The difference could not have been more stark. The Fiat looked every inch the 21st century car with its bold headlamps, sharp rear light clusters and smart dashboard, while the Golf was anchored firmly in the 20th century, with sober styling and a dull black interior.
Yet asking passers-by which car they would prefer to own, and eight out of 10 potential owners preferred the Golf. It was a classic case of substance over style, with drivers more impressed by VW's solid approach to engineering, reliability, and wholelife costs (notably impressive residual values), while the Brava rightly or wrongly failed to convince in these areas.
Since then, however, Fiat has worked hard on its dealer remarketing programmes and cut back on daily rental sales to improve residual values. It has also boosted its warranties to three years. Further evidence of this solid approach appears in the new Stilo, a three- and five-door lower medium sector car that has 'sensible' stamped through its DNA.
Motoring journalists may grumble at this level-headed approach and the absence of the extremes of Italian styling, but the plain truth is that sensible sells. Citroen ditched its quirky styling approach and hit the jackpot - with the Xsara Picasso trouncing, among other cars, the oddball Fiat Multipla in the sales stakes.
The Stilo indicates that such lessons have been heeded in Turin, adopting a styling approach that is far more conservative than the Ford Focus or Peugeot 307. The new Fiat looks like a car designed for the traditional lower medium sector, like a Vauxhall Astra.
This level-headed approach continues inside, with a dashboard and console that would look more at home in an Audi than the Fiats of old. The soft-touch plastics, and large sturdy buttons and controls are all of the highest quality, creating the impression of a car that will stand the test of time and 20,000-hard driven fleet miles a year.
For design flair, Fiat fans have to look to the optional 'sky window' (a fabulous sunroof made of panes of louvred glass that retreat to create a huge hole above); standard split-sliding rear seats in the five-door that allow for flexible boot space and rear leg room; and an optional telematics system called Connect that links the driver to a call centre in Turin where English-speaking experts can provide everything from live traffic information to route guidance and hotel location services.
The range comes with three trims - Active, Dynamic and Abarth - and four engines, 1.2-, 1.6-, 1.8- and 2.4-litre petrol units and the 1.9JTD common rail diesel.
Tax-conscious company car drivers can keep their benefit-in-kind liability to 15% of list price until at least 2004/05 in the three-door 1.2-litre model thanks to its carbon dioxide emissions of just 149g/km.
The volume seller, however, is likely to be the 1.6, which in five-door format emits CO2 at the rate of 176g/km and therefore qualifies for a 17% tax charge from this April - well outside the 15% benchmark set by the equivalent 1.6-litre Ford Focus and Honda Civic.
The diesel unit, however, is far more competitive, gently exhaling CO2 at the rate of 143g/km to qualify for the 18% company car tax band (including the 3% diesel supplement) until at least 2004/05. This well-tested common rail diesel engine is also extremely competitively priced against the likes of the Peugeot 307 HDI.
At the top end of the range, the 2.4-litre 20v Abarth qualifies immediately for a 28% tax charge, the Inland Revenue's price for emissions of 231g/km and 0–62mph acceleration in 8.5 seconds.
Overall, Fiat expects the sportier-looking three-door Stilo to account for 30% of sales, and appeal particularly to user-choosers (perhaps they're too busy choosing their company cars to start a family); while company car drivers opt for the five-door. Body-style is a key decision to make, because the three-door has significantly less head and leg room than the five-door.
The roof is five centimetres lower in the three-door, leaving me hunched in the back seat and the legroom behind my ideal driving position (inside leg 33 inches) was cramped.
It was altogether a different situation in the five-door, where there was plenty of head room in the rear, and reasonable legroom behind my driving position, thanks to a retreat of the sliding rear seat, without overly compromising boot space.
Behind the wheel
IN the 'beauty is skindeep' stakes, I was an admirer of the Fiat Bravo, but did not behold nearly as much beauty in the Brava.
For me, the Stilo falls between the two, pleasantly lined, carved and angled, but without any stand-out features to make me love it, although it does at least avoid the semi-MPV roof-line of the Peugeot 307 and Honda Civic. Like the Bravo, the three-door is comfortably the more attractive Stilo.
Behind the wheel, first impressions are more impressive, with wonderfully-textured plastics and robust seat fabrics giving a fine impression of German-style build quality. A height and lumbar adjustable driver's seat, and a height and reach adjustable steering wheel make it easy to find a comfortable driving position.
All Stilo models come with a Dualdrive power steering system that has normal and city mode settings, the latter increasing the assistance for easier manoeuvrability. In normal mode on a series of sharp switchback bends, the Stilo felt stable but not as pin-sharp as the Focus, and I'd gamble on the Ford winning a slalom race between cones. Perhaps it was the polished surfaces of the Sardinian roads where I drove the Stilo, but it did seem to lose grip earlier than I expected.
But the 1.2-litre 80bhp engine exceeded my expectations. Checking the key fob to see whether I was driving the 1.6- or 1.8-litre version, I was astonished to find it was the 1.2, which with a flat torque curve and six-speed manual gearbox allowed for rapid progress. It certainly didn't feel 50% smaller than the five-speed 1.8-litre 133bhp engine.
On the steep and twisty hill climbs, however, the 1.9 JTD was the clear first choice engine, this well tried and tested common rail unit providing bags of torque for rapid ascent, while allowing conversation to proceed at whisper volumes, although returning more than 52mpg gives you something to shout about.
IT is meant as a compliment to say the Fiat Stilo is a sensible car. There's nothing wacky about its design, nothing shaky about its build quality, and nothing scintillating about its performance. It is entering the most competitive sector of the UK car market, and scores a tick in every important box. With aggressive pricing and high specification levels, it has moved Fiat from being a fringe rival to a serious mainstream competitor to the C-sector leaders, the Focus, 307, and Astra.