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Fiat Stilo 3 door - fun and characterful. Image by Mark Sims.

Fiat Stilo 3 door - fun and characterful
Yellow cars make me smile. I remember as a young 'un arguing with fellow engineering students that Ferraris should in fact be yellow, not red as the rest of the world seems to think. The colour red is often associated with Italian sports cars, but let's face it, those cars don't need a paint job to stand out in the crowd. Back in the real world though, red does nothing for me. Yellow however, really says, "hey, look at me", and for that reason alone, I smile broadly when I see the Stilo 3-door for the first time.

   



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Yellow cars make me smile. I remember as a young 'un arguing with fellow engineering students that Ferraris should in fact be yellow, not red as the rest of the world seems to think. The colour red is often associated with Italian sports cars, but let's face it, those cars don't need a paint job to stand out in the crowd. Back in the real world though, red does nothing for me. Yellow however, really says, "hey, look at me", and for that reason alone, I smile broadly when I see the Stilo 3-door for the first time.

I am already a fan of the Stilo's styling before I spend a few days with our test car. The three-door version is particularly well sculpted, with a welcome bias towards sportiness. The car is identical to the five-door from the front bumper to the A-pillars, where the bluff front end attempts to add some Germanic solidity to the Italian flair. Look closely and you will see complex detailing in the headlights, and cohesive design from the grille and bonnet to the (almost) F1-style door mirrors. From there, the 3-door car has longer doors and a rakish C-pillar shape. The cars 'shoulders' are more pronounced as well, and finish in a flourish at the pretty rear lights and pert hatch, which is adorned by a subtle spoiler. I was quite surprised at how many double takes this car produces, though I personally would want sexier alloys than those fitted. They are stylish, and quite Italian, but not really sporty. I guess Fiat did not want to step on the toes of the Abarth version.

Inside the Stilo, I'm afraid style rises above substance. It must have looked great on the designer's computer screen. The layout works well, and the seats are wonderfully supportive, but the execution is not up to scratch, and pictures don't show that. Sit in a car in a dealership though and you will begin to appreciate what I am trying to convey. The controls are all rubbery. I am all for soft-touch knobs and buttons, but the Stilo is more Sinclair Spectrum than Bang & Olufsen when it comes to tactility, which is a real pity. Having driven a number of Alfa Romeo 147s (the Stilo's upmarket brother), I'd say that the Stilo feels like a cheaper version of that car. At 12,700, the 1.8-litre 16v Dynamic version shown here is indeed over 1,000 cheaper than the entry-level Alfa 147 (itself only a 1.6-litre). So apparently you pay for what you get.

Not that a Stilo buyer will feel cheated. There are a few interior details, which did not quite work for me, such as the position of the central armrest. I managed to crack my elbow on it when it was raised, yet it was not comfortable to change gear with it lowered. Maybe I'm an odd shape but I've not found this problem in many cars! I also developed a particular distaste for the interior door handles - they are made from a nasty material and stick out as if they don't fit the car properly. But these items are quickly forgotten on a favourite twisting road, where we found the Stilo to excel. Testing new cars one after the other can too easily influence one's opinion of a car, as it is too easy to take it as relative to the last. I was driving an MG ZT before the Stilo, and the latter initially felt soft in comparison. Day two proved more fruitful though as I acclimatised to the dynamics of the Stilo.

What I had mistaken for sponginess is in fact suppleness, of the sort normally associated with French cars. My daily drive includes 20-30 miles of undulating B-road, and the Stilo attacks it with aplomb. The chassis is actually very capable. In the right gear it pushes you out of tight bends nicely, though the gearchange from 2nd to 3rd ruins this slightly - it is too vague. Grip is very high, even in damp conditions. In sharp corners it does not really understeer. It is very neutral and by using the throttle or left foot braking the rear can be moved around at will. I soon had the traction control turned off though as it is a little too intrusive, even in semi-damp conditions. High-speed corners are a joy too. The Stilo just grips without any fuss, but crucially, it is thoroughly good fun. This is helped by a quicker steering rack than the rest of the range (shared with the Abarth).

Some components are not quite up to hard driving though. The brakes, though powerful, fade when subjected to the rigours of left foot braking. Fiat boasts about having a "Drive by Wire" throttle, meaning the engine's computer decides if it is going to open the throttle when the driver asks for it. In theory this should be an ideal set-up, but it detracts from the driving experience in the case of the Stilo (other cars we have driven are not affected by this), and together with emissions regulations, saps the throttle of good old-fashioned response. This reduces your desire to bother trying to heel and toe. If the throttle and gearchange were improved, and the brakes didn't fade a little then this car could be taken seriously as a driver's car, which actually comes as a surprise. Perhaps the Abarth version gets closer, but so it should for 3,500 more.

I'm surprised I've not mentioned the engine as yet. The four-cylinder is a perfectly likeable unit, with its adequate torque spread wide. Like most Italian engines, it has verve and character, though it has been stifled somewhat by emissions legislation, which may explain the lower than expected claimed figures of 125 bhp and 133 lb.ft of torque. The diesel version may well be a better choice, at only 500 more to buy. It has more torque than even the 2.4-litre Abarth, but the engine will undoubtedly weigh more than the petrol unit. Horses for courses really.

Which brings me to wonder who will buy this particular version of the Stilo. Ford's Focus 1.8i 16v is a similar price, but is less powerful and certainly less sporty. 13,000 is not a lot of money to spend on a sporty car, which is also practical. No VW Golf comes close. Indeed, the only real rival is the Alfa 147, though as discussed, it is a tad pricier. Nor does it come in yellow...

Shane O' Donoghue - 17 Dec 2003



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2003 Fiat Stilo specifications: (3 door 1.8 16v Dynamic)
Price: 12,700
0-62mph: 9.9 seconds
Top speed: 125mph
Combined economy: 35.3mpg
Emissions: 190g/km
Kerb weight: 1150kg

2003 Fiat Stilo 3-door. Image by Mark Sims.2003 Fiat Stilo 3-door. Image by Mark Sims.2003 Fiat Stilo 3-door. Image by Mark Sims.2003 Fiat Stilo 3-door. Image by Mark Sims.2003 Fiat Stilo 3-door. Image by Mark Sims.

2003 Fiat Stilo 3-door. Image by Mark Sims.2003 Fiat Stilo 3-door. Image by Mark Sims.2003 Fiat Stilo 3-door. Image by Mark Sims.2003 Fiat Stilo 3-door. Image by Mark Sims.2003 Fiat Stilo 3-door. Image by Mark Sims.



2003 Fiat Stilo 3-door. Image by Mark Sims.
 

2003 Fiat Stilo 3-door. Image by Mark Sims.
 

2003 Fiat Stilo 3-door. Image by Mark Sims.
 

2003 Fiat Stilo 3-door. Image by Mark Sims.
 

2003 Fiat Stilo 3-door. Image by Mark Sims.
 

2003 Fiat Stilo 3-door. Image by Mark Sims.
 

2003 Fiat Stilo 3-door. Image by Mark Sims.
 

2003 Fiat Stilo 3-door. Image by Mark Sims.
 

2003 Fiat Stilo 3-door. Image by Mark Sims.
 






 

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