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Car reviews - Fiat - Ritmo - Emotion JTD 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Styling, cabin functionality and practicality, fun to drive, smooth and powerful diesel, individuality
Room for improvement
Poor rear vision, rear-seat seatbelts snag fingers when unfolding cushion, small speedometer, no standard stability/traction control, expensive against similar rivals

29 Aug 2008

FIRSTLY, for reasons of bias, a little bit of disclosure is necessary here.

Your author owns a Fiat. Not a Ritmo, or a Punto and certainly not a 500, but a restored and road-going 1970s variety. It is a noisy, spirited, smelly and involving car to live with, and certainly beguiling to behold.

But if you think this review of the new Fiat Ritmo Emotion 1.9 JTD will be a love fest, then think again.

Frankly, the 1970s Fiat is a terrifying daily proposition, and enough to make anybody extremely wary.

It often won’t start, or will run beautifully for most of a day until it inexplicably chooses to play dead. It is expensive to repair. And occasionally the old beast will behave like an angel in front of a mechanic who is convinced its owner is projecting a sort of automotive hypochondria upon the hapless little car.

So this new Fiat – pitched against some very alluring high-end competitors such as the Volkswagen Golf 2.0 TDI – began from well behind the eight ball as far as this reporter is concerned.

Of course, we won’t know of the Ritmo’s reliability record for some time.

But, these days, the things that really ruined new-car ownership experiences just a few years ago – like rust, recalcitrant electrics and poor workmanship – have faded, as the global automotive supply chain employs world standards in order to remain competitive.

Or, in other words, they don’t make Fiats like they used to... and thank the Japanese for that!

Nevertheless, in the grouchy spirit of an owner who has had fingers and wallets burnt by the Italian car ownership experience too many times now, we shall begin with a whinge about the latest Fiat’s faults.

For starters: fat pillars, a rising shoulder line, bulky dash and tiny rear window conspire to curtail vision, leaving you peering out of it like you are driving a mailbox.

Yep, at the altar of safety and style, Fiat has made reverse parking quite tricky in this strikingly handsome and well-proportioned small car – perhaps the most beautiful currently available, by the way. Whether you’re very short or toweringly tall, you may end up feeling pretty claustrophobic inside.

We also hate having to unfold the rear seat from its extended cargo carrying position, because you will need three hands to keep the trio of seatbelt latches from being buried underneath the seat cushion.

And... that’s it.

No, nothing broke off, stopped working or dissolved away. Yes, we did have to crane our necks when parking and breaking a fingernail while trying to fish out those [email protected]*&%y seatbelt latches is infuriating, but... gee, we’re clutching to find fault with this not-so-small Fiat.

And, besides, it is such a lovely and distinctive interior anyway, with its smart trim contrasts, attractive dashboard and upmarket ambience.

Oh... here’s another one: The speedometer is a little on the small side for our liking. We’re beginning to get used to those big digital supplementary readouts you find in cars like the VE Commodore.

Still, everything else works with a slickness and functionality that people in Europe demand from the C-segment vehicles.

Entry and egress is easy. There is enough space for five people at a pinch, and four adults in comfort, thanks to a sufficient amount of front-seat travel and a surprisingly generous headroom, front and rear. The driver also has a tilt and telescopic steering wheel to help find an ideal position.

Rear occupants will appreciate the scalloped backs of the front seats that aid knee room rear windows that fully retract overhead grab handles, overhead reading lights door pockets and (single) ventilation outlet.

Despite being Italian, then, there is a high amount of homogeny to the cabin’s make-up and presentation.

There’s more, too, like the rear seat cushions that fold forward to allow the backrests to nestle down flat, to increase the Ritmo’s cargo area significantly. The hatch’s aperture is tall and wide and has a low loading lip for easy use, while the rear head restraints are helpfully flush with the backrest to assist with rear vision and seat-folding duties.

Yet, there is still enough personality permeating throughout the Ritmo’s interior, to surprise and delight newcomers.

