GIVEN the spectacularly powerful grip that the Fiat 500 has on our imaginations and on our roads — and given how there are certain parts of southern England, in particular, where not owning one appears to be against the law — there are probably some people who will be surprised to discover that Fiat still bothers to build any other cars. It does, though, and here to prove it is a new Tipo.
If the name sounds familiar, it’s because a hatchback called the Tipo appeared in 1988. Having largely failed to distract a world transfixed by the Volkswagen Golf, however, it was replaced in 1995 by the combined forces of the Fiat Bravo and the Fiat Brava, an unhelpfully named double act that, a bit like Ant and Dec, people sometimes struggled to tell apart. Was the Bravo the funny one, and the Brava the straight one, or was it the other way around? Was the Brava the one with three doors, or was that the Bravo?
It ended up not mattering very much either way when both of them were swept aside in 2001 by the Fiat Stilo, which spent six years trying and narrowly failing to look like a VW Polo before Fiat gave up on attempting to produce a mass-market, low-end hatchback altogether and fell to dreaming up a comeback for the 500 instead.
The company is back at it, though, reviving the Tipo name, pinning a courageously low price tag to it (the entry-level model costs £12,995) and hoping to come between you and the purchase of a Kia Cee’d, a Nissan Pulsar, a Hyundai i30 or a Ford Focus or any one of a fairly thick catalogue of largely indistinguishable products in this segment.
The car is built on the platform that yields the 500L, the inflated version of the city car, and if you can catch a savoury whiff of old-school Italian engineering here, you’ll be doing well because it’s built in Turkey.
Also, frankly, it looks pretty German. There’s a brooding lower lip, some chrome flashing and a fetchingly styled grille below its sculpted bonnet, in which you might just about be able to make out the strains of something more Mediterranean, but the overall shape seems designed to exude the capable pragmatism that makes VW products in this area so dominant.
“If you can catch a savoury whiff of old-school Italian engineering here, you’ll be doing well because it’s built in Turkey. Also, frankly, it looks pretty German”
That said, it goes to a lot of trouble not to betray its own cheapness. Here are properly weighty doors, opened using properly chunky, silvered door handles which, if anything, are so determined to convince you of the serious and well-funded craftsmanship that underpins them that they become slightly stiff and uncomfortable to operate.
Inside, low-grade plastics and low-grade fabrics make a valiant attempt to seem less so, and almost succeed. And on the one hand, the generous provision of a DAB radio means you need never be without BBC 6 Music as you travel.
But on the other hand, you can’t do any better than a squinty 5in info screen, which these days feels like a portable television in a world of wall-hung plasma, and which, as a sat-nav provider, is like trying to read the map on someone else’s phone from the other side of the room.
Ours had a somewhat wrist-intensive six-speed gearbox and a 1.6-litre diesel engine, which lifted the car effortlessly to cruising speed on the A12, albeit amid quantities of clatter and road thrum that were so retro, they almost induced nostalgia for the Tipo of the 1980s.
The steering was also pretty muzzy, although, at these prices, the fact that the car comes with a steering wheel at all, let alone a rather nice, soft-touch one, ought probably to be a cause for humbled gratitude.
For all the clever budgetary shortcuts, though, and the fact that it’s a pleasant enough place to spend some time, the car does have that slight air of automotive wallpaper about it. We’re not saying the Tipo is completely unmemorable, but we did find, in the course of a few days spent in its company, and while running a few everyday errands in it, that having parked it in the car-lined side streets of south London, we were slightly struggling to relocate it as little as 90 minutes later. Maybe you could keep a reference image on your phone for emergencies such as these.
In fairness, though, we always did find it. Eventually. And we were always relieved to realise that we hadn’t lost it. Which has got to be some kind of a good sign, hasn’t it?