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Fiat Ritmo Emotion JTD

words - Joe Kenwright
When essential Fiat 'brio' is missing, it's just another Euro diesel

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RRP: $33,490
Price as tested: $34,340
(metallic paint $850)
Crash rating: 5 stars (Euro NCAP)
Fuel: diesel
Claimed fuel economy (L/100km): 5.6
CO2 emissions (g/km): 149
Also consider: Peugeot 308 (more here), Skoda Octavia (more here and here), VW Golf (more here).

Overall rating: 3.0/5.0
Engine/Drivetrain/Chassis: 3.5/5.0
Price, Packaging and Practicality: 2.5/5.0
Safety: 3.5/5.0
Behind the wheel: 3.0/5.0
X-factor: 3.0/5.0

About our ratings

Researching the 2008 Fiat Ritmo won't unearth much. The name the car wears is just for Oz.

Everywhere else, this car is Fiat's latest Bravo -- a badge the Italians couldn't use Down Under due to Mazda's stranglehold via its light truck range. Yet there was a Fiat Ritmo launched in 1978 as a rival to the VW Golf -- a model which Australians saw as a sedan only wearing the Regata badge.

This new Ritmo marks Fiat's first local foray in the premium small car segment since the Regata. As was the case with the Regata, Australians have every reason to expect this new Ritmo to provide the functionality typical of this class with some of the 'brio' missing from so many Japanese (Corolla) and German (Golf, Astra, Focus) designed offerings. Alas just as the soul for the generic Regata went missing over 20 years ago, it's missing again in the new Ritmo.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the Ritmo is a Euro-junkie, not a Lira-ambassador. It was developed on computer in a silly amount of time (less than two years) elsewhere in Europe with a nanny state's five-star crash structure ready to glide down a heavily-automated production line virtually untouched by human hands.
This is white goods Italian-style which not even Fiat's own styling can disguise. Call it a Fiat Smeg and Australians will get it.

There obviously wasn't time for the heart and soul part of the equation, Fiat's normal unique selling proposition that is just clinging on in the Punto range by the finest of margins. Almost as soon as you approach the Ritmo, you get a sense that no one really 'owned' this baby.

Because it also shares its diesel engine with at least two other Euro hatches in Australia -- despite the fanciful Multijet engine name -- don't go looking for any big points of distinction under the bonnet either. Save that sort of enthusiasm for the petrol engine, but more of that later. There is no auto.

Before you assess the Ritmo on any objective grounds, you need to consider whether it is drop-dead gorgeous or another Fiat candidate for landfill. If you don't get hot flushes looking at it, you are not going to be in any mood to wear the drawbacks which the looks generate.

The lazy and cheap way to get good crash safety while trying to look cool these days is to fill the driver's front vision with massive windscreen pillars made of normal steel and link them with a flat piece of heavily-angled glass. The Ritmo's pillars are at least as fat as a VE Commodore's in a car a fraction of its size and the rear view is no better.

For a car whose primary focus is crowded cities, it doesn't exactly encourage you to take advantage of a gap in traffic when you could too easily clean up a pedestrian and a motorcyclist in one simple move.

But that's not all. The dramatic rear slope to the roof cuts into rear headroom and makes rear door access a little unfriendly. The taper around the rear section impacts on rear seat and luggage space, while the folding rear seats require front seat occupants to yield some space. If you are in a hurry to drop the rear seats, it's worth remembering that the rear head rest adjustment tag won't release them as in most cars. For some reason, there is a hidden separate release. 

When most Ritmo rivals will double as practical family cars these days, the Ritmo will struggle to match some half-price light cars. The in-between Nissan Tiida can seem like a stretched limo by comparison.

Rear impact protection, even at the supermarket, is a concern when the flush plastic rear bumper collapses inside the hatch line with only knee pressure. This leaves the hatch itself and the car's main structure vulnerable to even a minor nudge. Front protection is not much better.

It's not all bad. The stylish Lounge 16-inch wheel and tyre package on the Emotion (now that is an oxymoron!) specification level does provide an outstanding ride and handling compromise for Australian conditions. It is possibly the best in class as even the Peugeot 308 will still transmit a loud twang into the cabin as the tyres meet typical Aussie surface changes. The Ritmo doesn't.

It also steers well with a neat choice of extra assistance around town and a tidy 10.4 metre turning circle.

The diesel is as punchy as you would expect of an engine that does an equally good job in the Alfa 147 (with the bonus of real style and Italian brio) or the Holden Astra -- at almost $5000 less.

There are some really classy cabin details that each buyer will value differently based on personal priorities. These at least are a welcome change from the bleak Astra cabin and generic Focus approach. Just watch out for the speedo which records 130km/h at the top of the dial -- the 60km/h mark appears where the 30km/h reading sits on most other speedos. This can leave you blissfully cruising around town at over 80km/h without the punchy diesel providing the slightest sensation of speed.

Despite the compromises, there is a certain warmth about the Ritmo's looks and several cabin touches that some buyers will like.

As for fuel economy, it lives up to its claimed 7.6L/100km city and 4.5 L/100km highway figures. Even under a torrid cycle of icy cold starts and four kilometre trips, it refused to drop below an average of 7.4, at least a litre better than several less powerful diesels.

Yet this doesn't necessarily make it a default buy over the petrol Ritmo with its slick new high-tech 1.4-litre turbocharged engine. Indeed the 1.4 is quicker and slashes almost 100kg off the weight and $3500 off the price.

Thanks to Australia's high price premium for diesel, our testing revealed that the Ritmo diesel will save a driver only $1.40 a week compared to the petrol version over 200km of city and freeway running -- despite the significant on-paper fuel economy advantage.

Even driving 20,000km a year, the diesel owner won't reach the break even point on the purchase price until well into the third year of ownership. With an extra 100kg over the front wheels, there is a good chance that extra brake and tyre wear will push that out even further.

If you like the Ritmo, and there are plenty of reasons why some might, try both engines before signing on the bottom line. There is a good chance that the petrol engine is closer to what you expected from Fiat and the difference in real running costs is negligible.

The Ritmo is ultimately another premium hatch contender trying to be too clever in unseating the Golf's proven blend of enduring, practical design.

If priced as an alternative to the $27,990 Focus TDCi and the $28,990 Astra CDX, it would deserve to be on most shopping lists -- but then so would the $21,490 Hyundai i30 diesel.

When the Ritmo's metallic paint takes it over $34,000, it runs smack into the $35,790 Skoda Octavia Elegance diesel with VW's brilliant DSG semi-automatic which does live up to its pricetag, while catering to several drivers under the one roof. The manual-only Ritmo diesel can't match that on either score.

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Published : Tuesday, 17 June 2008

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