Gone but not forgotten: Fiat Palio S10
Here's where I started my career as a motoring journalist. Twenty years ago, two weeks into my internship, I was bussed down to the brand-spanking-new industrial township of Ranjangaon, outside of Pune, for the inauguration of Fiat’s massive, greenfield, manufacturing facility. The assembly lines for the Project 178 ‘world cars’ were still to be shifted from the old plant in Kurla but the giant sheds were up and the technical training facility had started operations. Knowing no better I wrote glowing things, along the lines of watch out Maruti/Hyundai/Daewoo (those were the days!) and, for a while, it looked like I’d nailed it.
This facelift to the Palio launched at the end of 2001 really did take off. Among the familiar Zens and awkward Santros and WagonRs, the Palio looked fantastic. Its ride and handling was a generation ahead of its rivals. In the GTX there was a 16-valve, 100 horsepower, 1.6-litre engine that made it the hot hatch of its day. And it ran on beautiful 14-inch alloys. Only the City VTEC was more powerful; only the City had 14-inch alloys back then. The buzz was nuts. 1100 cars were sold in the first two days, a record of sorts. In a year it rocketed Fiat India’s sales by 374 per cent. Sachin Tendulkar was signed up, his signature plastered on the flanks of this S10, and in return Michael Schumacher handed him the keys to a Ferrari. Everybody was happy, even the government waived the duties on the 360 Modena.
And then sales went off the cliff. The after-sales experience was miserable. Italian quality was never (and still ain’t) as good as the Japanese. And then came the fuel efficiency nightmare. The Palio was a heavy, robust, safe car and was never going to deliver Suzuki-levels of efficiency. But who was going to explain that to mileage-obsessed buyers? Fiat addressed that by... recalibrating the fuel gauge, claiming the needle was dropping faster than it should!
Sales never recovered and it was only a decade later, when real estate prices in Mumbai became far too juicy to ignore, that the Kurla land was sold off and manufacturing moved to Ranjangaon. By then Fiat and Tata Motors had started selling each other’s cars from the same showroom and while that experiment was always doomed to failure, the manufacturing partnership has endured.
The Ranjangaon facility is now an equal joint venture between FCA and Tata Motors making (and exporting to all RHD markets) the Jeep Compass, Tata Nexon and churning out the 2.0-litre Multijet II diesel for the Compass, Harrier and Hector. And as for Fiat, apart from the signage on that factory, the name has disappeared from our shores.