Fiat goes back to the future with its new, 1980s-inspired family hatchback

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Delving into its recent past has become something of a habit for Fiat.

Since the original late 1980s Tipo family hatch, we’ve had two generations of Bravo separated by the forgettable Stilo.

Two and a half stars may seem harsh, but the Tipo is on a par with a Toyota Auris and Citroën C4 in a busy, hard-fought class

Name recognition is handy in the overcrowded C segment, and there isn’t a car company in existence that isn’t preoccupied with its past.

Still, coming after the expansion of the extended Fiat 500 family and the return of the 124 Spider, this doubling back does make it feel like the Italian giant is less nodding at its past than milking it for all it’s worth.

Thankfully, that isn’t all that Fiat is doing with this new Tipo. The first version, launched in 1988, was built in the same famously boxy groove as the original Fiat Panda and Uno, and while it was well received (and even fondly recalled), there’s no homage paid in the shape of the latest model.

Rather, it is its predecessor’s once-renowned packaging to which Fiat is paying tribute, with class-leading leg room and boot space claimed for this rather more curvy new Tipo.

There are other connections. The 1980s version was a global car too, eventually produced in Turkey by the same Tofas manufacturing firm that Turin will have build its namesake.

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The first Tipo also featured the Type Two platform, an early example of the sort of modular front drive architecture that now dominates the industry.

The General Motors-Fiat Small platform that underpins the 21st century variant is unrelated but not dissimilar in many ways; Fiat has been using it to underpin a range of models since 2005.

All of which will be considered incidental for most buyers of the new Tipo. From Fiat’s perspective, the ideal association with the past would be a repeat of the first Tipo’s sales popularity.

In 1988, its design was cutting-edge compared with the leaden Vauxhall Astra and Ford Escort it was up against. And as well as finding early favour with buyers, the Tipo won the European Car of the Year award a year later.

Fiat’s board would turn handsprings if this new assault on the C segment proved to be even half as worthy.

We’re testing the hatch (there’s an estate, too) in range-topping Lounge format with a 1.6-litre Multijet diesel engine, starting at £17,995.

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Fiat Tipo headlights

The Tipo destined for the UK is actually the second model to result from something called Project Egea, a Fiat-Chrysler/Tofas initiative intended to produce an affordable family saloon, hatchback and estate for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

The three-box saloon – known as the Fiat Egea in Turkey – was unveiled at the Istanbul motor show last year and replaced the Fiat Linea (itself a car co-developed with Tofas).

The cheapest car’s 15in steel wheels exemplify its bargain basement ethos

The two-box hatchback and estate are to be produced primarily for France, Italy and the UK and in all markets will succeed the Bravo – a model Fiat quietly deleted in 2014.

The Tipo gets the high-strength steel architecture co-engineered with GM that, in different configurations, has so far underpinned everything from the Grande Punto to the Jeep Renegade.

Deploying the so-called ‘Small-Wide LWB’ version of that modular platform, the Turin-penned Tipo is most closely related to the Fiat 500L, although its wheelbase is marginally longer.

Unsurprisingly, the conventional platform gets an equally conventional suspension set-up, featuring MacPherson struts at the front and a rear torsion beam, while a fairly unremarkable 1295kg claimed kerb weight was rendered plausible on our scales, with our test car weighing in at 1379kg full of fuel.

The engine line-up is familiar, too. The five options are divided into three petrol and two diesel: a 94bhp 1.4-litre petrol, a 118bhp 1.4-litre T-Jet turbo petrol and a 108bhp 1.6-litre e-TorQ petrol twinned exclusively with a six-speed torque converter automatic gearbox. The oil-burners are a 94bhp 1.3-litre Multijet II and the larger 1.6-litre variant tested here.

The range-topping four-cylinder diesel – already featured in the 500L – develops 118bhp and 236lb ft, the latter available from 1750rpm. A six-speed manual gearbox is standard, but as an option the engine can be had with Fiat’s new DCT dual-clutch automatic. Both variants deliver sub-100g/km CO2 emissions.


Fiat Tipo interior

The Tipo’s job here, whether Fiat likes it or not, is to deliver more for less: to beat the hatchback class’s prevailing standards on comfort, space and equipment while imposing little or no apparent compromise on material quality or fit and finish – and all at a price that’s relatively appealing in precisely the same way.

As unreasonable an expectation as it may seem, that’s exactly what the likes of the Nissan Pulsar, Hyundai i30 and Skoda Rapid Spaceback all do – admittedly with varying degrees of success.

Not often you see a loading lip this deep. I bet it’s shallower if you opt for the full-size spare wheel, which is standard on the estate

And that’s because the customers who are paying less for their new car don’t actually expect to get less of any of the above considerations.

