A year ago, the Fiat Palio/Siena

- codenamed Project 178 - made its appearance on South African shores, and we

published a test of a mid-spec Palio 1,2 EL five-door in June 2000. Sadly, it

failed to win the full approval of our test team, and we concluded our report

with the comment that the entry-level ED version might have presented a better

picture of what Fiat's "world car" (for which read "designed

for emerging markets") was really all about. Now is the time to find

out.

On the face of it, Palio should be replacing the evergreen Uno, but such is

the ongoing demand for the "one" that the local company decided

to continue with it as the entry level Fiat, albeit only with the 1,1-litre

FIRE engine. (Power and torque outputs of the old 1400 Uno are similar to those

of the 1200 Palio.) The Punto replaced the Uno in major European markets, but

Fiat consider it to be too costly to build and update in countries with manufacturing

infrastructures biased towards manual labour, so the Palio was designed and

developed as an equivalent for less automated regions such as Brazil and South

Africa.

The downside of this approach is the Palio's lack of style and sophistication

(compared with the Punto), but on the plus side is the expectation that the

car will be rugged and straightforward to operate and maintain. Indications

are that this is the case.

Styling appreciation is a subjective emotion and the Palio's exterior

appearance falls into a straight like/dislike divide. The car's frontal

aspect is, well, distinctive. The bodysides carry mild fluting to avoid a slab-sided

look, but the rump is pert enough. Overall, it is different enough to be instantly

recognisable, so perhaps we should not chide the design team too much for a

lack of flair. ED represents the lowest spec level in the model's line-up,

and with it comes natural black front and rear bumpers - a practical if not

visually appealing feature - and silver-painted pressed steel road wheels with

small hubcaps but exposed wheel nuts.

Inside there is good and bad. The front half of the cabin is OK. Grey plastics,

a curvy facia and some jazzy upholstery add a cheerful air. Initially, we thought

the facia a step backwards from the Uno's parcel tray-style layout. But

nowadays it is folly to leave items exposed to prying eyes when a vehicle is

unattended, so the Palio's short facia-top tray with a shelf beneath

is fair enough. Long, shallow bins are provided in both front doors, and there

is a non-locking cubby.

From the front seats looking forward, the furnishings are acceptable. The fixed-position

three-spoke steering wheel is nice-enough to hold, but the rubbery gearknob

less so, especially in hot conditions. Instruments and controls are contained

in a black inlay: fuel gauge, speedo and temp gauge have clear white on black

markings (the white graphics glow green at night).

Rotary/slider switches control the ventilation system, which includes a three-speed

fan and an air recirculation mode, although the vents at the ends of the facia

adjust vertically only. There are pushbuttons for the heated backlight, rear

foglights and hazard warning. A column stalk looks after wiper/washer functions

(flick, fixed intermittent and two speeds) although only for the windscreen:

the tailgate has to make do without. Stalks also adjust the exterior rear-view

mirrors. The footwell is spacious, and includes a left-foot rest.

From midway to the rear of the cabin, trim is more spartan. We can live with

exposed painted metal, but the uncovered B- and C-pillars (and the inside of

the tailgate) look particularly low rent. Surely some fabric covering for these

areas could be budgeted for without breaking the bank? The glaring panels do

cheapen the interior's appearance.

Space utilisation is good. The front seats have limited, if just sufficient,

rearward travel, which leaves enough room in the back for a pair of adults.

Access to the rear is gained by releasing a handle in the backrest bolster that

causes the front seat to move forward, as is, in an eccentric "rise and

onwards" action. The doors are big and open wide; the size of the gap

to the back depends on how far back the seat was positioned to start with.

The rear seat has a one-piece backrest (with a painted metal back panel) that

tips onto the cushion before the whole assembly can be folded forwards to create

extra cargo space. There is minimal intrusion from the stylish tail-light clusters

and the shock towers, and 232 dm3 of hard luggage can be loaded over the 710

mm high bumper into the boot, which has a basic removable stiff cover. With

the rear seat folded forward, utility space measures an impressive 912 dm3.

The tailgate, which can be opened only with the key, rises to 1 875 mm, high

enough for most craniums to miss contact with the protruding latch.

Back to the basics. The rear side glass is fixed, there is a single courtesy

light on the windscreen header rail, the fuel filler is behind a flap but the

cap has to be unlocked with the key, a grab handle is provided only for the

front passenger, and the seatbelts have fixed mountings, but the front head

restraints are height adjustable. One notable plus: if you forget to switch

off the car's lights after a journey, removing the key automatically

does so, thus avoiding a flat battery.

The previous Palio EL we tested disappointed performance-wise, and with just

500 km showing on the odo we did not expect to achieve much better with the

three-door ED.

As it turned out, the ED was better off the mark than the five-door model -

at 14,07 seconds nearly five seconds quicker to 100 km/h, although less than

two seconds quicker over the standing kilometre. Yet top speed was two km/h

down, at 163. Overtaking acceleration figures showed a similar trend: more spritely

up to around 100 km/h, then it became less eager. Fuel consumption followed

the same pattern, with our fuel index (ie calculated overall figure) of 10,38

litres/100 km being fractionally worse, in fact, than the EL's. Roundabouts

and swings...

Winding up the willing 1,2-litre FIRE engine and extracting the most from its

53 kW and 102 N.m, the Palio actually covers ground quite competently. Despite

the obvious lack of padded trim to deaden sound, it is surprisingly quiet over

most surfaces. The firm suspension, in particular, soaks up the roughest of

B-roads without fuss or audible stress. Gearchanging is rubbery but precise,

and fourth gear is strong enough to haul the Palio over average inclines without

major loss of momentum. Steering effort is reasonably weighted and consistent,

with understeer the failsafe handling trait. The seats are not hard but do not

offer much in support, and taller people might find the seatbelt rubbing uncomfortably

on the neck.