An acceptable company hack but distinctly lacking in anything that might pass for star quality

Remember when cars used to sub-divide into classes so clearly they were named after Fords? From Fiesta to Granada you had only to mention a Ford, put the word ‘class’ after it and everyone knew exactly what kind of car you were talking about. For motoring journalists – simple souls at heart – it made life extremely easy.No longer. Manufacturers now avoid being so easily categorised as you might steer clear of a rabid dog. And nowhere is this more apparent than in what the industry calls the D-segment and you and I call the Mondeo-class. The market for large hatchbacks from non-premium marques is in freefall as people bail out and into better looking off-roaders and more versatile MPVs by the thousand.Which is why Fiat is calling this new Croma neither a hatchback nor an estate. It is a ‘crossover’ car if you will, which, to quote their blurb ‘blends together the benefits of a saloon car, an estate and an MPV’.Hmm. The issue I find rather more compelling than what kind of car it may or may not happen to be is why it’s here in the first place. For all the great cars produced in Fiat’s history, I will not be the first to observe that very few of them were large family hold-alls like this. Indeed the last Croma – a car launched 20 years ago and built on the same platform as the Alfa 164, Lancia Thema and Saab 9000 – was a quite startlingly undesirable car and, sadly, so is this one.Despite a reasonable arsenal of attributes which we’ll come to in a minute, I struggle to see many people who have the choice between the Croma and all the other cars that might be put forward as rivals, thinking that, of them all, the Fiat’s the one that’s going to set their heart pumping fastest.And that is because this is completely the wrong way to look at the Croma. Despite its Italian origins, this is a car as devoid of passion as Edward Scissorhands’ wedding night. It is a car you will drive not because you want to, but either because you need to or because you’ve been told to by your boss.This may not sound like much of a recommendation but think about it for a second, and particularly about the money: the best seller will be the 150bhp 1.9 diesel which, in mid-spec Eleganza form costs £18,995 before the discounts that I would imagine will soon not prove too hard to find. That buys you a car which boasts not only 130mph performance and a 0-62mph time of 9.6sec but also 46.3mpg fuel consumption and low (163g/km) emissions.More important still is the fact that it buys you an interior with the kind of space you’d usually find only in up-spec luxury cars. Rear leg-room is particularly impressive and means four six footers would be able to travel unlimited distances in comfort. Fiat has spotted what most other car manufacturers appear to have forgotten, which is that the population is growing. And if you have, as thousands of parents do, a brace of gangling, hormonal teenagers to cart about the place the value of this extra space will be considerable.That said, I still can’t see that the Croma is effective either as an estate or MPV. It has a mildly elevated driving position but remains a strict five seater and the rear row doesn’t even fold completely flat, let alone slide, recline or remove as you might hope. And if you load it only to the parcel shelf, the boot is no bigger than that of a Mondeo or Vectra hatch. Fold the seat and load it to the roof and most comparable estates will carry more gear.The shame is that it could at least be quite good to drive: it handles well and has conspicuously good brakes but the ride is so unsettled on the kind of road where you’d choose to exploit these attributes, it tends not to be worth the effort. Only on the motorway does it feel really at home where the suspension smooths out and its tall gearing and impressive refinement make the miles slip effortlessly by.It’s not enough to cut a case for itself sufficiently robust to earn a recommendation here. The Croma is too undistinguished both to look at and to drive to rank as more than an also-ran among its peer group. Yet despite this and by the modest standards expected of big Fiats, the company might find one section of the car buying community with which the Croma will prove popular.It may not be much to look at or to drive but there’s no doubting that it offers a lot of car and equipment for the money and should prove cheap to run and service. And it is on these rather less emotive grounds that the gimlet-eyed fleet chiefs tend to base their buying decisions. To them, it might well prove both an attractive and capable proposition. The private car buyer, I suspect, will prove somewhat harder to convince.Andrew Frankel

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