But drivers now also expect clever design, which has led to a vast increase in the number and popularity of vehicles outside traditional fleet sectors.
A few years ago, drivers wanted the versatility that made large MPVs so popular in a smaller package, leading to huge demand for cars including the Vauxhall Zafira, Renault Scenic and Citroen Xsara Picasso. Now, people want similar attributes in even smaller packages, resulting in monospace vehicles being derived from superminis.
Last year we had the Vauxhall Corsa-based Meriva, in 2002 we saw the Ford Fiesta-derived Fusion and this year Fiat introduced the Punto-based Idea. The Idea is meant to combine the elevated driving position, clever use of space and practicality of a small MPV within more compact dimensions.
Key to the Idea’s practicality is a rear bench that is split 40:20:40 in the backrest and a 60:40 split/folding/sliding seat base. The backrests also recline through 60 degrees and the centre backrest can be folded forward to form a table.
Sliding the rear seats forward extends the luggage volume from 320 litres to 412 litres and when all three sections of the rear seat are folded forward it liberates a maximum of 1,420 litres. Fiat points out that both the higher figures are greater than those offered by the Vauxhall Meriva. The dashboard has a central instrument binnacle sitting in a slush-moulded upper fascia panel with a dashboard-mounted gear lever in a convenient position.
Our 1.4 Dynamic test car has a 95bhp 16-valve engine which produces a keen performance but can seem noisy when the Idea gets into its stride.
It is nimble around town. But the tall body, providing generous headroom and room for a couple of overhead shelves at the front, combines with the relatively narrow stance to produce pronounced body roll in faster corners.
I also found the steering too light. While Fiat’s Dualdrive switch that makes the steering even lighter in ‘City’ mode should be applauded, it is out of place in a car this small.
Our test car was generously equipped with electric front windows, ABS with electronic brake force distribution, remote central locking and alarm, a Blaupunkt CD player and radio, air conditioning, heated and electrically-adjustable door mirrors, rear parking sensors and ISOFIX attachments on the two outer rear seats.
While top of the dashboard marks a welcome improvement in perceived quality, it only highlights the lack of effort in other areas.
Southern Europe might not mind shiny hard plastics, but in north Europe softer plastics are preferred.
The doors also make a nasty clang when you close them.
Overall though, the Fiat Idea is a worthy addition to the small car sector.
THREE RIVALS TO CONSIDER
ALTHOUGH there seems to be an abundance of new practical small cars, it isn’t exactly a new concept, with the Mitsubishi Space Star and the Hyundai Matrix sharing many of the Idea’s attributes with a slightly lower asking price.
No comparison would be complete, however, without the class benchmark – the Vauxhall Meriva – but a roughly equivalent model to our Idea test car is almost £1,000 more expensive at the front end.
WITH visits to the dealer up to 20,000 miles apart and with engineers focused on minimising low-speed impact repair bills, the Meriva comes out top in this category, working out at about £150 less than the Fiat. The Hyundai is also less expensive than the Idea, by about £54, totalling £1,296 over three years/60,000 miles. The Mitsubishi is a distant fourth with a bill of £1,620, perhaps a legacy of its ageing design.
THERE are two distinct camps for fuel costs and the Fiat falls into the less costly one. As new vehicles, both the Fiat and the Vauxhall have more efficient engines than their far Eastern rivals. The 60,000-mile fuel cost for the Fiat is expected to be about £5,600 compared to about £5,440 for the Meriva. The Mitsubishi breaks the £6,000 barrier at £6,120, while the Hyundai is more expensive still at £6,798.
ACCORDING to CAP Monitor, the Meriva has the highest percentage retained value of this group (34%), but that doesn’t prevent it from losing £24 more than the Fiat Idea over three years/60,000 miles. The Hyundai benefits from having the lowest P11d price combined with a healthy 33% retained value, giving it the top spot and a cash-lost figure of £6,672. CAP predicts 29% for both the Idea and the Space Star, with a loss of £7,206 and £7,332 respectively.
WITH no advantage in any of our running cost categories, the Fiat cannot dislodge the Vauxhall Meriva from the top spot.
With a total cost of £14,286 over three years/60,000 miles, the Idea is a safer investment than either the Matrix or the Space Star, but loses out to the Meriva by £288. The Matrix is hurt by its poor fuel consumption while the Space Star has a mediocre showing in most of the comparisons.
EMISSIONS AND BIK TAX RATES
ANOTHER win for the Vauxhall over the Fiat, but here, the Idea wins because its lower P11d value equates to lower BIK liability, even though it is in a higher tax band. A 22% taxpayer in the Meriva would be parting with £35 a month for the remainder of this tax year, rising to £37 from April 2005. The Idea driver would be paying about 60p a month less for the rest of this year with the gap widening slightly from April 2005.
THE Fiat Idea is a practical small car with low BIK liability and modest running costs, but it misses out on top spot when compared to these rival models. It might have a little extra luggage space over the Vauxhall Meriva, but the Meriva wins convincingly on running costs and is a very close match for emissions and tax.
WINNER: Vauxhall Meriva
Fiat Idea 1.4 Dynamic
Delivered price, standard car (P11D value) £11,082
CO2 emissions (g/km) 157
BIK % of P11D in 2004 17%
Graduated VED rate £125
Insurance group 6
Combined mpg 42.8
CAP Monitor residual value £3,250/29%
Depreciation 12.22 pence per mile x 60,000 £7,332
Maintenance 2.25 pence per mile x 60,000 £1,350
Fuel 9.34 pence per mile x 60,000 £5,604
Wholelife cost 23.81pence per mile x 60,000 £14,286
Typical contract hire rate £240
All figures based on 3yrs/60,000 miles. Monthly rental quote from HSBC Vehicle
AT A GLANCE
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