Agility, poise and balance are all words I would use to describe the tremendous performers Fiat drafted in from Le Cirque du Soleil to entertain yours truly and about another 1,700 journalists in Rome for the world debut of the new Fiat Bravo. Though we did manage to get behind the wheel of the new car, the time was all too brief, so we won’t attribute those superlatives to the car just yet. However, Luca de Meo, CEO of the freshly named Fiat Automobiles SpA, did align the acclaimed entertainment company with a new way of doing things at Fiat. In the same way that a dangerous circus act must work in front of the audience first time and every time, the car must work as it was designed. As Luca puts it, "at the first turn of the key, everything must function perfectly, year in and year out, repeat after repeat.”
This is Fiat’s indirect way of acknowledging that perhaps reliability has not been what it should have in the past. There were bold statements from all Fiat personnel I talked to at the event regarding reliability and quality. In addition to the need to succeed in the most important car segment in Europe, Fiat wants to banish the past and move forward. The new Bravo’s rapid 18-month gestation period signifies a new theory in car development for Fiat, with a massive amount of the preliminary design and testing done in a virtual environment. The advancement of computer simulations for all aspects of the car, from crash protection to ride and handling to noise levels, allowed not only the reduction of the development period, but also an increase in the number of test iterations carried out, albeit on a computer.
That’s not to say that Fiat has dispensed with testing, it’s just that the physical testing only took place on cars much closer to production. Pre-production cars still managed to rack up mileage in the millions. Although these new development techniques will offer a cost saving in the long term (significant investment was needed for the Bravo programme as the first of its kind within Fiat), the main motivator is quality and I must admit that first impressions of the Bravo are very good indeed. Although the new car is vaguely based on the structure of the Stilo, Fiat has altered every aspect. Gone are the straight, serious lines that Fiat lumbered the Stilo with (in an attempt to produce a Germanic car) and Italian flair and style have been welcomed back. It may be ‘only’ a family car, but it’s a good-looking one and the styling alone could persuade buyers to visit a Fiat dealer and take a sit inside the car. Here, too, Fiat has moved its game on. Forget the Stilo and everything you know about it: the Bravo’s interior demands comparison with the likes of the Ford Focus in terms of tactility and perceived quality. It’s quite stylish inside too, with the deep-set instruments angled towards the driver and a soft-touch finish to the dashboard itself.
Thanks to generous overall dimensions, Fiat claims that the Bravo is a class-leader in terms of interior and boot space. Don't let the sloping roofline fool you into thinking there is no rear headroom either, as it's just a styling trick, though the thick C-pillar does mean that rear passengers feel quite enclosed. New for the Bravo is a Microsoft-developed system called Blue&Me Nav, which integrates a variety of Bluetooth and USB devices into the car’s ‘infotainment’ system. Though not likely to be standard in Ireland, it is said to be offered at a good price, much lower than usual factory-fit satellite navigation systems. At first glance, the system fitted to our test car seemed intuitive enough, despite your correspondent’s dubious Italian... We could have done with a bit more of the local lingo to stop us getting lost in the suburbs of the capital, but at least it gave us the opportunity to try out the new car for size on a variety of surfaces in traffic that doesn't give a damn if you don't know where you are going.
Even on the 18” wheels and low-profile tyres of our test car, the Bravo seemed quite composed over anything but the worst expansion joints, feeling like a bigger car than it is. The roads were not testing enough to try out the Bravo’s road-holding abilities, but we can say that the driving controls feel up to the job, in particular the well-modulated brakes and the slick six-speed gearbox. Of the cars on offer, we chose the all-new 1.4-litre T-Jet (see panel) in its 150bhp guise. Despite the low capacity, this feels like a strong engine with plenty of good mid-range torque for overtaking, yet a relaxed gait when cruising. It will fit in well in Ireland, competing against the 1.4-litre TSI engine offered by VW. Our short time with the car left me with an impression that Fiat has done a good job on the Bravo. It promises a lot in an already crowded segment, but should have the abilities to stand toe-to-toe with the usual suspects such as the Focus, Golf, Astra, Civic and the new Toyota Auris. Where it scores highly above most of those is in style. We also expect the Bravo to be priced competitively when Irish specifications are announced closer to the launch in May. We’ll let you know if the car lives up to expectations once we’ve spent more time with it on our own roads.
