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2017 Fiat Tipo SW 1.4 T-Jet 120 Easy Plus (GB)

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Ever since the launch in 1936 of Dante Giacosa’s iconic 500 Topolino, the car which quite literally put Italy on wheels, Fiat has excelled in small cars. You only have to look at a back catalogue that contains such legends as the Nuova 500 of 1957, the slightly larger 600 and the Multipla, arguably the first people carrier, and more recently the 127, the Uno, the Panda and the current star of the show the latest 500. But to focus solely on these diminutive machines would be massively to underestimate the brand, as there have been plenty of other stars in the marque’s near 120 year history. Success with these cars has been somewhat patchy, Whilst the long-lived 1100 and 1200 of the 1950s and 60s sold well in Italy, they found little favour in other countries. That would change with the 128 of 1969, though, with this boxy-looking family saloon proving that you could make a medium-sized car that was genuinely fun to drive even in its entry level versions, let alone in the fizzing Rally model which was added to the range a couple of years later. The 128 was produced in the millions until well into the 80s, with production in a number of emerging markets continuing well after it had run its course in Europe. Every few years since then, Fiat have offered a family-sized hatch, full of expectation that they could repeat this success. Whilst the Ritmo (or Strada as it was known in the UK) of 1978 had styling which was perhaps a bit too avant-garde for the market at the time, and build quality that did not really evidence the “hand built by robots” advertising tag line, and it sold well, but in nothing like the way its predecessor had done. The two models that followed it, the Tipo of 1988 and the Bravo/Brava of 1995 both scooped up the Car of the Year award, which augured well for sales, but these accolades did not reflect the ultimate performance in the showroom, with total sales of both failing to reach the targets declared on launch. The Stilo of 2001 was to fare even worse, as Fiat rather missed the mark in trying but failing to match the build quality of the Golf, with a car which also lacked the brio expected of an Italian competitor in this class. And the new Bravo of 2007 struggled, too, even though the high end cars with their 150 bhp Turbo engines were a real hoot to drive compared to their period rivals. The Bravo was quietly deleted in 2014 at which point Fiat appeared to have abandoned the traditional C-segment model altogether, focusing on crossover-type machines such as the Sedici, the gawky 500L and the 500X. But in May 2015, a new saloon was shown, initially in Turkey, called the Egea, where it was presented as a replacement for the Fiat Linea. It initially appeared that this car, like the Linea, was destined for the markets of Southern Europe where traditional saloons were still popular, but then two further body styles appeared, a five door hatch and a five door estate, at the 2016 Geneva Show, by which time the new range had been given the Tipo name again. Utterly conventional in concept, the fact that these cars were to be built in Turkey where labour costs are low meant that the new Tipo would be pitched as a value competitor in its class. And when it went on sale, across Europe during the course of the year, there was no arguing with the fact that the prices undercut all the rivals by a big margin. Hatch and Estate models reached the UK at the end of 2016 and long before it has become a familiar sight on our roads that you can identify with confidence from a distance, the first examples have appeared in Hertz UK and other rental car fleets. I was able to secure a newly registered model for a few days, eager to see whether the low price entails too many sacrifices and to find out whether the Italian brio that so characterised some of its older forebears had been rediscovered.

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The test car came with the 1.4 litre petrol engine, which puts out a class-competitive 120 bhp, and it was coupled with a six speed manual gearbox. Thus endowed, the Tipo goes well enough. The engine is willing, and it revs freely. To get the best out of it, you will need to work it quite hard, though, but at least when you do so, it does not feel like you are abusing the car unduly. The gears are well spaced and the gear change is pleasingly precise, with the lever slotting between the ratios with a precision that has sometimes eluded earlier Fiat models. Only when you work the engine hard does it get noisy, but generally you will find this quite a relaxed and peaceful cruiser, with only some wind noise to occasion comment, though as it has to be admitted that it was particularly windy during the test. I covered 270 miles in the Tipo, and needed to put 41 litres in to refill it, which computes to just 29.89 mpg, a rather unimpressive figure. However, the trip computer reported an average consumption of a rather better sounding 38.7 mpg. I am happy to believe this is more accurate, as it is likely that I received the car as “rental car full” but in reality with the tank far from brimmed.

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The engine delivers no surprises, good or bad, and neither do any of the other driving dynamics. The steering is perfectly acceptable, though far from the class-leading combination of feel and weight that you would get in a Focus or a Mazda 3, but definitely better than some of the other Japanese competitors. There is a “city” button which will make the steering very light indeed, fine for parking, but not to my taste at all for the open road. With 16″ alloys providing the contact with the road, the Tipo rides smoothly, with a composure that makes it comfortable on most of the varied surfaces that constitute Britain’s road network. It certainly seemed as if comfort had been prioritised over handling characteristics, as this car came across as the typical “safe” front wheel driver with plenty of grip, understeer once you got too enthusiastic in the bends and an overall dynamic which says that you should not get into trouble unless you do something really ill-advised. The brakes were fine, with a nice progressive feel to the pedal, A conventional pull-up handbrake is fitted between the seats, something which is becoming increasingly rare in this class. The door mirrors were a bit on the small side, but  this aside, there were no issues with visibility. The rear of the Tipo may be quite a way behind you, but the estate body means that judging where the back is was not hard, even without any help from the rear parking sensors which feature in the Easy Plus trim of the test car.

