08/07/2009 06:10 | By Richard Aucock

On test: Fiat Stilo 1.4 active review (2001-2007)

Fiat Stilo 2004


Bodystyle:3dr hatchbackEngine:1.4-litre 4-cylinderFuel type:PetrolTransmission:6-speed manualDate of test:May 2004

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What is it?

The Stilo is Fiat's family hatchback model. It comes in three very distinct offerings - sleek three-door hatch, more practical five-door hatch, plus a 'Multi Wagon' estate. The most desirable variant is that three-door, so we've tested it here, in 1.4-litre guise. This engine replaces the 1.2-litre variant that, although powerful enough if worked hard, lacked the 'pull' for relaxing everyday motoring. It was also perceived as 'underpowered' against (ironically less-powerful) 1.4-litre rivals. Fiat's responded by designing a new engine, which has already been seen in the Punto and Idea compact MPV.

Where does it fit?

So keenly-prices is the 1.4-litre 'Active' three-door Stilo, it finds itself competing with similarly-engined three-door superminis; family hatches from rival makers are at least £1,000 more. Size-wise, it's an almost perfect facsimile of a Ford Focus, Peugeot 307, Renault Megane or VW Golf, which must be considered key rivals. But then, so inexpensive is the Fiat, it's also a rival for budget brands such as the five-door Daewoo Lacetti and Kia Cerato.

Is it for you?

If you're looking for a bargain, the Stilo is certainly for you. It's still a relatively fresh car from a major manufacturer, which is packed with technology and instils a real sense of occasion - yet undercuts almost every major rival. And if you're a style bod, the Stilo should again be your first port of call. Unlike the frumpy five-door, the three-door model is genuinely attractive. Its bold lines wouldn't look out of place on a sports car, and it really does turn heads. Quite something for a bargain-priced entry-level model.

What does it do well?

The 1.4-litre engine is a vast improvement - other than the great JTD diesel, it's probably the most satisfying Stilo unit. Well insulated during everyday running, higher revs emit an appealing, sporty growl, and there's a good spread of power right round the rev range. It's not ultra-rapid but quick enough, and rewarding to use. The gearchange is light too (six speeds, to keep it on the boil) and throttle response is sharp. There's a well-built interior that's genuinely luxurious in parts (such as the rubberised dash top) and good-looking, while firm seats are supportive. Steering is very alert and quick, ride quality good on scarred roads and handling, while there's some body roll, is accurate. This is an entertaining car to drive.

What doesn't it do well?

The driving position irritates. Pedals are too close to the driver, forcing an awkward stance behind the wheel, and what's worse, it's easy to literally get feet stuck beneath the dash. Not what you want when moving from throttle to brake. Coupled with a brake pedal that does nothing in its first half-inch of travel, then proves tiresomely sharp and grabby, driving the Stilo can genuinely be fraught if you've big feet, until you get used to it. Rear space is a bit tight, some may find the steering too alert and ride quality, oddly, can seem unsettled on smoother roads - it's great with big bumps, but the smaller stuff seems to irritate it. And overall refinement lacks the hush of more expensive competitors, while handling isn't as interactive as a Focus.

What's it like to live with?

Reliability issues clouded the first batch of Stilos in this country, but Fiat seems confident they're cured. Many wee electrical-related, but at least there's now a three-year warranty that should cover them all. Mechanically, it's extremely tough, while galvanised body panels should ensure a long life. Otherwise, the extremely high stock of standard equipment, fantastic stereo, low insurance and very impressive fuel economy (43mpg combined) will provide long-term satisfaction. At least until you have to visit a Fiat dealer. Surveys usually rank them among the worst in the country.

Would we buy it?

The Stilo is such a bargain, and such a fizzy, pleasing car to drive, we find it hard to contain our enthusiasm. The only issues which really temper it concern reliability and retained values. There are numerous reports of electrical niggles with Stilos, and even though the three-year warranty should cover them all, it would still be on our minds. Depreciation could also be rather steep in future years, not helped by Fiat dealers' instance on slashing the prices of brand-new models. But then, this makes it even more of a steal if you're buying new. So otherwise, as long as you get used to the pedals, it's a fun and rewarding car at a great price. Which, on balance, we probably would buy.

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