The new Idea family hold-all model will be pitched to under-price the Meriva – produced by Opel and Vauxhall – vying for pole position in the new class for compact multi-purpose vehicles.
General Motors, Vauxhall's parent company, owns a 20% stake in Fiat, while Fiat owns 5% of GM.
Even though the Idea is still four months away from UK showrooms, marketing strategy for the car has already reached an advanced stage at Fiat UK, according to fleet operations manager Tony Dittli.
As the all-purpose Idea was being launched to the media in Italy, he said: 'Our hope is to undercut the lead-in Vauxhall Meriva 1.6 petrol by a substantial amount.
'But money is not the only issue here. Customers for the petrol-powered Idea will have the benefit of higher power and lower emissions than the Vauxhall. And as we will also be offering the Idea with our new Multijet diesel engine, we believe this is a car with tremendous possibilities.'
Though he regards the emerging segment as an unknown quantity, Dittli believes Fiat's supermini-based compact MPV will prove to be an attractive proposition to user-choosers such as estate agents and driving schools.
He is also convinced that the car's attractive styling will make it a viable alternative in the public sector, where the Punto, on which it is based, has been a major success. Dittli added: 'The Punto regularly accounts for 20,000 annual fleet sales and it was the UK's 10th best-selling fleet model in September.
'Of course, we have to accept that the Idea may steal some Punto registrations, but we feel it will help us market 32% of our total B-sector volume to fleets next year.'
Fiat will be targeting specific business users in the months leading up to the launch of the car.
'Our campaign gets under way at the end of this month when we take 25 key fleet industry executives to a preview and driving exercise in Italy,' said Dittli. 'We have decided this will be the format for each new model we launch in future because it is important that everyone has a better understanding of our products and plans for development in the market.
'We also want to give them sufficient time to work on residual values.'
Developed at a cost of £300 million, Idea will be built at the rate of 100,000 units annually when output reaches full speed on the Punto production line at Mirafiori towards the end of the year.
When it is launched on the domestic market in January, prices will start from about £9,600 and the 1.3-litre Multijet will sell for approximately £10,600.
Fiat UK plans to sell 8,000 examples next year. Badged Active, Dynamic and Eleganza, the cars will come with either 1.4-litre petrol or 1.3-litre Multijet turbodiesel engines and a five-speed transmission operated either manually or by Dualogic, an automated manual system.
All will have anti-lock brakes, front airbags, power steering, remote central locking, electric front windows, height-adjustable steering wheel and driver's seat, split-fold rear seats and painted bumpers.
Following the stepped equipment packaging system introduced with the latest Punto, Dynamic versions get air conditioning, CD player and electric door mirrors, while the top-line Eleganza also has dual zone climate control, alloy wheels, foglights and parking sensors.
Asked why the Idea was not developed alongside the Meriva, development vice president Nevio Di Giusto revealed Fiat had decided against using the General Motors platform because it was considered too big.
He said:'We thought it was important to remain within B-sector dimensions. As a result, the two cars have very little in common and share hardly any components.'
Behind the wheel
IT started out as a supermini, but the latest in a string of new models from Fiat could well have been called The Big Idea.
Thanks to generous internal dimensions and innovative packaging, this miniature car for all reasons is surprisingly adept at accommodating occupants and their luggage.
Despite being smaller than the Vauxhall Meriva, the Idea still looks tall and has a wide tailgate for easy loading. Large doors also give ease of access to an interior that provides an unusually generous amount of room – shared almost equally between the front and rear – that is claimed by Fiat to be one of the most spacious in the class.
With generously-proportioned seats, a high roof and ample shoulder room, the Idea has all the credentials to be a fully-fledged family model. In Multijet diesel form, it also has fleet potential, particularly with users who need plenty of torque to carry heavy items.
At first sight, the car's rear seats seem difficult to use, but folding them down to extend the load platform proves to be a simple operation – once you appreciate that the squabs have to be pulled backwards before they can be released and then swung to the upright position behind the front seats.
But there's no need for second looks to appreciate the virtues of Multijet technology.
Part of General Motors' $1.37 billion investment in the troubled Italian company, the world's smallest, lightest and most compact turbodiesel unit is already working wonders in the Panda and is equally suited to this application.
Sporting a demeanour ahead of its modest capacity, this gem of an engine allows the Idea to be nippy around town and a subdued and effortless motorway cruiser.
But though the Idea boasts 25 compartments for stowage and features a double bed among a claimed total of 32 seating configurations, the Fiat's interior disappoints in terms of tactile quality because many of the plastic fittings and finishes seem flimsy.
And surely the interior styling team could have found a better mounting position for the bank of five switches for lighting and the computer control – tucking it away on the lower edge of the dashboard makes it difficult to operate.
Press a button marked 'city' on the centre console and an electric power steering system makes the Idea a delight to park and effortless to negotiate through crowded streets. Press it again and the system adds weight to provide greater feel of the road at speed.
The gadgetry is well suited to a car that is clearly intended more for practical use than press-on motoring, when the Idea can be skittish over rough surfaces. Overall though, this small car's ride is smooth and the handling neat enough to cope with more than just urban driving.
And whether they are adults or children, occupants in the rear will give Fiat top marks for providing a pleasantly roomy environment.
NEAT, nippy and with a great diesel engine, the Idea should provide stiff competition for the Vauxhall Meriva in this burgeoning sector.
|Engine (cc):||1,251||1,368||Max power (bhp/rpm):||70/4,000||95/5,800|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||132/1,750||94/4,500|
|Top speed (mph):||100||109|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||135||157|
|Fuel consumption (mpg):||55.4||42.8|
|Transmission:||5-sp man or||5-sp auto manual|
|On sale:||February 21 2004|