With its interior, the Tipo makes a pretty poor fist of its response to that challenge. It may seem adequate in most of the ways that will matter to bargain hunters, and there aren’t many places where the cabin feels cheap or austere.

But there is no escaping the pervasive impression that this is an interior designed and engineered with no greater ambition than to be passable. Nowhere is it genuinely good.

Although the Tipo outwardly looks as if it will be generously proportioned inside, cabin space is actually no better than average.

A Nissan Pulsar beats it hands down for passenger space and it doesn’t have much of an edge over a Ford Focus. The boot is deep but not particularly wide or long, and its sizeable lip makes it tricky to load heavy objects.

The front seats are a good size but a little too hard and flat to be described as comfortable. They also seat you higher and more bent-legged than you’d be in certain rivals (a packaging trick often employed to make extra second-row occupant space), and the front passenger only gets cushion height adjustment as an option.

The controls are conveniently located and the driving position itself is sound, with a roomy footwell featuring a decent rest for your left foot.

Oddment storage is again about passable; there are usable cupholders in the centre console and a good-sized armrest cubby, although the car’s door pockets could be bigger.

Material quality varies from okay (column stalks, steering wheel switchgear) to poor (shiny, unyielding interior door and centre console mouldings).

As a result, in more ways than one, the Tipo fails to make the kind of first impression it really needs to do in order to win friends in one of the most crowded market segments of them all.

When we first drove the Tipo on its European press launch in Italy earlier this year, the range-topping versions were fitted with a 7.0in touchscreen infotainment system, dubbed ‘Uconnect HD Live’. It didn’t seem half bad, offering decent satellite navigation mapping at a clear and readable scale, easy Bluetooth connectivity and both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring functionality.

But somewhere between that launch and the UK sales introduction, Fiat UK has decided to ‘de-content’ upper-level Lounge trims and offer only the 5.0in Uconnect system as standard.

This lesser set-up still offers DAB radio and limited smartphone app online functionality, allowing you to stream music and connect with social media, but its screen is small, its navigation mapping is tricky to read and its responsiveness often disappointing.

Positioned high on the dashboard and perfectly flush with the fascia, the screen is also very difficult to read in direct sunlight. Audio quality is at least respectable.


1.6-litre Fiat Tipo diesel engine

On to better news. The Tipo’s most convincing strength is delivered in an area where Fiat has a history of innovation: with its diesel engine.

It remains to be seen how much uptake there will be for the pricier of the two diesel options in a model range defined so squarely by value for money.

Transmission bumps knock the car off line; poor body control means you have to leave extra space to slow for corners

Those who are willing to spend the kind of cash that might otherwise have bought a full-sized economy-minded diesel hatchback from Ford, Vauxhall, Seat or Hyundai, however, should find the 1.6-litre Multijet diesel in the Tipo broadly to their liking.

The motor is a bit peaky in the way it serves up its lump of turbo-induced torque, suffering with some lag at low revs, followed by a slightly abrupt rush of boost that the car’s accelerator pedal mapping could make easier to manage.

But the problem is also partly caused by the engine’s healthy 236lb ft, which is a fair amount more than that produced by most downsized oil-burners.

That advantage manifested itself in the performance figures we recorded. A typical 1.5 or 1.6-litre diesel needs about 11 seconds to accelerate from 30-70mph through the gears and between 13 and 14 seconds to do the same sprint locked in fourth gear.

The Tipo managed both in less than 10 seconds.

Unusually short gearing also contributes to the car’s assertive performance (there’s a longer-legged economy version powered by the same engine in other markets, but it isn’t offered in the UK).

Even for a six-speed manual, you’re therefore obliged to do more cog-swapping than you might do elsewhere if you want to maintain that frothy pace – which would be better news if the shift quality weren’t so rubbery.

Rush a gearchange through (as you must when doing benchmark acceleration testing, for example) and the gearbox begins to feel unpleasantly notchy and mechanically harsh at times.

The Multijet engine revs as all of its ilk tend to: with useful force up to a point but increasing breathlessness and noise above 4000rpm.

But at medium cruising revs it’s decently hushed, contributing to a quieter cabin at 50mph than plenty of more expensive hatchbacks we could mention. It’s decently economical, too, as we’ll get to shortly.


Fiat Tipo cornering

Dynamically, the Tipo feels very much like a car whose basics are sound enough but which has been tuned and generally finished with little care or skill.

It would be pompous and unfair to assume this necessarily had anything to do with the fact that it was developed in Turkey, away from Fiat’s western European engineering base, by the same company that will build the car.

Steering goes from light to heavy to light again as the car runs short of grip and rolls into oversteer around the off-camber corners

And yet, whatever the cause, there’s no mistaking where the Tipo is left. Even a driver who didn’t much care how sophisticated or easy to drive their prospective new hatchback was might get out of the Tipo, we fear, drive one of its direct rivals and immediately appreciate what the Fiat had been doing badly.