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Market expectations get ever higher, so a low price is no longer seen as an excuse for sub-par quality on the inside, as used to be the case, And the Tipo hits the spot, here. It is certainly not what you would call lavish, but the perceived quality is perfectly acceptable with plenty of soft touch plastics. A leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear lever knob and gaiter do help lift the ambience to avoid you thinking this is a bargain-priced car. The dash design is simple, but that has its advantages as it means it is also unfussy, something which cannot be said of all its rivals. There is a cowled binnacle covering the dials which then extends across the centre of the car to reach over the integrated display screen for the Infotainment system. There are just two instruments, a speedo and a rev counter, which are clearly marked and easy to read. Fuel level and water temperature are represented by a series of dashes which describe part of an arc and these are set in between the main dials. Between these there is a digital display area for odometer and trip computer functions, including a rather helpful digital speed repeater. Two column stalks feature, for indicators, wipers and lights. Audio repeaters and cruise control buttons are on the rather chunky-sized steering wheel spokes. The centre of the dash contains a small 5″ touch-sensitive screen for the uConnect infotainment system. Most of the physical knobs for this are gone, so you will need to use the touch screen or the wheel repeaters, but it proved easy to do so and the screen is set high enough that you were not really looking down unduly whilst making selections. Below this are three rotary dials for the air conditioning system. There are a small number of other buttons across the centre of the dash including the one for the City mode. The whole ensemble is all very easy and intuitive to use.

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When it comes to getting comfortable, then all the adjustments are manual. There is a height adjuster for the front seats as well as the fore/aft and backrest rake alterations you can make. The steering column telescopes in and out as well as up and down. I did note a particular abundance of headroom. Seats front and back, in the Easy Plus trim of the test car were covered in a hard wearing black cloth with white stitching at the sides provide a welcome colour contrast. Space in the back is generous for a car of this size, with plenty of leg room, and with only a small bump in the centre of the car, a middle seat occupant would not find their legs had nowhere to rest. The boot is a good size, too, larger than all the main rivals. There is plenty of space under the roll-back load cover, and you can create more either by removing it or by dropping the asymmetrically split rear seat backrests. The resulting load bay is long, though the floor is not completely flat. There is a stowage tray under the boot floor and in case none of this is enough, there are standard roof rails to facilitate loading up on top. Inside the cabin, there are door bins, a modest glove box, a lidded cubby over the driver’s right knee, and a sizeable and deep area in front of the gearlever and a cubby under the central armrest which should be sufficient to meet most needs of front seat passengers, whilst those in the back get door bins and in this trim, map pockets on the back of the front seats.

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The UK market does not get the saloon version which is offered elsewhere in Europe, so there is a choice of two body styles – hatch and estate, and the expected collection of petrol and diesel engines, manual and auto gearboxes and a number of trim levels. None are at the sporty end of the sector, though. The petrol engine you will find under the bonnet of most Tipo models is the familiar 1.4 litre T-Jet, offered in two levels of potency with a 95 bhp the entry level and there is also the more powerful 120 bhp as fitted to the test car, with the petrol range completed by the 1.6 litre e-TorQ which has 110 bhp and a 6 speed automatic transmission.  For diesel power, you can choose between the 95 bhp 1.3 litre Multijet and the 120 bhp 1.6 litre version which boasts an impressive 300 Nm of torque and is probably the star of the range, as its second-generation MultiJet technology and variable geometry turbocharger delivers remarkable fuel efficiency and low emissions: On the official combined test cycle, the Tipo 1.6 MultiJet II 120hp returns 76.3mpg and produces just 98g/km of emissions. This engine can also be combined with a six-speed TCT twin-clutch transmission. Trim levels for both the hatch and the estate are Easy, Easy Plus and Lounge. Despite the value pricing, even the Easy model is well equipped. with air conditioning, remote central locking, a central front armrest, rear electric windows on the estate, electric mirrors, six airbags, DAB digital radio and Bluetooth connectivity with steering wheel remote controls all included as standard, with the 15″ steel wheels being the recognition point. Mid-range Easy Plus trim adds the 5.0in Uconnect system, 16″ alloys, front fogs, LED running lights, rear parking sensors and cruise control. Lounge trim, which is the top of the range for now adds some chrome trim details, 17″ alloy wheels, driver’s lumbar support, navigation, auto lights and wipers, a reversing camera and climate control with a cost option of leather upholstery.

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In purely objective terms, it would be quite hard to make a case for the Tipo. Nothing really stands out. The styling is neat, but ultimately rather forgettable. And whilst it is pleasant enough to drive, there are plenty of rivals that are that bit more engaging. In this guise at least, it certainly does not have the brio that you might hope for in an Italian product. But on the plus side, it is comfortable, roomy and nicely finished. But then look at the price, and suddenly the Tipo starts to make rather more sense. For the same money you are going to struggle to get an alternative unless you start to look at cars that are one class smaller and less well equipped, so if value is high on your list of priorities then this has to rank as a real contender. It will be interesting to see how the market reacts, though, as we are without doubt living in an era where premium products are seen as ever more desirable so even the more costly mainstream rivals such as the Golf, Focus, Astra and the like no longer cut it with the vast number of badge snobs. That could leave Fiat with yet another worthy C-segment car that fails in the marketplace, and if it does, I can’t see them trying again. Meanwhile, if you get offered a Tipo, set your expectations away from style and brio and focus on traditional values of comfort and worthiness and this is a worthy contender.

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