Johannesburg - Ever heard of a Fiat Tipo? If you’re a car nerd of sorts then you might have at some point, but for the average South African this will be a completely new proposition. It’s actually a throwback to a hatchback that Fiat built in the late eighties and early nineties, but which never made it to our shores.
Like its ancestor, the Tipo loosely fits into the Golf and Astra class, but unlike its Bravo predecessor, the newcomer has a more back-to-basics approach to life. In an age where everything is trying to be all fancy and upscale, Fiat happily throws around payoff lines like “Skills, no frills” for its Tipo hatch, and its sedan counterpart, and that is actually quite a refreshing thing to hear.
This attitude shows in the styling too. The Tipo is not trying to be a dazzlingly sexy Italian model, although calling most specification grades ‘Easy’ (our car was a 1.6i Easy auto) possibly makes it sound a little naughtier than it is. Instead it’s a clean, mature and mildly attractive design with a handsomely pronounced beltline and some traces of BMW 1 Series in its side profile.
Enough of that, let’s size it up
Measuring 4368mm from front to back, the not-so-little Fiat is actually a good 90mm longer than a VW Golf, albeit 7mm narrower, while sitting on a slightly longer wheelbase. It’s bigger than practically everything in its class and has a spacious 440 litre boot. Rear legroom is ample and easily at the sharp end of the class, dare we even speculate that Pavarotti would have slotted in there quite comfortably.
So you’re getting a lot of space for the money as the Tipo is priced at the lower end of the segment, starting at R249 900 for the 1.4i Pop, and thereby undercutting all its major rivals, including the Ford Focus (from R259 900), Opel Astra (R264 300), Toyota Auris (R271 000) and VW Golf (R289 900). Our range-topping 1.6i auto test car retails at R294 900.
Curiously, though, Fiat has also made a blunder on the pricing front, with hatchback models commanding a R20 000 premium over the equivalent sedans, so you’d have to be a real hatch fanatic to not opt for the latter, which seems like quite a bargain at R229 900 for the base model.
Yet even if we concede that the hatchbacks still offer good value in relation to their rivals, there’s the inevitable question of whether Fiat has cut corners elsewhere.
Sadly, yes, I must confess as we peek under the bonnet.
Unlike most competitors, there is no turbocharging for the petrol models and in fact the engine capacities are quite small by class standards, with the majority of Tipos powered by a 1.4-litre normally aspirated petrol engine that musters just 70kW and 127Nm. Our car’s 1.6-litre engine produces 81kW at 5500rpm and 152Nm at 4500rpm, and it’s only available with a six-speed automatic transmission.
Then there’s the weight problem, with our car Tipo-ing the scales at over 1300kg.
The result of that power-to-weight deficit is that the Tipo is quite slow, and economy is merely average, with our car drinking 8.2 litres per 100km under mixed conditions.
Although the transmission is smooth enough in its operation, it’s not always an easy-going driving experience as the ‘box often has to labour the engine to keep up with fast-paced city avenue traffic and it is rather loud at high revs. Overtaking on the open road is an exercise in patience and even mild hills on highways require a bit of a run-up.
Yet other than that, and presuming that most of the time you’re happy to plod around town at a reasonably mild pace, it’s actually a pleasant and ‘Easy’ car to drive. The ride quality is agreeable over most surfaces, the steering provides reasonably good feedback and it’s easy to get into a comfortable position behind the wheel.
It helps too, that Fiat has the ergonomics taped. There’s a button on the leather-covered steering wheel for practically everything you can think of, besides pouring your espresso, and when you do run out of things to push, the touch-screen audio system is an easy stretch as it’s positioned really high on the dashboard. The system is quite basic, and simple to operate.
The ‘Easy’ models, which span most of the line-up, are also very generously equipped. In addition to that aforementioned touch-screen set-up with Bluetooth connectivity, they pack cruise control, automatic climate control and rear park distance control. A navigation system and reverse camera are optional.
As for the look and feel of things, it’s a far cry from the high-end, elegant snootiness of the Golf and even the lines are more functional than pretty, but then I wouldn’t go as far as calling it cheap looking - even if some of the plastics are on the shiny side.
Safety wise, it packs stability control and tyre pressure monitoring, but Fiat has skimped a bit on the inflatable cushions, with side and curtain airbags costing extra. A three-year or 100 000km service plan (and matching warranty) is included in the price.
The Tipo is a practical, well-priced (lower down in the range at least) and generally likeable little car, but the petrol models struggle on the performance front, particularly at Gauteng altitudes. If you’re looking for the best price to satisfaction ratio, the 1.3 turbodiesel sedan is likely to be your best bet.