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The brand that kickstarted the hot hatchback trend in India and served as the first set of four wheels for plenty of families in its hay day shut operations in the country last year, but all is not lost.
Fiat is a brand that has a very dear place in the hearts of Indians. Much like how the brand name Xerox corresponds to a photocopy machine and “Google it” is a phrase to search the internet, back in the 1970s and 80s, Fiat referred to the car you owned. No model name, no variants followed, just “Fiat”.
Thanks to our fairly restricted regulations on manufacturing of vehicles and foreign companies coming to India, there was not much to choose from in those times either. The Fiat 1100D, renamed the Premier Padmini in 1974, was rivalled by the Hindustan Ambassador, the Contessa and… not much else. The Fiat was not only better looking, but also easier to drive and more fuel efficient. It was an instant hit, everyone from politicians to celebrities to the aspiring working class family wanted to be seen in the Fiat. It remained a very popular saloon for a long time, until a certain 800cc hatchback came along in the mid-1980s. You can still find the odd “kaali-peeli” if you roam around Bombay long enough or a restored one poodling around town. They are iconic machines and as far as first innings go, Fiat had hit it out of the park.
As for the second coming, it wasn’t quite so impactful, positively at least. The Uno came along in India in the late 1990s, after gaining immense popularity in Europe. The initial reaction was very positive, the company recorded almost 3 lakh bookings for the little hatchback. However, turmoil with the workers union at the time meant the company could only deliver a total of 617 cars by the end of 1996. Furious at the delays in delivery, most others cancelled their bookings. The Uno was a great little car and it sold in large numbers internationally, it just came to India at the wrong time.
Fiat’s products up until now were a mixed bag then, but along came the Palio, India’s first whiff of a hot hatchback. I actually owned a Palio in the early 2000s! By I, I mean my family. I was barely off the ground when the white hatchback came home. “An inch of water, and the fuse would go,” said my dad when I asked him if our Palio was a reliable car. It certainly wasn’t. Availability of parts was a problem too, as was the sparse dealer network, but boy did it make it up when you got behind the wheel.
100 horses! In a hatchback! Enthusiasts flocked to Fiat dealerships and with an endorsement campaign and special edition by the master blaster himself, the Palio was an instant hit. Fiat safeguarded their interests by offering the Siena and the Palio Weekend as well, the former was a sedan and the latter was an estate, both based on the Palio. Yes, those two didn’t fair very well in the market, but the Palio did, and even now the Fiat bhakts regard the Palio as one of Fiat’s most divine offerings in India.
The Punto and Linea came along in 2009, to revive the enthusiasm for Fiat in the country. While they weren’t particularly bad cars, they’d lost some of that flair and were a bit boring. The Linea T-Jet which came later was a fun car, the 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine was exciting but by this time the competition had moved past it. There were more affordable cars available, cars with more features and some cars that had more flair. Fiat tried to sell the Punto, they really did. It came in countless iterations and went through a bunch of facelifts, to no avail. Yes, it found homes, but not many. However, in 2015 Fiat launched what I regard as their best car yet. The Abarth Punto. It blew the Polo GT TSIs and the Baleno RS’ out of the water thanks to the 145bhp and 212Nm of torque under the hood. It even managed to wheelspin in third gear! Before beginning my journey as an auto journo, I remember taking multiple test drives of the Abarth Punto, with no intention of betraying my beloved Swift, just to get behind the wheel of that car. It was a masterpiece. Not perfect in any way, but that’s what gave it so much character.
Sadly, FCA pulled the plug on Fiat’s India operations in 2019. However, there is hope. President & MD of FCA India, Dr Partha Dutta, is as in love with Fiat as we all are, and he went on to say that “Fiat will continue to remain a brand in the FCA portfolio in India, it is not exiting the market.” However, with the current trend favouring SUVs in most segments in the market, it makes sense for FCA to focus their efforts toward Jeep for now. Us enthusiasts await your return Fiat, thank you for the memories.
Interested in picking up a Fiat? Here are five popular myths about Fiats, busted by our resident Fiat bhakt!