The springing of the car’s suspension feels medium-firm, but its ride is fairly quiet and well bushed, so there’s little of the hollow coarseness you might expect from a budget option.

But as the road surface you’re crossing goes from level to uneven, the cabin quickly becomes fidgety and hyperactive.

The car’s dampers fail to respond either quickly or progressively enough to take the sting out of bumps from the beginning of the first compression stroke, only to then over-react as the amplitude and frequency of the suspension inputs increase.

And so the car’s vertical body control ends up feeling quite rudimentary and always digital in its willingness either to allow body deflections or check them too aggressively. It’s often restless on the motorway and regularly unsettled around town.

The car’s lateral body control is more respectable, and while neither its grip level nor handling response is anything special, the Tipo is certainly happy enough and capable enough to be hurried along through a corner.

But don’t expect to enjoy the hurrying much; the elastic-feeling steering, which is simply too variable in its weight as you add lock and overly corrupted by traction forces, puts paid to that, making the Tipo trickier to guide than it ought to be.

Those medium-firm suspension springs are the Tipo’s saving grace on Millbrook’s Hill Route. They spread its weight well enough, prevent it from lurching onto its outside tyres hard under duress and, in tandem with decent traction and stability control systems, keep the car roughly on line.

The car’s electronic chassis controls extend as far as decent understeer control, so the steering’s rubbery, inconsistent weight and total lack of feedback aren’t the handicaps they might have been — and neither is the engine’s sudden rush of torque.

Where the surface is smooth, the Tipo copes well enough; where there are mid-corner bumps, it struggles, that beam axle rear suspension being easily tripped up, disrupting stability and diverting the car a little.

And where suspension inputs become particularly exaggerated, the body control becomes poor, with enough body pitch to have a detrimental affect on grip levels.


Fiat Tipo

At £12,995 for an entry-level car with air-con, remote locking, DAB and Bluetooth, the Tipo undercuts most rivals of its ilk.

Even if you (correctly) dismiss the inefficient entry-level petrol, the road duty-dodging 1.3 Multijet at £14,995 is likely to pique the interest of anyone looking for a practical, cheap-to-run prospect.

High-end Tipo should fair well against lower-end examples of Vauxhall and Seat — but only for the first few years

Most C-segment buyers in markets such as ours tend to eschew bargains in favour of a bit more design and brand appeal, but the more desirable the Tipo gets, the more it falters.

Mid-range Easy Plus trim adds the 5.0in Uconnect system, 16in alloys, front fogs, rear parking sensors and cruise control. With the 1.6-litre diesel (which returned a decent 49.1mpg average in True MPG testing), its £16,995 price is still a decent saving over an equivalent Astra or Focus.

Lounge trim, which is the closest to delivering a level of interior quality consistent with its rivals, is £17,995. With sat-nav, 17in wheels and climate control, it is better kitted out than most if its peers at the same price.

We would be inclined for the Easy trim and add 16in alloys, rear parking sensors and a full-size spare wheel, but also be prepared to haggle with the aim of getting the Tipo close to the £14,000 mark.

Contract hire deals aren’t so quite so competitive. Our sources suggest a mid-spec car with the 1.6 Multijet engine would cost £37 a month more than an equivalent Vauxhall Astra.

It’s also worth noting that minus the £500 Safety pack option, the Tipo only scores three stars in NCAP’s crash tests, or four stars with it. Most other rivals score five.

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2.5 star Fiat Tipo

Those of a certain age may remember the original Fiat Tipo with fondness; it was appealing to behold and fitted with a digital dashboard that made its European hatchback rivals look backward.

But whether you’re a child of the 1980s or not, you won’t view the new Tipo with the same kind of esteem.

Acceptable but a long way removed from the class’s sharp end

And you were never likely to, this being a car designed primarily for developing markets and serving a more value-driven agenda than Fiat was aiming for three decades ago.

Nevertheless, we must apply the same standards here that we do for any mid-sized hatch on sale in Europe, and that means marking down the smart but derivative styling, the inconsistent quality and only averagely good packaging of its cabin and the poorly resolved ride and handling.

Creditable outright performance and decent but unremarkable value for money are some recompense but frankly not enough.

At a cheaper price point than was represented by our test car, the Tipo might have made a more convincing case, but at £18k, in a class full of sophisticated European-built rivals, it was doomed to struggle.

This is why the Tipo doesn’t make our top five with the Seat Leon, Ford Focus, Vauxhall Astra, Skoda Octavia and the Mazda 3 all streets ahead.

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Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Fiat Tipo (2015-2023) First drives