We were given exclusive access to the new Bravo and the team of engineers that created it way back in December when we attended a technical preview in Turin. Although the car itself features a range of new engines and other technology, the focus of this event was very much on the development process, where the vast majority of the up-front testing and refining is done on a computer using advanced simulation techniques. We sat in one of the Virtual Reality rooms (one of five) used in the process, where one wall acts as a rather sophisticated computer screen, allowing engineers and designers to ‘fly’ in and around their design. This methodology in itself is not completely new, but it is the first time that Fiat has applied it to such a level, eliminating the need to produce an endless number of physical models and prototype parts. As an example of how useful this technology is, we witnessed an animated simulation of an offset frontal crash test, where the deformation of the crumple zones was carefully monitored, along with the forces transmitted to the cabin. Traditionally, a new prototype was built for each and every crash test until the design was finalised, but now Fiat can test hundreds of different components and observe the effects without the costly (and time-consuming) production of prototype cars. Fiat is confident that the new Bravo will achieve the full five-star rating for occupant protection in the all-important Euro NCAP safety tests. Safety is paramount to any new car buyer and Fiat claims that the Bravo will be class-beating. Helping it down that path is the ‘Air-Bag Smart 2’ system, which determines not only if an airbag is required in a given collision, but also how much protection is needed – it’s a two-stage effort. This system will even work if the car suffers an electrical blackout. The Bravo also features an Early Crash Sensor, which detects an inevitable head-on collision and activates the airbags before the occupant has even moved forward. Depending on the model, the Bravo will be fitted with the latest raft of electronic helpers too, with anti-lock brakes and electronic brake force distribution a given in this day and age. An Electronic Stability Program (ESP) will also be available to maintain control over the car in emergency situations, along with Anti Slip Regulation (ASR), which is an advanced traction control system that also acts a little like a self-locking differential during ‘spirited’ driving. A special mention should be given to the new lineup of engines Fiat has planned. At launch, entry-level means the familiar 1.4-litre 16-valve FIRE unit, with 90bhp and 6.7 litres/100km on the Combined Cycle. There will be two diesel options to begin with – 120bhp and 150bhp versions of the 1.9-litre Multijet turbodiesel. The big news is that Fiat Powertrain Technologies has developed a whole new range of petrol engines, christened T-Jet. The name alludes to the combination of a turbocharger and direct injection, the first time Fiat has featured this in a petrol car. In simple terms, the use of a turbocharger allows the extraction of more performance from an engine of smaller capacity, while at the same time returning decent fuel economy thanks to the lower swept volume. The direct injection system allows further improvements in performance, efficiency and fuel metering, which in turn means lower fuel consumption and emissions. First up in the T-Jet range is a 1.4-litre (which we drove in Rome). To begin with, this engine will be offered in either 120bhp or 150bhp guises, with the former producing its output at lower revs to provide a more relaxing drive, while the latter could be considered to be quite a sporty engine. Fiat compared this engine to 1.6-litre options in its competitors’ cars in terms of performance, yet CO2 emissions are lower thanks to impressive fuel economy figures. A 1.2-litre version of this engine would go down a storm in Ireland, but we’re not sure if it will happen. We did manage to find out that there will eventually be a 1.8-litre T-Jet, with at least 200bhp to power a future Bravo Abarth, which will rival the new Honda Civic Type-R, amongst other hot hatches. The diesel Multijet range will also get a new 165bhp option and Fiat's engineers told us that they are on the hunt for at least 180bhp from a range-topping diesel.
Fiat Bravo 1.4 T-Jet 150 Sport
Engine 1,368cc 4-cyl Turbo, 150bhp,
230Nm torque Boot Capacity 400 litres
Acceleration 0-100km/h in 8.5 seconds (est)
Top speed 210km/h (est)
Price €25,000 (est)
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Economy: 7.0 litres/100km (est)