounds 16,740. Elegant, spacious, refined. Rides well, handles crisply, in the Peugeot tradition. Performance indifferent without turbocharged engine costing considerably more. As good to ride in as it is to drive.

Rover 420 2.0Sli, pounds 16,486. Looks smart, drives well, rides smoothly. The catch? As with the Fiat Marea, lack of space in a car that's too small to trade punches with the Mondeo, Primera and 406. If you don't need the space, no problem.

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