Had the Fiat Croma sported those slender wheelarch extensions that frequently signal a crossover, a more masculine-looking cross-hatch grille, a raised ride-height and the gratuitous application of the word ‘cross’ somewhere in its name, this story might have been a different one.
To complete the effect, it could also have come with a rarely-ordered four-wheel drive option, bigger alloys, extra plastic cladding and, perhaps, a pointless but symbolic compass in the dashboard. Then it could have been an urban crossover, Nissan Qashqai-style, advertised scudding across the city’s mean streets to shrug off all comers. Then it might, just, have sold better as a machine for family adventures (mostly dreamt of in the owner’s head) rather than the shocking-as-magnolia machine that it actually was.
Which you very likely might not remember at all. Or if you do remember a Croma, it will likely be the near-extinct hatchback sold here from the mid ‘80s (pictured below). That big Fiat was a close relative of the Saab 9000, Lancia Thema and Alfa Romeo 164, an executive quartet co-developed in a bid to give their makers half a chance of making some money from a segment that was increasingly the territory of a well-known trio of premium brands from Germany.
— Tim Pitt (@timpitt100) April 30, 2014
The so-called Tipo Quattro project kicked off in 1978, although it would take a lengthy and doubtless argument-filled six to nine years for all four models to finally appear. First to go on sale was the 9000 in May ’84, followed by the Lancia five months later. The Croma was launched in 1985, and the Alfa in 1987, almost a decade after Fiat Auto and Saab had signed the deal.
The big Fiat was not pitched quite as ambitiously as the other three, its hatchback underlining the functionality of a neatly nondescript Giorgetto Giugiaro style and a blackly busy dashboard. Still, its 2.0 litre twin cam provided plenty of rorty go – though rather less than you were hearing – the Fiat’s eager handling the pay-off for a ride as soothing as a pneumatic drill thumping beyond your bedroom window.
The Croma was almost as noisy, too, its structurally-challenged body producing an orchestra of twitters, creaks and squeaks that had you wondering if poltergeists had come along for the ride. Still, you could grab a moment of calm by stopping to slam its big hatchback shut, body-flex occasionally prompting the tailgate to pop its lock on B-roads.
Ordering the range-topping Croma i.e. Turbo allowed you to experience the torque-steer of its classier Type 4 stablemates for less cash, against a backing track of enthusiastically chafing cabin plastics. But it was undeniably quick, and well-kitted too.
And rare, this ultimate version of the Croma finding few takers. The less ambitious versions did better, and while never a big seller in Britain, Fiat nevertheless shifted 438,000 of these large Fiats during its 11-year career, most of them in Italy. The Croma also achieved a first with the production debut of the first direct-injection diesel engine in a passenger car, although this is little reason to remember it.
And so to the Comfort Wagon, which sounds like a euphemism for a portable toilet. But that was Fiat’s description of the new Croma, this version a mix of MPV and estate. This second-generation Croma arrived after a long nine-year pause, debuting in 2005.
Like the previous model it was fairly big, front-wheel drive and had a hatchback. It also shared its platform with other cars, in this case the Vauxhall Vectra and Saab 9-3, an extended version of their GM Epsilon platform yielding both the Croma and the Vauxhall Signum, this oddball another smash-hit success (sarcasm alert – Ed).
The Croma’s Ecotec petrol engines were also provided by General Motors Europe, Fiat financially tied to the US giant at the time. In product terms this collaboration produced a few benefits to both, though none as fat as the multi-million euro fee that Fiat’s wily boss Sergio Marchionne extracted from GM to allow them a divorce.
But for Fiat, there was no escaping the bad dream that was the Croma. Like the previous model it was styled by Giugiaro, and like the previous model it made you wonder where the great man’s talent had gone.
He would have a had a design brief to grapple with of course, and that was to produce something similar to the Honda Avancier, a tall estate that sat on an extra-long wheelbase, just like the Fiat that it mystifyingly inspired. The Avancier was a domestic market-only machine – wise choice – that sold badly, lasting only four years from its 1999 launch.
Besides echoing the Honda’s stellar sales career the Croma also shared its proportions, the same high-mounted gearlever and a slightly elevated driving position. Despite the emphasis on functionality the Fiat wasn’t especially versatile – its rear seats didn’t fold flat nor slide like they did in the Signum.
Still, the Croma was a pleasant enough device on motorways, easily housing four adults in enough quiet to allow them to muse on what Fiat was thinking of when it created this machine. It even handled decently well given its height, but bumps rippled at its occupants as emphatically as they had aboard the original Croma, if without the rattling accompaniment.
But if this big Fiat’s cabin plastics were clipped home more convincingly than two decades years earlier, they were short of the tactile quality expected from a 21st century car.
In fact, the Croma was short of quite a few things needed in a 21st century car, the most glaring of them the desirability that might have arrived had its makers read the market better. Instead, Fiat produced the wrong kind of crossover, which produced the wrong kind of sales, the Croma withdrawn from the UK just two years into its life and four years before its 2011 demise on mainland Europe.
This time there was a speedier replacement, Fiat rebadging the Dodge Journey crossover from the Chrysler stable that it had acquired. The Journey was pretty ordinary too – we got it only with Dodge badging – but at least it would have cost a whole heap less to develop into a Fiat.