Fiat India launched the Palio Adventure Sport recently. Propelled by a 1.6-litre, 16-valve, l00bhp petrol engine, the Adventure Sport is a front-wheel drive car that seeks to bridge the gap between an estate and a sports utility vehicle. Exaggerated as it may sound, the Adventure Sport is actually the Palio Weekend flaunting non-scratch, matt-black wrap around plastic that is usually reserved for SUVs. While this gives the Adventure Sport a muscular look combined by the higher ground clearance, courtesy the chunky high-profile tyres, adding to the image of the vehicle are pronounced wheel arches, a tough looking running board, double ski-racks, a bull-bar and a pair of ellipsoidal auxiliary lights.
The tough yet elegant outer appearance is reflected by the doors, which shut with a definite "clasp" that conveys nothing short of a tough feel. Tough indeed, the Adventure Sport shares its tough build with the Petra sedan and the Palio hatchback, which are also part of the 178 World Car platform instituted by Fiat for emerging markets. The tough build may tend to make the Adventure Sport, Petra and the Palio over-weight, especially when one compares the kerb weight of 178 cars with that of their competitors. The outcome however often translates into the 178 cars tackling the Indian outback with great confidence. Very few cars come to generate the kind of confidence the cars belonging to the 178 World Car platform do.
In terms of technology, the tough feel translates into reinforced body with its programmed deformation and lateral, anti-intrusion bars in the doors, which have successfully passed the most stringent crash tests. The Indian versions, especially the face lifted ones, come with higher ground clearance compared to their counterparts available in Europe and other markets. The plastics and overall construction of the interior also convey a tough feel. Not the most inspiring looking of the lot (given the fact that the Palio platform came to life in the mid-90s), the interior nonetheless conveys a roomy feel. The front seats, supplied by Johnson Controls and Vijay Jyot, are equipped with height adjustable headrests and are of the anti-submarine variety. A built-in crossbar prevents the passenger from sliding forward in the event of a collision. The energy absorbing steering wheel is mounted on a collapsible column.
In terms of roominess, the Adventure Sport tops the list, flaunt as it does a longer wheelbase than the Petra and the Palio hatchback. At 2423mm, the Adventure Sports wheelbase is longer than the 2373mm wheelbase of the Palio and Petra, which are available with the 1.9-litre, 63bhp, in-direct injection diesel engine, 1.6-litre, l00bhp petrol engine and the 1242cc, 75bhp, "FIRE" petrol engine. The term "FIRE" stands for fully integrated robotized engine and is used to describe the FIRE engines, which were developed to be fairly simple and straight-forward designs to be built by robots in robotized assembly plants "Robogate" to reduce costs.
In 2003, Fiat India launched the Palio NV. The car came in new colours, a re-calibrated tacho, improved air-conditioning and a re-positioned catalytic converter to improve fuel efficiency. The higher spec models of the Palio diesel and Adventure (petrol and diesel) come with technological upgrades like airbags, ABS and EBD. Standard equipment includes the FPS (fire prevention system) with an inertial interrupter and a double valve to prevent fuel leakage.
While the Adventure Sport is available with the 1.6 litre, l00bhp petrol engine, there is a diesel version of the Adventure, which is powered by a 1.9-litre, naturally aspirated in-direct injection diesel motor. Locally assembled according to the sources close to the company, the diesel Palio and Petra share the same engine. If sharing of the platform, engines and the rugged construction spells rationalization, the same extends to other areas like ride and handling. Almost all the 178 World Car platform cars strike a good ride and handling (the Sport versions may lean a little towards handling) balance. Irrespective of whether they are equipped with the 1.6-petrol, 1.2- petrol or 1.9-litre diesel engine, it is the ride and handling balance of the 178 World Car platform cars that has got them many cheers. The higher ground clearance of the Adventure Sport, courtesy the 15-inch Pirelli tyres fitted on imported alloys, better prepares it to tackle the Indian back-drop, steep road shoulders and rough trails.
Most attractive part of the Adventure Sport deal is its highly competitive price tag of Rs 5.58 lakhs, ex-showroom Mumbai. Apart from the merit, it is the aggressive pricing of the Adventure Sport that puts it in a good stead to be yet another ray of hope for a company that has seen its sales dwindle in spite of a good brand recognition. It was actually this brand recognition, which put Fiat in a good stead when it decided to enter the Indian market, once again, in 1997 in collaboration with Premier Automobiles Ltd. The move led Fiat to modify the brown field site at Kuria, which was manufacturing the Fiat 1100 under the Premier Padmini brand name. As Fiat continues to build the 178 World Car models at Kuria, the situation of the company is more or less nailed home by Dr Paolo Castagna, the newly appointed managing director of Fiat India.
On the eve of the Adventure Sports launch, Dr Castagna said, "We understand the issues Fiat has faced in the Indian market. Our focus is clear and we are here to stay. We have recognised the various road blocks and understand the need to create the required consumer confidence making Fiat the most preferred choice". Castagna added, "One key change will be improving after sales service and dealer network as per Fiats international standards." The most surprising part of his speech was the mention of Panda and Idea - "The clinic test we have concluded for the Panda and Idea has received positive results. The task at hand is to ensure we create a product with the required technical specifications and perfect pricing structure."
The Panda and Idea may make an ideal choice for the Indian market but only if Fiat can get its act right. The 178 World Car project platform, of which the Adventure Sport is the newest extension, has already started to look dated and especially when one considers the second- generation Palio, which is already on sale in Fiats Latin American markets. In Brazil, the second generation Palio won the "Car of the Year 2004" against stiff competition. South Africa is the second market to get the "second generation" 178 World Car platform models and has been a good market for Fiat. Ready for the second generation 178 World Car project models (Palio II and Siena II), managing director of Fiats South African operations, Giorgio Gorelli, says, "The new Palio II and new Siena II compete with the latest in style, reliability and value. With these new models, we have a more extensive product range that continues the emotional positioning of the brand." Production of the new Palio II and new Siena II is already under-way at the Fiat South Africas Rosslyn plant, offering a convincing challenger specifically designed to suit local conditions. "It is a car made in Africa for Africa," Gorelli says.
In India, however, the 2001-model line-up continues and the reason for this may lie in Dr Castagnas comments, if not shed light on the poor sales and the near demise of the Uno, which was once looked upon as the most eligible option to the Maruti 800. In June 2005, according to industry sources, the Palio sold a dismal 200-plus units compared to B-segment cars like the Indica, which managed 8700 units.
While sales of the 178 models continue to be lacklustre in India, Fiat Auto SpA of Italy has decided to up its equity stake in the Indian operations to 44.61 per cent from its current level of 19.44 per cent. This will come in the form of an investment worth over Rs 200 crores. "The investment", according to industry sources, "is reflective of the parent companys commitment to the Indian market." The Rs 200 crores investment is expected to work as a healing agent for an operation that has been making a huge loss and has seen investments to the tune of Rs 2200 crores in India, when it was incepted in 1998 towards building its capacity and increasing infrastructure capabilities. Commenting on the decision, Castagna stated: "This decision from Fiat Auto SpA once again demonstrates its commitment to the Indian operations." Post infusion of the latest investment, according to Castagna, Fiat India Private Limited will be fully capitalized with Fiat Auto SpA along with Fiat India Automobiles Pvt Ltd. Together they will be holding a total of 99.83 per cent, while the stake of Premier Automobiles Limited will be diluted to 0.17 per cent.