Cast your mind back over some of the great Fiat cars produced over the last 108 years. The Topolino, of course, the car that literally put Italy on wheels in the 1930s. And the iconic Nuova 500 of 1957, and still loved by everyone now. The 127, the car that defined the supermini and spawned imitators from every major manufacturer. More recently, the Uno, the Panda and the Cinquecento of 1991 and the Punto family of cars. What have they got in common? They are indeed all small cars. Of course, Fiat has offered larger cars throughout their history, too, but somehow models like the elegant 130 Berlina, the 132 and its close relative the Argenta just did not capture the public’s imagination in anything like the same way, even though they do have their fans to this day. During the 80s, Fiat partnered with in-house stable-mate Lancia, and what at the onset of the project was a separate company, Alfa Romeo, as well as the Swedish SAAB to produce a series of cars, known collectively as the Type 4. Fiat’s offering was the commodious Croma hatch, and it struggled somewhat in the market, fading out with no direct replacement. So it was something of a surprise when information started to emerge around what was being called “New Large”, a car to sit at the top of Fiat’s range from the middle of the noughties, leveraging the GM-Fiat alliance which saw joint development of platforms and engines for a range of products that would include the Vauxhall Signum, Cadillac BLS, Saab 9.3 and the 939 Series of Alfa 159, Brera and Spider. Fiat’s car arrived in mid 2005 and dusted off the Croma nameplate. Recognising that the D-Segment for cars without a prestige badge is a fast-shrinking one, Fiat wisely decided to do something a little different. The result is a car that does not quite fit into any conventional category, called a “comfort wagon” by its maker, as it is definitely not a saloon, and is not quite an estate, but nor is it an MPV or a crossover. Trying to invent a new niche in the market is a bold move indeed, and success is far from guaranteed. I was interested to see how the Croma stacked up, and when I discovered that there are some on Hertz’ Swiss fleet, was pleased to be able to secure one for a day when I would take it from Zurich up into the Alps and back.
The Croma is styled by Giuigiaro, but he might not want to shout about that, as the car is best described as looking neat and inoffensive, as opposed to bold or distinctive. There is a certain family resemblance, especially at the front, but ultimately the design is a bit forgettable. The is-it-an-estate-car or a crossover styling means that you do sit slightly higher than in a true estate car, but this is barely noticeable. You will be much more likely to spot the generously proportioned front seats which in the Eleganza trim of the test car came covered with a sort of velour-like material which I rather liked. There is electric adjustment in all directions, and you will definitely have a feeling of space even if you raise the seat still further, as there is a generous amount of headroom. The steering column has reach and rake adjustment. I can certainly attest to the comfort of the seat, having spent many hours sitting on it as I drove from Zurich up into the Alps and back again, covering around 500 km in one day.
Where the Croma really comes into its own is when you open the rear passenger doors and look inside. There’s masses of space here. Even with the front seats set well back, legroom is in generous supply. There’s plenty of width across the car, and with minimal intrusion from a central tunnel, there is ample space for three adults to sit comfortably here. The slightly taller body styling also means that there is that bit more headroom than average, too. A drop-down armrest has cup holders in the upper surface, and as well as air vents in the back of the centre console, an added comfort feature are the pull-up sunblinds to cover the side windows. You get a good-sized boot, too, The load area is deep, and the space is straightened off, with separate cubbies on either side in the area between the rear wheel arches and the back of the car. More space comes by dropping the asymmetrically split rear seat backrests down, but frustratingly, the resulting area is far from flat. You certainly will get plenty of length, though. There is ample provision for odds and ends in the cabin, too, with a good sized glovebox, bins on the doors, a cubby under the central armrest and a lipped area on the dash above the driver’s left knee. IN the back there are map pockets on the back of the front seats.
