DIFFICULT to fathom what Fiat Auto SA is trying to do with the Palio hatchback and Siena saloon. Having just given up manufacture of the bargain basement Uno model, the twins now represent the company’s entry-level range, and with the aid of a recent stylish facelift their appeal should be enhanced. But here we have the top of the line-up Siena 1,6 ELX four-door with less equipment than before, yet priced higher than any of its direct competitors. Quite how Fiat expects customers to be lured upwards into this “affordable” flagship is not obvious…

Especially as one the marketing actions taken to – presumably – keep costs down has been the deletion of ABS brakes. On paper, this appears to be a major backward step, but comparing our May 2003 test results of the pre-facelift ELX with the new car suggests that actual braking performance has, in reality, suffered little. The average stopping times for our 10-stop emergency braking routine are practically the same, and we had little difficulty in avoiding lock-up with the non-ABS system. So, in day-to-day terms not an utter retrograde step, but a backwards one nonetheless.

Which is a pity because, in most other respects, the freshened-up Siena has plenty of appeal. The restyled front and rear ends have given the car a more modern look, and it has a clean appearance thanks to an all-over paint scheme devoid of embellishment. In gunmetal grey, the test car actually looked quite posh…

Inside, once you acclimatise to the narrow cabin, the generally grey environment is a fairly comfortable place to be. Upholstery is a woven cloth in a chalk grey with contrasting checkerboard inserts. Initially, the seats press into the small of the back, but soon soften offering good support. The arcing fore/aft front seat runners help smaller people by placing them higher the farther forward they sit, but hinder taller occupants by raising them towards the headliner as the seat slides back. The rear seat offers reasonable legroom, but has no head restraints. The backrest is split and, unusually, folds then tips forward as one with the cushion to free up a useful 984 dm3 of utility space. The boot is also generous, offering 384 dm3 even with a full-size spare, and can be opened either with the key or by remote lever on the floor. Loading height is 730 mm.

For the driver, central locking is activated by turning the key in the door, the airbag-carrying threespoke steering wheel offers limited rake adjustment, there is a left-foot rest, but while all side windows have power operation, the exterior mirrors have to be adjusted manually. The key is required to unlock the fuel cap. The black facia, with a satin silver hangdown section, has a full set of instruments with Italianate red, white and green displays. Both front seat head restraints and seatbelts are height adjustable. The air-con has four fan speeds. A Blaupunkt San Remo radio/CD player with removable faceplate is supplied as standard.

Under the heavy bonnet lies the familiar, crackly-sounding Fiat 1,6- litre twin-cam engine with unchanged peak outputs of 74 kW at 5 500 r/min and 140 N.m of torque at 4 000. Oddly, though, performance was notably superior to that of the previous car, despite them tipping the scales at virtually the same weight. We lopped nearly a full second off the 0-100 km/h time, recording 10,46 seconds, with top speed the same at 189 km/h. Overtaking acceleration was also better all round. Fifth is set very close to third in the gearshift’s gate. CAR’s fuel index worked out slightly worse than previously at 9,84 litres/100 km.

The test car arrived with 14-inch alloys as before. Ride is cosseting, with suspension that has a lot of travel to soak up irregularities without bump-through. The power steering is a bit ponderous on turning, and fail-safe understeer sets in early accompanied (on the test car) by tyre squeal from the 175/65 Firestones. As an aside, we were puzzled by an almost continuous faint vibration felt through the rim of the steering wheel.

Test summary

Fiat is best known for its small cars, and although the Palio/Siena range was developed for emerging/ developing world markets, it qualifies strongly for a place in our relatively sophisticated arena. As flagship of the line-up, the Siena ELX should offer a degree of luxury for its price tag, which is pegged at the top of its niche, but it has been de-specced a little and consequently falls prey to a number of rivals. Essentially, it is a sensible family saloon, but no longer offering a lot of value for money, which to our thinking is an opportunity lost.