Fiat Croma 1.9 16v Multijet Eleganza

Sales of the new Croma may not hit the roof, but nor will its passengers in this most generous of saloons, which shrugs off its old image to suit today's needs. John Simister tests it out

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Model: Fiat Croma 1.9 16v Multijet Eleganza
Price: £17,995 (range starts at £15,745)
Engine: 1,910cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 150bhp @ 4,000rpm, 236lb ft @ 2,000rpm
Transmission: six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 130mph, 0 to 60mph in 9.4 seconds, 46.3mpg official average
CO2: 161g/km

People don't buy big saloons the way they used to, unless said saloons are wearing the automotive equivalent of a designer badge. So BMW sells more 3-series than Ford sells Mondeos, and neither the Vauxhall Omega nor the Ford Scorpio has a modern equivalent. Partly this is because people, or their car-providing employers, are more affluent, so the posh badges are more attainable. And partly it's because people have migrated to estate cars, MPVs and even 4x4s.

All of which would be very bad news for Fiat were it to decide to re-enter the world of big saloons and hatchbacks, to have another go at doing what it tried to do in the 1980s with the original Croma. It was not very successful then, and in today's label-obsessed world, it would be even less successful now.

What, then, have we here? A new Fiat Croma, that's what. But don't write the obituary yet. This is, uh, a crossover car (a term we have heard too often before) - this time crossing over the boundaries between hatchback, estate car and MPV. Up to a point, anyway. Think of the Croma as an estate car slightly distorted upwards, or as a tall hatchback with an extended tail, and you'll be there. Thus the "new large" Fiat, as it was known within the company prior to its launch, is able to claim usefulness above that of the old Croma, which was simply a big hatchback with a particularly floppy body structure.

The new Croma isn't that large, actually, if you use length as the measure. It's a sort of in-between size - bigger than the average family car (assuming such a thing still exists), but smaller than the car the boss would drive. And if it doesn't sell in zillions, that's not too much of a tragedy, because the Croma has been unusually cheap to develop. This is because it uses the underpinnings of General Motors' Epsilon platform, better known to us as the Vauxhall Vectra and, rear suspension excepted, the Saab 9-3.

The body tries hard to disguise the Croma's height and bulk. The roof is about 100mm, or 4in, higher than that of a typical same-size saloon, which contributes to the Croma's fine feeling of space. This is its forte, claimed by Fiat to be the most generous in the class and certainly far ahead of the Vectra. That high roof allows the rear seat to be set high, with a relatively reclined backrest, so there's a good view out without the feeling of being in something utilitarian. Naturally, the rear seats fold to make a load bay, but not fully: the backrests merely fold down on to the cushions, so there's a big step up from the boot floor to the load platform formed by the seats.

The high roof means there's still a lot of usable load space, and there is also a false floor, useful for hiding valuable items. On which subject, the facia glovebox deserves big praise for its 11-litre capacity, when too many modern gloveboxes can barely cope with the vehicle handbook. There's a three-litre central compartment, too, fed by cool air from the air-conditioning system.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Croma's cabin feels a plush, high-quality space, as well as an airy one if you have the optional full-length SkyDome glass roof. The doors are padded to the base, the dashboard is neatly and tightly assembled out of decent materials, and even the fake wood on top versions is used discreetly enough not to annoy. There's a touch of Lancia about the ambience, and if you specify leather trim, you get very Italianate diagonal stripes on the door panels.

It's a good interior, apart from the driving position, which makes you sit too upright. That's because the steering wheel is too high and far away, even at the near limits of its adjustment, so you're forced into an MPV-like stance all the better to reach the high-mounted gear lever. It's one reason why the rear cabin space is so generous. All Cromas have at least seven airbags, by the way, and a Saab-like ignition switch set behind the gear lever. It keeps the key away from vulnerable knees.

And to drive? You might expect it to feel like a Vectra, but it doesn't. Fiat says it has engineered in a "Fiat feel", but this isn't the eager, revvy feel of the small cars for which Fiat is famous. The Croma is a motorway loper, smooth, supple and quiet at speed, soft in focus but fluid in corners, with a more natural steering feel than you'll find in a current Vectra. It reminds me of the way big French cars used to be. Gentle damping means it might not be at its best on the sort of choppy terrain found on many of Britain's back roads, though.

As for how the Croma goes, it's best to think diesel, because most Cromas will surely be so powered. There are two petrol versions, using GM engines of 1.8-litres/140bhp (available in early 2006) and 2.2-litres/150bhp, mated to five-speed manual or automatic transmissions. But the three diesels are Fiat's own: 1.9 MultiJets of 120bhp (with eight valves) or 150bhp (with 16 valves) are in the range from launch, and the potent 2.4-litre, five-cylinder, 20-valve unit that, like the others, also powers the imminent Alfa 159, arrives later in the year. It delivers 200bhp and a huge 295lb ft of torque, and is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission that's also offered with the 150bhp 1.9 JTD.

Both four-cylinder diesels normally come with a six-speed manual, as fitted to the 150bhp JTD that I sampled. This will probably prove the most popular Croma engine, and suits its relaxed nature. And sixth gear is long-legged enough for painless cruising.

Here is a car that objectively suits today's needs and driving conditions very well. You can load it up with sat-nav, parking sensors, an MP3-compatible stereo and more, but even the base Dynamic model has all you could reasonably need. But it's the difference between "need" and "want" that will define the Croma's prospects. As an adjunct to life, it's a painless and helpful companion; a well-priced automotive white good. As an object of desire... well, it's a Fiat Croma. And normal definitions of desirability don't start here.

The rivals

FIAT ULYSSE 2.0 JTD DYNAMIC, £18,995

The Ulysse is a fellow Fiat, but this one's a full-size MPV with sliding doors and vast interior space. It's much the same as a Citroën C8 or a Peugeot 807, and bulkier than the Croma, but overall it's good to drive.

MITSUBISHI GRANDIS 2.0 DI-D CLASSIC, £19,699

The Mitsubishi Grandis is a long and stylish MPV with estate-car overtones and a clever flip-over system for the third row of seats. It's a pleasing drive, and is now available with a VW turbodiesel engine under the bonnet.

VAUXHALL SIGNUM 1.9 CDTi 16v EXCLUSIV, £20,495

The Vauxhall Signum is mechanically much like the Croma, but on a longer platform and with just two luxurious rear seats. This Vectra-based palace for four is an intriguing idea, but no one seems to have noticed its existence.

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