Fiat does its homework

If you’re a family hatch manufacturer, you’ll have been on your toes for quite a while. We’ve already got a great new VW Golf, the Vauxhall Astra will be here in May, and a reworked Ford Focus arrives in October. This time next year the class will be full of fresh metal competing for the current Focus’s laurels – and any manufacturer that stands still will go straight to the bottom. Fast.

Which is why Fiat has been busily revising its Stilo range. A 1.4-litre six-speed base model replaces the old 1.2, there are trim changes across the board and every model has had a price cut of around £500.

Independent rear suspension isn’t one of those revisions – like the new Astra and Renault Mégane, the 2004 Stilo sticks with a torsion beam across its rear axle, rather than the independent set-up of the Focus or new Golf. But while the Astra’s dynamics aren’t far off the independently sprung cars’, the Stilo isn’t quite there, too easily lifting an inside wheel when pressing on.

Predictably enough, the Abarth, Fiat’s hottest model, retains its decidedly tepid character. Packing a lightly reworked 2446cc, five-cylinder, 20-valve power plant, Fiat claims 0-62mph in 8.5sec and a maximum speed of 136mph. Both of these figures are worthwhile improvements on the outgoing Abarth (8.9 and 124), mainly thanks to the new five-speed manual transmission, which also makes the car £1850 cheaper than the higher-spec paddle shift car. The new gearbox doesn’t succeed in changing the smooth, composed, but fundamentally lazy character of the car though. The basic speed still isn’t in the same league as the benchmark Focus RS or Mini Cooper S Works.

Then again, the Abarth was never intended to compete with those hooligans. It’s the Crystal Palace Football Club of hot hatchery; a great first division performer, but not quite up to the top flight.

As such, it actually lines up very favourably. At £14,245, it’s more than £2000 cheaper than the Focus ST170, and near-enough £1300 less than Seat’s 180bhp Leon Cupra. You also get a much richer exhaust note for your money, engaging if not exhilarating pace and an acceptable manual ’box.

In fact, the most interesting comparison is with a car some eight-and-a-half thousand pounds more expensive, also produced by the Fiat group. Look at and touch the dash plastics, get an earful of the engine’s fruity thrum, specify leather and cruise control, and you realise what a convincing £15k impression this car does of an Alfa Romeo 147 GTA – and that in itself is pretty commendable. The Stilo is still no class winner by any means, but it does offer plenty of character for your cash.

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