Even Italian drivers are fed up with Fiat

Fiat is in big trouble, because it has invested too little, too late in its product line-up, and even its traditionally loyal home market has collapsed. Fifteen years ago it had more than 55 per cent of that market. Now it is down to 32 per cent.

Fiat should have seen this coming. Even three years ago, when the present Punto supermini range was launched, young Italians were getting fed up with Fiat and voting with their lira for cars such as Toyota's stylish Yaris. The feeling was that Fiat offered too little, and was arrogantly assuming Italians would continue to buy Fiats because they always had. It was a dangerous game.

The Stilo, launched as a Ford Focus/VW Golf rival last year to replace the strangely unloved Bravo and Brava, was meant to sell 400,000 units a year. But it will not reach even 200,000 this year, and the imminent launch of the estate car version is hardly going to double that figure. So, what is wrong with Fiat's range?

In its effort to expand its appeal beyond Italy, Fiat has thrown away much of what gave its cars their spirit. Fiats, even basic ones, used to have, revvy engines and a feeling of urgency to liven up the dullest drive, but today's cars try to be like German rivals, and miss the point. So the Stilo, worthy and high in perceived quality as it is, is a stodgy, soulless drive which clever gadgetry cannot rescue. Why buy a Stilo when you can buy a rival with more road credibility and more style?

Below the Stilo comes the Punto, cute enough but excelling at nothing. Again, the Italian brio of car-enthusiast cliché is missing. Then there is the Seicento, a cheap, minimalist car eclipsed by Ford's Ka, and below that, the Panda, still sold in Italy but to be replaced by a model made, with the Seicento, in Poland. Fiat's other brands are Lancia and Alfa Romeo. Lancia vanished from the UK years ago, but creaks on in Europe as a kind of aspirational Italian Mercedes-Benz. And Alfa Romeo? Here shines the brightest light, with a strong product range whose market share is rising across Europe, with a convincingly sporty image. Alfa Romeo is an "autonomous business unit' within Fiat, and has a healthy new-model plan".

But GM is said to be growing irritated at Alfa Romeo's reluctance to commit itself fully to the premium platform, and there are rumours (denied by Fiat chairman Paolo Fresco) that Alfa Romeo may be taken out of the troubled Fiat Auto.

The rumour hints at a premier brand group, rather like Ford's agglomeration of Jaguar, Volvo, Land Rover and Aston Martin, which would add Alfa to the separate Ferrari/Maserati operation within Fiat. At least, 66 per cent of it does, the other 34 per cent having been sold to help bail out Fiat Auto.

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