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We put the troubles of owning a Fiat behind, and go for a drive in their greatest hits
“Don’t park your Fiat on the road, with the fifth raindrop it’ll dissolve,” says Aninda on noticing my T-Jet parked outside the office. Oh, Aninda is one of the kinder ones. Most of the comments I get in office are unprintable, and the nicest thing the editor has had to say about my Fiat obsession, particularly the two FCA turbo-petrols at home, is to inquire whether I’m married to the daughter of Bharat Petroleum. Being a Fiat owner is not without its challenges. Everybody thinks you’re mad. Everybody makes fun of you. If I had a penny for every time somebody said Fix It Again Tony, I’d have a third Fiat parked in my garage. Only our dimple-faced leader of the opposition is the subject of more jokes. And, well, I don’t think we are being victimised. Fiat has given the world enough ammo to create a fresh meme every morning till oil eventually runs out – miserable fuel efficiency, even more miserable sales, reliability that’s best not talked about and a dealer network that until recently matched the fuel economy of my T-Jet. Maybe the editor is right. Maybe all my protein shakes have killed all my grey cells.
“There are a bunch of staunch, vocal, enthusiastic and borderline-militant owners who share my passion for the brand and their cars. Fiat bhakts, as the Ed labelled us when we kicked off this series on Enthu Cutlets“
This white Linea T-Jet is the fifth Fiat in my family and replaced an… erm… Linea T-Jet. Now that I write it does sound a little obsessive compulsive. Actually, this T-Jet is the sixth FCA car we’ve owned; we took delivery of the very first petrol Jeep Compass to hit the Pune dealership, and all of this is in a span of just 15 years. Not without reason Sirish calls me Fiat’s true head of PR. But I want to point out to him that I’m not alone. There are a bunch of staunch, vocal, enthusiastic and borderline-militant owners who share my passion for the brand and their cars. Fiat bhakts, as the Ed labelled us last month when we kicked off this series on Enthu Cutlets. We don’t drive to just get from point A to B (petrol pump A to petrol pump B, more like – Ed); we want to experience the Thrill of Driving and we know what it ‘really’ means. What we lack in numbers we make up for in decibels. Meet Fiat’s extended (and free!) PR team.
My association with the brand began 15 years ago with the Siena 1.6. I’d just won the MRF Karting Cup in my category and in my head I was the next Michael Schumacher. And the Indian Michael Schumacher had to drive the Indian Ferrari. Back then Michael’s all-conquering Formula 1 cars ran prominent Fiat branding, the 2003 F1 car even had the GA suffix after Fiat’s legendary boss Gianni Agnelli who’d just passed away, and to me the Siena 1.6 was no less than a Ferrari. Driving Nilesh Swamy’s 2004 Petra 1.6 EL (basically, a rebadged Siena with a chrome grille) brings back all those memories of our 2003 Siena 1.6 ELX, me sitting behind the steering wheel making shrieking noises like those old V10 F1 motors. My bolts had worked loose very early on, as the Ed reminds me.
Drive the Siena 1.6 today and, as you’d expect of a nearly two decade old car, the performance does nothing to excite. But the thing is it somehow involves you. It might not be going very damn fast but you feel like you’re going fast. And the chassis feels so planted, so rock solid. Most of all the steering is hydraulic and provides more haptic feedback than the iPhone X. None of the cars manufactured in our country have hydraulic steering and, dear kids, I pity the fact that you will never experience proper, communicative, hydraulic power steering. For that reason alone you should try out my old Ferrari. Sorry, Fiat.
“The Palio catered to hardcore enthusiasts, especially the GTX and S10 variants, which came with side apron and a spoiler, while the Siena was adopted by families”
Of course, the Ferrari-Fiat association would be cast in concrete when Sachin Tendulkar was paid in kind – with a Ferrari 360 Modena! – for scribbling his signature on to the back of the Palio S10. A yellow S10! For the bhakt, that’s like owning a 250 GTO. It’s the closest car India got to a homologation special, except the S10 was never entered into any kind of motorsport. It’s the car that Fiat fans gravitate towards like the proverbial moth to the flame. I have to elbow my way into the driver’s seat of Kedar Patil’s S10 and before I can head out, Mahesh (who owns a 1.6 GTX) gives me a lecture in taking it easy and how many revs to use and what rpm to upshift at. He shouldn’t take these homologation special jokes too seriously.
Unlike Indian carmakers,Fiat has always developed two individual platforms for its bread and butter models, case in point being Punto and Linea and even Tipo and Egea on which the soon-to-be-launched Jeep Renegade will be based. The Palio catered to hardcore enthusiasts, especially the GTX and S10 variants, which came with side apron and a spoiler, while the Siena was adopted by families. The 1.9-litre diesel was the biggest motor ever seen in India on a hatchback but it never had the go to match the show. The 1.6-litre petrol NA motor on the other hand was a proper hoot to drive. The engine wasn’t as rev happy as the City VTEC but the short ratios of the rubbery gearbox helped the cause, crowning the 1.6 with India’s first warm hatch tiara. Fiats always have been lardy (Palio 1.6 weighed a hefty 1080kg), but the chassis was rather communicative. The steering wheel wasn’t an extrovert, unlike the Punto’s, but answered correctly, whenever questioned. Kedar’s S10 has been completely overhauled in 2014 and came with K&N air filter and Automech free flow exhaust. Being a Fiat, it doesn’t shout out loud but sticks to its sleeper car roots.
