Motoring: Road Test: Fiat Bravo - A sporting smoothie, sweet and snarling

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The Independent Online
Bravo! Mainstream Fiats no longer appear to be modelled on Torinese shopping arcades. Much as I liked the old Tipo Sedicivalvole - the underrated sporting hatch with five-door practicality - it was not the most elegant of cars. Nor were its mechanical bits exactly avant garde.

How different its new three-door replacement, the arresting Bravo HGT, which unites the voluptuous curves of Fiat's liberated style studio (goodbye oblong blocks and hard edges) with a charismatic engine strong on Latin flair. Anyone who likes vocally pleasing cars with bags of brio will love this Fiat.

The HGT's two-litre, five-cylinder engine is not the most powerful in the upper echelons of the Escort division. Honda's howitzer, the Civic VTi, outguns it with 167 horsepower.

Peugeot's 306 GTi-6, too. What distinguishes the HGT's fizzy engine, also deployed in the Fiat Coupe and up-range Mareas (but not the five- door Brava, the Bravo's non-identical twin), has less to do with what it does, and rather more with the way it does it.

Five-cylinder engines have a distinctive double-edged soundtrack. That of the Bravo is particularly engaging, if not especially quiet. Twist the key and you're gently assailed by a honey-smooth snarl which no ordinary four-cylinder engine, innately less smooth, can emulate. The more you extend the HGT's counterbalanced engine, close to a V6 in refinement, the sweeter it seems to get. Aided by sprint gearing which denies this eager car high-striding motorways legs, acceleration is strong, but by no means unbeatable at around pounds 15,000. It's the timbre, the torque, the ability to slug it out without changing down, that endears this 20-valve "five" to petrolheads. Just as well, too, as the gearchange is indifferent.

The HGT's underpinnings are up to the job but set no new standards. Steering is slightly sharper than that of lesser Bravos, cornering more composed. Hustled through bends, the car feels secure, solidly planted, tenacious in its grip on upgraded tyres. That magic ingredient - let us call it fluency - which separates the good from the great, is not evident in generous measure, however. Driven with spirit, the HGT pleases rather than inspires. If Fiat's flagship Bravo is a tad short of expectations as a seminal driving machine, perhaps it is because what we would once have called a hot hatch embraces a broader range of virtues than expected. Funster, yes, but a soother, too, even though firm suspension induces a slightly unsettling ride on anything but smooth roads.

The seats and driving position suited me just fine. Fiat seems finally to have conceded that the Anglo-Saxon frame is not that of a Barbary ape. I liked the big instruments, the bold dash - bulbously workmanlike at its centre - the custom-built, thief-proof stereo. Despite lots of unrelieved plastic trim, the well equipped cabin, roomy enough for four adults and their luggage, has a classy mien. Standard issue includes alloy wheels, anti-lock brakes (and most reassuring they are, too) a driver's airbag and an immobiliser/alarm. Pity you have to pay extra for air conditioning. Any car without refrigeration will one day bomb on the second-hand forecourts.

Brickbats? At trivia level, the sticky feel of the gearlever knob. On a more serious note, the measly one-year warranty. If Fiat's build quality is now as good as it looks - and appearances suggest it is a match for the Japanese - why isn't it backed with a three-year guarantee?

FIAT BRAVO HGT

Specifications

Price: pounds 15,586 on the road. Engine: 1,998cc, five cylinders, 20 valves, 147bhp at 6,100rpm. Transmission: five-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive. Performance: top speed 130mph, 0-60mph in 8.3 seconds. Fuel consumption 29.4mpg combined

Rivals

Alfa Romeo 145 2.0 Cloverleaf, pounds 15,989. Funky styling not to everyone's taste. Strong performance from 150bhp engine, lots of character. Quick steering and alert handling aimed at serious drivers. Space and practicality strong suits, too. Quirky, bold, controversial.

BMW Compact 1.8i, pounds 16,575. More a three-door tourer than a performance hatchback. Strong image, high quality, pleasant rather than special to drive. 3-series saloons and coupes, with superior suspension, are better. Watch out for expensive extras.

Nissan Almera 2.0 GTi, pounds 14,600. Dark-horse Nissan is the pick of the class on price and handling. Great driver's car, especially on the corners. No serious weaknesses other than drearily bland styling.

Peugeot 306 2.0 XSi, pounds 15,000. Cracking car. Delightful to drive, comfortable ride, good performance, attractive styling. Needs higher gearing for motorways. Six-speed GTi-6 wilder, much faster but pounds 2,500 more.

Rover 200 2.0 Vi, pounds 15,995. One of Rover's stars. Very quick (0-60mph in 7 seconds), sharp handling, good to drive, looks nicely made and finished. Attractive but pricey package marred only by lack of cabin space. Don't bother if you need lots of room.

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