The dash layout is neat, but lacking much in the way of design flair. The Eleganza trim of the test car brings with it a wood-effect outer rim to the console unit in the centre of the dash, but otherwise you get a lot of decent quality plastic on the large dash moulding. Instruments are presented in a single cluster, grouped together. There is a precise feeling to the column stalks which operate lights as well as indicators and lights. A series of discrete buttons are incorporated into the spokes of the leather-wrapped steering wheel and these are used for cruise control and audio repeater functions. The centre of the dash contains an integrated unit which extends from the central air vents down past the audio unit to the controls for the automated climate control and then down to the gearlever. You will find the slot for the ignition key in the centre console, Saab style, which was slightly unusual but not inconvenient once you remembered.
The vast majority of Croma models will be sold with a diesel engine, with both 8 valve and 16 valve versions of the 1.9 litre Multi-Jet and the more potent 2.4 litre unit both on offer, but you can get a petrol-powered Croma, as well, with the choice of a 140 bhp 1.8 litre or the larger and torquier 147 bhp 2.2 litre unit. The test car had the latter of these. Unlike the diesels, which are Fiat engines, the petrol motors are supplied by Opel and used in a number of their cars. The 2.2 litre Ecotec puts out 147 bhp and 150 lb/ft of torque and cones coupled to a five speed manual gearbox. To get the best out of engine you will need to use the gears quite a lot. The gear change quality is good and the lever is mounted higher than in most cars and set at an angle where it falls readily to hand. The Alps are a good test of any car and here the Croma did have to work quite hard to maintain momentum on some of the steeper ascents. At lower revs, the engine is quiet and refined, but it does get louder as you work it harder. The Croma is engineered for comfort and not sportiness. The steering is light, and has not got that much feel, though there are worse examples out there. This is a large front wheel drive car and that will be obvious if you push hard, with a tendency ultimately to understeer, though this won’t be evident in more moderate driving, which is how most will experience the Croma. They will be more impressed by the low noise levels and the absorbent ride. Couple that with the seat comfort and this is a refined car for a long journey. The Alps are always a good test of a car’s brakes, and those in the Croma were well up to par, with a powerful retardation with moderate pedal pressure. The handbrake is set quite well back and was a bit awkward to use compared to most. The large glasshouse and relatively vertical rear end meant that all-round visibility was good and the car was easy to position on the road and to park up.
There is quite a range of Croma models available. Once you have selected the engine, and you have the choice of 1.8 litre or 2.2 litre petrols as well as both 120 bhp and 150 bhp versions of the 1.9 and the 200 bhp 2.4 litre diesels and manual or automatic gearboxes, there are three trim levels: Dynamic, Eleganza and Prestigio. Even the Dynamic comes nicely trimmed, with standard 16″ alloy wheels, roof rails, an alarm, climate control, a decent quality audio unit with CD and wheel-mounted repeater controls, a split folding rear seat, heated electric mirrors and all round electric windows. Eleganza trim adds larger 17″ alloys, front fog lights, cruise control and rear parking sensors. The Prestigio version has lower profile 18″ alloys, a large electric sunroof and an upgraded audio unit with CD multi-changer as well as traction control.
The Croma is quite a difficult car to assess. Taken at face value, there is much to like here. Not remotely exciting to drive, unlike what you might expect from a Fiat, what you are getting is a car that majors on comfort and space. There’s lot of that in evidence and the car is nicely finished, quiet and would be an excellent companion for a long journey. A diesel-powered one would probably make more sense, as the fuel economy would be noticeably better and the extra torque would be useful, but even in petrol guise, it is not without some appeal. The Croma is also relatively cheap to buy, but it won’t be that cheap to own, as depreciation is likely to be very steep indeed. Certainly in the UK, the complete package has failed to impress more than a few. Around 900 have been sold in an 18 month period and earlier this year, Fiat announced that the car would henceforth only be available to special order. The car has sold better in Europe, but it’s not exactly taken the market by storm there, either. Far from defining a new category of car, as Fiat boldly said at its launch, the car would seem condemned to being at its most popular as a taxi and likely to go down in history as yet another worthy but far from “great” Fiat.