Why more people didn’t buy the S10, or even the Palio 1.6 will always remain a mystery, for they really were the nicest cars to drive after the Honda City VTEC – which in any case had ceased production by then. Oh actually, when you think of it, the reasons couldn’t have been more transparent. Fuel efficiency was never a Fiat strength and the Palio was especially thirsty. Things fell off Fiats and it was no different on the Palio. Fiat never had the best dealers and things didn’t improve with the Palio. And back then enthusiasts didn’t make the kind of money they do right now to spend on pure passion.
Rakesh Kushwaha’s Abarth Punto the modern day Palio S10 and the chances of spotting one are less than even a Maserati. It makes you a member of a super-exclusive club. Just like the S10, the Abarth Punto makes you feel special, even when you aren’t driving it. The S10 has been prima donna for Fiat fans for 13 years, I think the Abarth Punto will do the same job for the next 15, especially when you see how these guys take care of their own cars. This was the first shoot in the history of this magazine where the owners cleaned their own cars! When Sachin, our photography intern, tried to help Rakesh, the proud owner (with mild OCD) of the Abarth Punto, he screamed at him. Use only a microfibre cloth, he hollered. I was surprised he wasn’t carrying a loofah! He even had a mat over the floor mat, so that the original mats don’t get dirty.
“If you own a car and it doesn’t make you turn around and look back at least three-four times after you’ve parked it, then you need a Fiat,” says Channa, who drives the beige Linea T-Jet
The original T-Jet was another feather in Fiat’s cap for which the carmaker went out of the way and created a dedicated section in its handful of dealerships. Owners were handed a bottle of champagne at delivery and not pedhas. Why not, I mean it was India’s first affordable turbo-petrol (Octavia RS cost a lot of money) and the most powerful then. In fact, it developed 50 per cent extra torque than its counterparts during its days and leads the pack even today by a fair margin. The ergonomics were designed keeping orangutans in mind and the cup holders could hold only espresso shots. It was also the largest car in its class but offered very little space on the inside. However, it delivered the Thrill of Driving in dollops! 0-100kmph in 9.8 seconds remains an unbeatable feat, even today in the midsize sedan segment, outclassed only by the Verna 1.6 diesel.
That in-your-face steering is cumbersome to hold but remains one of the best units in the country and has found a place on a lot of bhakts’ walls, including your correspondent’s. The ride is velvety smooth and the handling is among the best in class. Trust Fiat to spoil it then! On a random day, Fiat decided to ‘tweak’ the suspension and recalled the cars for a ‘lift’ (yes, 30mm raise in suspension travel). Owners were charged Rs 12,000 to basically mar the handling for life. The facelift (which I own) was plagued with the same issue although I was given the option to go back to the stock setup. But again, for a price! (Why Fiat, why?) Actually Fiat India had a strange fascination with jacking up the ride height of their cars, case in point being the Avventura. It really was the first properly done cross-hatch which was even styled well, the Avventura. Now this was a car made for India, disproving what everybody says about Fiat.
“For some of us our cars are our first love, but don’t tell anybody that”
“My wife always loved Fiats and made me buy a Palio, before I moved onto the Avventura!” exclaims Deepak. He doesn’t know how lucky he is, the rest of us have had marital disputes like you would not believe over our Fiats. For some of us our cars are our first love, but don’t tell anybody that. In fact, Deepak became a teetotaler for a year to convince his wife to let him buy the Avventura powered by Abarth, and not the regular diesel. The Punto Abarth, that really moves; its turbo-petrol engine and manual gearbox make it the nicest warm-hatch you can buy today. In case you’re wondering, I must clarify that you can still buy an Abarth Punto today, and in case you’re looking – no! – there are no cheap Abarth Puntos to be found in the second hand market because owners do not sell them. And you must hear a Fiat enthusiast talk about his car to know what true love really is.
“Fiats give you that sense of security that not many rivals can match, except maybe VWs. And it’s not just perceived build; few years ago when my Linea got rear ended by a Fortuner, I had a cracked bumper but the Fortuner was left with a broken grille and bumper”
“Every carmaker with a motorsport background makes excellent driver’s cars and Fiats are no different. Drive a Fiat for a few kilometres and then hop into a Maruti or a Hyundai, you’ll feel the difference,” says Amit, who owns the Grande Punto 90hp. Kedar, the owner of the S10 also gave us an insight into his daily routine. “Keep the engine revving to the limiter and passengers will know this isn’t a 15-year old car, but a proper sleeper.” Everyone speaks volumes of the safety aspect too. Fiats give you that sense of security that not many rivals can match, except maybe VWs. And it’s not just perceived build; few years ago when my Linea got rear ended by a Fortuner, I had a cracked bumper but the Fortuner was left with a broken grille and bumper. Of course, he probably took an hour to get it all sorted at a local dealer while I had to drive back like that to Pune for Mumbai did not have a Fiat dealer!
“Fiat actually went through the effort of launching the Abarth brand, putting in a proper 145bhp turbo-petrol engine, styling the cars to look massively cool”
In a nutshell, that was Fiat’s biggest problem. Great cars let down by network apathy. Great cars let down by poor brand management. While others put spoilers and Sports badges on their wheezy 1.2 petrols, Fiat actually went through the effort of launching the Abarth brand, putting in a proper 145bhp turbo-petrol engine, styling the cars to look massively cool and then… forgot to market it. Or ran out of a marketing budget, I don’t know. What I do know is that Fiat could have been so much more than just a regional brand in Europe, which is more or less what it has now become. And, dear Aninda, Fiats don’t dissolve in the rain – because we don’t let our Fiats out in the rain.