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Can Petra turn around Fiat?

Bijoy Kumar Y | August 07, 2004

Deep inside Fiat's Kurla plant, I got a glimpse of the Italian car maker's immediate future. No, not necessarily that of Fiat India, but Fiat worldwide, to be more precise.

Nestled comfortably in one corner of the factory was a Fiat Multipla. Not the frog-eyed classic, but the latest version of the versatile MUV, which along with the new Panda, is taking Fiat to greener pastures in Europe and other parts of the world.

Make no mistake, Fiat is bouncing back. I do realise that this statement is difficult to digest if you live in India. When was the last time someone whom you actually knew bought a brand new Fiat?

That must have been two years back when the Kurla plant was churning out 200 cars a day (no, it is not a mistake, they even had a small function to celebrate that). That was when Palios arrived at showrooms.

That was when magazines were vying with each other to crown it Car Of The Year. That was when Sachin Tendulkar was in terrific form. Now do me a favour, do pick up the phone and call one of them to ask about their car. They will tell you that the car is all right but the service was pathetic or may even crib about the fate of Fiat in Europe.

Hold on a minute. You can't blame them though, the real culprit may be the media that loves a disaster story and Fiat's attempts to bounce back have not really got as much media attention in India. For example: '50 die in heavy downpour' is a story the same way 'people enjoyed life on a sunny day' is not, right? So here I am, telling you Fiat cannot be written off all that easily.

However the pace at the Kurla factory is not too different from the form exhibited by Tendulkar in the Asia Cup final... too slow for comfort and giving you a sinking feeling that they will never reach their target. Hope, though, comes in the form of a diesel-powered three-box entrant -- the Petra, nee Fiat Siena (Shh! Fiat does not like that tag at all) with a 1900cc diesel motor first seen in the Palio a while ago.

It makes sense too, since diesel cars are doing quite well these days. Obviously, Fiat cannot compete with the locally bred Tata Indigo thanks to heavy import content (the powertrain is not localised yet), so they are eyeing the direct injection wonder from the Hyundai stable, the Accent CRDi, for the time being. At Rs 6,08,566 (ex-showroom, Bangalore) the Petra diesel poses terrific value as against the Accent CRDi and comes loaded with alloy-wheels, power everything and a six-speaker music system.

But if you live in Delhi or Mumbai, you may have to wait, because Fiat is launching the Petra in a phased manner with the south getting all the cars the factory can churn out at present.

Hectic phone calls to Fiat's PR man who was busy with the Petra diesel launches in Bangalore and Kochi ensured a test car for us. Read on for an exclusive first drive.

Unfortunately, the new face of the Palio range which is doing the rounds in markets such as Brazil has not reached us with the Petra. That means, er... the Petra looks rather familiar. It still looks rather contemporary, though it can't hide the fact that it was derived out of a hatchback.

Inside, the fare is bright if not sophisticated. The virtues of the A178 range of Fiat cars, such as deep-dish seating that liberates lots of space and textbook ergonomics continue. Quality of plastic bits has improved and the car feels quite well put together.

The engine cranks to life with the clatter associated with indirect injection diesels but to be fair to the 1900cc unit, it is not all that bad -- even when the engine was just woken up.

There is no rocket science that goes into this single overhead cam eight-valve unit, which develops a modest 63 bhp at 4500 rpm and 12.2 kgm of turning force at 2500 rpm. But Fiat would proudly tell you that when you tap that accelerator pedal you are actually using drive-by-wire tech perfected by aircraft engineers.

The engine won't win any sprint events at Athens, but is no slouch either -- we are yet to subject the car to a proper road test but I get this feeling that it will return a 13-14 second figure for a 100 kph run. Unlike the turbocharged diesel units, this naturally aspirated engine has low speed driveability to its credit -- something you will seriously appreciate in stop-go traffic.

On the highway, the Petra is a relaxed cruiser that can notch up kilometres at a steady 90 kph -- push it though, and you will get to see 140 kph. We expect the diesel motor to return 14-15 kpl on a regular basis and 17-19 kpl on highways.

Another good reason you should seriously consider the Petra is for the ride quality on offer. We drove the test car over some terrible roads and the Petra reconfirmed our faith in the tried and trusted suspension gear of the A178 platform.

If you have serious back and neck problems and can't afford a Mercedes-Benz, please call your Fiat dealer. Really. Handling is no great shakes though and the Petra behaves like a hatch with boot.

Nothing to worry about as long as speeds are kept below the three-figure mark this being a diesel, that is the easy bit to do.

So in short, a decent diesel car that rides well for a good price. It is way better than the cheaper Indigo and way cheaper than the advanced Accent CRDi.

Got that? Will it turn the tide for Fiat in India? Well, that looks quite uncertain. But with the advent of Multiplas and Pandas in the showroom, things might change for the good. Alright, go ahead, call me an optimist.


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Sub: Fiat India a long way to go

Dear Friends, Its true that Fiat is a brilliant car but one should not forget that despite large number of complinats and letters to the ...


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