Turin de force

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Fed up with your Escort or Astra? Fiat’s Bravo and Brava might offer the most appealing hatchback alternative yet

If there was an award for the most interesting mainstream car manufacturer, Fiat would be a very good candidate: witness its most recent offerings, the Punto, Coupé and Barchetta. But in this country at least, it has always been weak in the small-to-medium hatchback department: cue the quirky Strada and slow selling (if worthy) Tipo. That may be about to change, with the advent of the Bravo and Brava, a two-pronged assault on the Escort and Astra stronghold.

In a market segment where the humdrum tends to predominate, you don’t normally see three- and five-door variants of the same model given different names. Nobody told Fiat, it appears. The men from Turin have eschewed convention and gone for styling cues which set the three-door (Bravo) and five-door (Brava) firmly apart.

The former is the most dramatic, its flanks flaring out to meet a blacked-out cluster of tail-lights. It won’t be to everybody’s taste, but I think it looks superb. The five-door Brava, meanwhile, is not as startling but no less appealing. Park it beside the car commonly perceived to be class leader, Peugeot’s 306, and the French machine looks decidedly passé.

Inside, the effect is much the same. Instrumentation apart — the Bravo gets sporting round dials, the Brava larger, oval-shaped items — the pair share a cabin: a beautifully designed, ergonomically sound affair dominated by its purpose-built stereo system and an extremely effective heater system. Unappealing grey plastic aside, it looks as though a bit of thought — intuition, even — has gone into it, and the result is an interior which, in contrast to several rival is a genuinely nice place to be. True, the stylish exterior takes its toll on headroom in the rear, the Bravo feeling decidedly cramped. But somehow one gets the feeling these cars will not be bought on the strength of how many people you can get in the back.

When they hit the forecourts at the start of the New Year, they will be available with three different engines: 1.4-, 1.6- and 1.8-litre modular powerplants built at Fiat’s ultra-advanced Pratola Serra plant. Unfortunately, you will have to wait for potentially the most interesting variant: the five-cylinder, 2.0-litre HGT. Having only recently decided to sell the car over here, the Italians won’t be sending any until next autumn at the earliest.

In the meantime, there is plenty to be cheerful about. No matter what engine is up front, the Bravo/a demonstrates taut, predictable handling. Press on hard and understeer is the dominant characteristic, but it is always controllable and correctable — even on the greasy, ice-laced roads around Gleneagles where we tried the cars. The trade-off is a ride which edges towards the jittery on more rippled surfaces and means that the overall fluency of, say, a 306 is ultimately lacking. In 1.4 guise, however, the Bravo/a has the beating of its immediate rivals. Free-revving and surprisingly torquey, the 12-valve 1370cc engine belies its 80bhp: it’s genuine fun to drive hard, to the extent that it puts both the 1.6 ‘Torque’ unit (with 24 more horses on tap) and the 1.8 in the shade.

The latter, the most powerful variant in this country for the time being, is a good performer by “warm hatch” standards. It grips prodigiously on fat Pirelli P4000 rubber and can be persuaded from 0-60mph in under the 10s mark. But you need to rev it hard to get the best out of its 113bhp engine, and it loses its finesse towards the top of the range. And the trim designation (HLX and ELX for Bravo and Brava respectively) hints at the absence of sporting pretension.

Make no mistake, however, these are two thoroughly likeable machines: trendsetters in the Punto mould. Important cars, too: Fiat UK’s Managing Director, John Blades, says he will be disappointed if first-year sales do not match the Tipo’s best annual performance (18,000). If flair and character are any criteria, it will be an injustice if they don’t. RJA

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