Launch report:

Fiat Sedici review

by Richard Yarrow (7 April 2006)

Saturday 22 April 2006. It's a date Fiat fans in Britain will be scribbling on their calendars and gathering to commemorate for years to come. Why? Because it marks the on-sale date of the firm's first-ever SUV. Called the Sedici (it's Italian for 16, which is 4x4 - geddit?), it's an indication of how the car market is developing.

A factoid for you: the European market share for vehicles with off-road ability has rocketed from 1.7% in 1992 to more than 6% now. Even Fiat, a company with no off-roading history - bar some military vehicles used by the home nation's army - is jumping on the "lifestyle SUV" bandwagon. The Sedici is Fiat's stab at getting a piece of the action.

The car is designed to provide refined road manners, an elevated driving position and decent off-road ability. It's on sale now with a 1.6-litre petrol engine, but I'm laying my advice out on the table right now. If you want a Sedici, ignore April. Flip the calendar over to July and make another note, because that's when the diesel goes on sale. It's the acclaimed 1.9-litre 120bhp MultiJet unit from the Stilo, Grande Punto and Multipla, and will be mated to a six-speed manual gearbox when it arrives.

But the key thing is that it has 206lb/ft of torque, and that's far more than the 107lb/ft that's in the 1.6. On the road the petrol unit has to be worked hard to get any kind of performance out of it. Not surprisingly, that makes it a noisy proposition. The 0-60mph time is 10.8 seconds and the top speed is 106mph.

Disappointingly, up not-very-steep hills I quickly have to drop down the five-speed gearbox to keep momentum going. The ride and steering are perfectly acceptable, there's definitely a feeling of being slightly higher than in a regular hatchback, and driving the Sedici is an uneventful experience. Interestingly, while Fiat only has 1500 cars to sell in the UK this year, it reckons the mix will be split equally between petrol and diesel.

Fiat also saya it believes the majority of buyers will be women, looking for something more stylish and practical than a hatchback but not the bulk of a compact SUV like the Honda CR-V or Nissan X-Trail. That means the chances of many Sedicis doing anything like off-roading is minimal, but the firm was eager to showcase just how competent the car is in the rough stuff.

There's no doubt it performs well. It's not going to scale Ben Nevis, but it's capable of handling uneven muddy gullies and reasonably steep gradients, either up or down. In every day use, the car runs in front-wheel drive mode, but flick a switch between the seats and it moves into 4WD auto, which puts power to the rear wheels when the car senses it's needed.

A further push of the button selects full-time 4WD, but the majority of owners will never use this feature. I suspect still more won't even remember they've got it from one snowy February night to the next 12 months later.

There's a good reason for the car's competence off-road; the Sedici is a joint venture with Suzuki, and its version, the SX4, has just been launched too (see launch review). The Japanese company, with a proud heritage of off-roading, has provided the technical wizardry while the Italians got Giugiaro to do the styling.

There is no basic 2WD-only model as offered by some competitors, no automatic option, and the car is available in two trim levels. The entry level is the 1.6 Dynamic at £12,495 with the flagship Eleganza at £13,495. Standard kit on both includes ABS with EBD, electric front windows, four airbags and air-con. Among the extras on the range-topper are 16" alloys, height-adjustable driver's seat and a multifunction steering wheel. The roof rails change from black to metallic grey, too.

At 4115mm long, the Sedici is 7cm smaller than the Stilo and according to the press pack has all the practicality and versatility demanded by the modern family. There's plenty of room for the driver and passenger, but rear space for knees and heads isn't great. And while the back seats tumble against the front ones, and there are plenty of storage bins, the interior lacks any kind of cleverness or individuality to mark it out from rivals.

The Sedici looks good, though the plastic scuff plates front and back - another extra you get with Eleganza - remind me a bit too much of the Rover Streetwise. It's certainly worthy of consideration if you don't want to put adults in the back too often, or if you're carting children about and can't face the bulk or expense of a larger SUV. But try the diesel before you buy.

335stars

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