But the role of the estate as a car for the essential user has changed. It is becoming much more flexible and has given ground to the growing army of MPVs.
Manufacturers have responded by turning what used to be estates into people carriers. Take the Peugeot 307 estate, for example, which was turned into an MPV by increasing equipment levels and offering customers the option of adding extra seats and adding the badge SW.
Fiat has a compact people carrier in the incredibly versatile Multipla, and there is a smaller Punto-based MPV planned for the end of 2003. The Ulysse (Fiat's shared large MPV project with PSA Peugeot-Citroen) is due to be replaced by a new model in February.
So Fiat obviously believes the appetite for versatility stretches beyond the conventional estate and now it offers a range of adaptable solutions with the estate version of the Stilo, called the Multi Wagon.
So what is the Fiat Multi Wagon? It is intended to offer all the style and handling of a station wagon with the versatility of an MPV.
Fiat believes that with the MP Wagon it can successfully take a slice of the lower-medium estate market and the MPV market, which combined add up to 1.6 million units annually across Europe.
And if the Multi Wagon can add some conquest sales for the Stilo, it would go some way to helping boost Fiat's flagging fortunes. The Multi Wagon is the latest bid to make the Stilo assume the mantle of Fiat's key fleet car, representing a major increase in sales compared to the Bravo and Brava it replaced.
Sales are going well, it claims, with volumes at a 'respectable rate' despite the firm decreasing its rental volume by about 5,000 units this year. However, they are still lower than the company would like, currently at 15,000 sales.
The Stilo was a pioneer in offering hi-tech features such as the Connect telematics and sat-nav system, and also offers up to eight airbags (with six as standard on Dynamic models), ABS and adaptive cruise control.
To boost demand further, Fiat introduced a special offer for retail customers this summer, cutting more than £1,800 off the price of entry- level models. Although the company is remaining tight-lipped about its plans, the indications are that Fiat will cut list prices of the Stilo in the new year so that the entry level car is priced at less than £10,000 on-the-road.
Giorgio Gorelli, Fiat vice-president of sales, said: 'Sales of the Stilo have been lower than expected but we are convinced that people now recognise the value of the product, and sales are beginning to go in the right direction.'
Behind the wheel
THERE is a strong family resemblance between the Stilo hatchback and the new model, retaining an almost identical front end to the five-door.
But the Multi Wagon moniker is meant to hint at the car's versatility and how it has combined the hi-tech aspects of the Stilo hatchback with the high driving position and other practical features of an MPV.
To start with, the Multi Wagon is 45mm taller than the Stilo five-door, which in turn is 50mm taller than the three-door.
Like the Stilo hatchback, the rear seats are split 60:40 and slide forwards or backwards and recline as well as fold to increase luggage space. The front passenger seat also folds forward to act as a table. The rear tailgate dips just about as low into the rear bumper as it is possible to go without going right through it and thanks to the height of the roof there is an enormous loading area.
The Stilo Multi Wagon has been designed to have a driving position closer to that of an MPV than a lower-medium car. The reason for this is to make access to the car easier and it works, although you do feel perched on the driver's seat.
The interior is a combination of slush-moulded materials similar to the Alfa Romeo 147 dashboard, with some cheaper plastics thrown in. Engine choices range from 1.6 or 1.8-litre petrol engines, or the 1.9JTD common rail diesel in either 80bhp or 115bhp trim.
I sampled a 115bhp JTD on a hopelessly short 40km test route around Turin before taking to the road as a passenger in a 1.6 while my driving colleague got behind the wheel on the same brief route. We are familiar with the 1.9 JTD as it was the first common-rail diesel to hit the market and is still comparable on power to most rivals (although Volkswagen now boasts 130bhp and 150bhp from its 1.9 TDI), but cars such as the Honda Civic CTDi, Renault Megane 1.9 dCi and Ford Focus TDCi do a better job on refinement.
Mid-range acceleration is strong, and only growing engine noise approaching 4,000rpm persuades you to select the next gear. The Wagon seems to roll a little more than the five-door Stilo hatchback and I am still not 100% happy with the electric Dualdrive steering, which feels too numb for my tastes.
The Stilo smothers bumps in an accomplished fashion, although the suspension does make a bit of noise when faced with road surface imperfections. But these are just noises and the car's composure is not unsettled by it. The 1.6 seemed reasonably refined, although it did labour with the longer, heavier estate body of the Multi Wagon than the standard car. We suspect the 1.8 with variable valve timing would be a more consummate performer than the less powerful engine, if we were given the chance to try that as well.
IN the little time we were able to get behind the wheel of the Multi Wagon it seemed an accomplished car in most areas and in UK-spec should offer customers good levels of equipment when compared to rivals. We hope Fiat takes action on pricing to ensure the Multi Wagon is a competitive overall package, because the Stilo deserves to do better than its lacklustre sales suggest.
|Fiat Stilo Multi Wagon|
|1.6||1.8||1.9 JTD||1.9 JTD|
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||102/5,750||131/6,400||79/4,000||113/4,000|
|Max torque (ib-ft/rpm):||107/4,000||119/3,500||145/1,500||188/2,000|
|Max speed (mph):||114||124||106||118|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||181||197||147||147|
|Fuel tank capacity (l/gal):||58/12.8|
|Luggage capacity (litres):||510/1,480|
|On sale:||February 2003|
|Prices (estimated):||c £11,000 - £13,000||c £37,000|