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Entering a cutthroat segment in which it hasn’t competed since the Bravo, Fiat is hedging its bets on the new Tipo...

Golf, Astra, Focus, Mazda3, Mégane, Auris, 308, Civic, i30, Cerato… The C-segment isn’t exactly devoid of talent, is it? To varying degrees, each of these competitors offers something unique to buyers for whom a balance of sophistication, space, comfort, performance, frugality and quality, all at a palatable price, are paramount.

But they’re under pressure from the proliferation of faddish light and compact crossovers and SUVs. Sales of C-segment hatches have taken a knock and, with a spread of excellent cars vying for a dwindling slice of pie, elevating themselves above their peers is the only way to survive. Therefore, like any newcomer, the freshly added Tipo faces an uphill battle.

Aside from those pesky crossovers, not only is the Fiat badge an unfamiliar one in this segment of the market – the long-since-discontinued Bravo, despite being a stylish offering equipped with strong 1,4-litre T-Jet turbopetrol engines, never really found much traction with buyers – but the local affiliate has decided to launch the hatchback range with naturally aspirated engines in a market that’s embraced forced induction to great effect.

Here we’re testing the 1,4 Lounge, which sits at the pinnacle of the five-door range in terms of specification, but not price; costing R5 000 more, the 1,6 Easy Auto boasts 11 kW extra, coupled with a six-speed torque-converter automatic, but sacrifices some equipment. Curiously, Fiat offers its excellent 1,3-litre MultiJet II turbo-diesel, developing 70 kW and 200 N.m from 1 500 r/min, only in the sedan range (which, in turn, doesn’t have a 1,4 Lounge).

Unveiled at the 2015 Istanbul Motor Show and built on Fiat’s Small Wide LWB platform (co-developed with General Motors) that, in adapted form, underpins the 500L and X, as well as the Jeep Renegade, the Tipo bears little relation to the original Tipo launched in 1988. Penned by the Fiat Style Centre in Italy around the official brief of “Skills, no frills”, the new Tipo features a understated, neat design lifted here by Mediterraneo Blue paint with chrome-trimmed door handles, and by this flagship Lounge model’s 17-inch alloy wheels wrapped in chunky 225/45 R17 Continental tyres.

Those handles open doors that have a satisfying heft and leave big gaps for easy ingress, even to the rear bench. Drop into the enveloping front seats, trimmed in stylish dark-grey fabric, and the impression remains positive. The seating position is widely adjustable (though we’d like a smidgen more vertical range on the driver’s chair to leave more clearance under the roof lining; the front passenger, meanwhile, will have to make do with the fixed height of their chair), the multifunction steering wheel feels pleasingly chunky and the slush-moulded dashboard top stands up to the finger-prod test.

According to our measurements, the Tipo is one of the more spacious vehicles in this class – as you’d rightly expect, given it’s one of the largest – and rear legroom bests efforts by the Volkswagen Golf and Renault Mégane, although not quite the commodious Opel Astra. Headroom, however, is less impressive but, thanks to a scalloped ceiling, it’s sufficient for adults of 1,8 metres and shorter to get comfortable.

Storage space is well thought out, especially the deep cubby in front of the gearlever that’s perfectly placed for plugged-in smartphones. Likewise, the neatly trimmed boot is one of the larger cavities in the C-segment, offering 288 litres with the 60:40-split rear seatbacks in place. That’s a whole 72 litres more than the Golf can muster.

Where the Tipo can’t match the Volkswagen, however, is in perceived fit and finish. Solidly constructed it may be, but the Fiat’s cabin sits at the bottom end of this segment in terms of the quality of its interior trimmings; the door cards feel especially bargain basement. Where Fiat has priced the Tipo lower in international markets and trim problems can be ignored, locally it’s on a level footing cost-wise with its main rivals; therefore, plastics which belong in the B-segment don’t help the Tipo’s cause.

The specification on this Lounge model is also a mixed bag. Where it boasts such standout items as satellite navigation, climate control and a reverse camera as standard, it lacks auto lights and wipers, lumbar adjustment, rear air vents and airbags beyond the two front ones catering to the driver and passenger. The UConnect infotainment system, although fairly simple to use, operates through a small five-inch touchscreen that’s rendered inoperable in direct bright light. USB, Bluetooth and aux-in functionalities are standard, and sound quality through the system’s six speakers is good.

Fiat’s 1,4-litre Fire engine is a familiar one, having performed service in a number of the brand’s products since 2005. It sends power to the front wheels through a slick-shifting six speed manual gearbox … what little there is, at least. Despite having to lug 1 245 kg (the more well-endowed Golf 1,0 TSI we tested last month made our scales groan less), the powertrain develops just 70 kW at 6 000 r/min and a weedy 127 N.m at 4 500 r/min.

Initially, though, the Fire engine doesn’t feel overwhelmed by the Tipo’s girth; stop-start driving in dense traffic sees the powertrain pick up speed smoothly. However, that impression doesn’t last. Venture onto a highway and the Tipo 1,4 quickly runs out of puff. Keep in mind we test vehicles at the coast; reef altitudes generally drain an engine of 15-20% of its power; we’d venture a guess the Tipo will have very little oomph in reserve for overtaking in, say, Johannesburg.

Not to harp on about the Golf – although it is a direct competitor to the Tipo and our 2017 Top 12 Best Buys compact hatchback champion – but that 1,0 TSI hit 100 km/h from standstill in 10,23 seconds versus the Fiat’s 13,86; accelerated from 80-120 km/h in fourth gear a whopping 7,29 seconds quicker; and needed 22,57 seconds less to complete the same discipline in top gear. The German also used 1,1 litres less unleaded on our standardised 100 km fuel route. Does any doubt remain about the merits of downsized and turbocharged petrol engines?

The Tipo does manage to win back some favour in terms of dynamics. Utterly vice-free in the manner in which it trundles down the road, the long wheelbase suspended with MacPherson struts at the front and a torsion beam aft sees the Fiat resist roll well while damping away most surface scars. It also steers fluently – the City function, which lightens the steering further, is superfluous considering the relative lack of weighting – and posted an excellent average time of 2,95 seconds after 10 emergency braking procedures. Only a curiously large amount of road noise kicked up by the rear tyres affect the impression of rolling refinement; the engine is one of the better-sounding four-cylinders.

TEST SUMMARY

Simply put, the Tipo 1,4 Lounge falls short of other C-segment vehicles at this price point. Aside from the inadequate engine, its spec does not warrant flagship status - a Renault Megane 1,6 Dynamique, for example, offers sat-nav, too, but adds auto lights and wipers, a cabin full of airbags and a better service plan - and the interior's perceived quality lags behind every one of those rivals we mentioned at the top of this test (not to mention it's the least powerful one, too).

If you're sold on the Tipo's left-field approach and design, we'd suggest opting for either the R20 000 cheaper 1,4 Easy, or the 1,3 Easy Sedan at R274 900. Our money, however, would go to any number of its competitors.

*From the August 2017 issue of CAR magazine

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