Foremost is Fiat’s ‘City’ button located on the upper dash, which turns the already pleasantly weighted power steering into a freewheeling, pinkie-finger-light device. Effort-impaired people take note: this feature is brilliant.

The reasonably large glovebox is augmented by a bottle cooler/warmer built into the centre console. Now whether you see this as a ridiculous waste of a deep cubby hole or a blessing if you want to keep your beverage climate-controlled depends on the individual, but we think a buyer of an Italian car might be a bit more adventurous than others, and so would appreciate the latter much more. Cheers!

Besides, the Ritmo’s interior is full of sensible things, like a comprehensive trip computer readout an armada of airbag protection remote audio controls ridiculously simple heater/ventilation controls large exterior mirrors, and no fewer than seven oddment receptacles within easy reach of the driver – including one hidden one.

And the handy lane-change indicator is downright German for an Italian car!

Unfortunately the weather was too cold during our test period to properly assess the Fiat’s air-conditioning abilities, but the Ritmo’s minimal glazing might help it keep the car nicely cool in summer.

Now, despite being an Italian, we weren’t expecting great things in the Fiat’s drive department, primarily because underneath the Ritmo lurks a relatively mundane torsion beam rear suspension design, in an age where rivals are increasingly adopting a multi-link arrangement pioneered by the Ford Focus a decade ago.

But we should not have worried, for the Ritmo is a lively, entertaining and above-all predictable driving experience anyway.

Steering response is on the eager side, imbuing the Italian with a crisp cornering attitude, which is backed up by a solidly planted feel. Find a series of corners and the car traces the road faithfully, showing lots of grip, plenty of body control and a minimum of lean or understeer.

It also rides with adequate suppleness in most urban situations only when surfaces become uneven does the Fiat begin to lose some composure, skipping a little off line and sending shocks through to the cabin.

Perhaps this is exaggerated by the 1.9-litre JTD engine, since its deep well of torque and subsequently rapid acceleration abilities encourage spirited driving techniques, no matter what condition the road may be.

No surprise here, since this is one of the better and more sophisticated turbo-diesel units going.

Shared with Alfa Romeo, Saab, Opel and others (you will find this unit in the Holden Astra CDTi, for instance), the Ritmo’s 110kW four-cylinder powerplant is smooth, punchy and flexible as soon as the initial warm-up period is (quickly) over.

Matched to a six-speed manual gearbox of sufficient (but not particularly slick) feel, the Fiat is fast off the mark, almost hot-hatch-like in its ability to overtake - thanks to a readily accessible 305Nm of torque - and will happily cruise above the legal speed limit with the engine barely sounding like it is ticking over.

Watch those wet or slippery roads, though, for you will spin the front wheels, in which case smooth becomes extremely ragged and unruly.

Imported from a place where fuel is prohibitively expensive, the JTD is as frugal as it is fun, with economy figures that belie just how rorty this car is from behind the wheel.

Confidence-inspiring brakes are another plus point, coming together with the Ritmo’s measured clutch and accelerator actions to make it an agreeable driving experience.

Fiat’s decision to imbue the Ritmo’s front-wheel drive chassis with a sporty feel is the correct one with an engine as fiery and flexible as the 110kW 1.9 JTD (a lower powered 88kW number is also now available), since a conventional automatic isn’t forthcoming (although a robotised gearbox is).

So the Ritmo rises above expectation and fear, to come over as one of this year’s pleasant surprises. Until you get to the price, that is.

It is a shame that, from $33,490 plus on-roads, Fiat’s importers Ateco choose to charge another $650 for the proven life-saving technology of stability and traction control, particularly in a vehicle which is touted as having a five-star Euro NCAP safety rating.

ESC ought to be standard nowadays on a car that already seems several thousand dollars too expensive. The underrated Punto suffers from similar hindrances.

To sum up then: No, the Ritmo is not inflicted with the compromises that helped kill off the brand in Australia for almost two decades and, yes, it does possesses a surprisingly high degree of practicality and character, to be a very likeable alternative to some capable but crushingly common competition out there.

But, all subjectivity aside, it seems that this Fiat will still sting you where it hurts, unless you’re good with haggling.

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