There’s a rule with Italian cars from mainstream brands, one that arguably applies to their French counterparts as well: the bigger the car, the more likely it’s going to flop outside of its home market. The Croma was an attractive flagship sedan for the Fiat brand and was the most accessible of the four Type 4 cars (Saab 9000, Lancia Thema, Alfa Romeo 164). Alas, the Croma didn’t make a convincing enough case for a replacement and, following its discontinuation, the Fiat flagship spot was left vacant for almost a decade.
I’m usually loathe to use any photos from my old iPhone 4S but hey, when am I going to see a Fiat Croma again? On that note, I have to say how impressed I am with phone cameras these days. I used my hybrid D-SLR camera exactly zero times on my trip to Europe and the US this year because my Google Pixel 2 takes such great photos. This old iPhone 4S I had back in 2011 or so that I used to photograph this Croma? Not so much. Forgive the image quality.
I’m surprised I even saw a Croma at all. Its time in Australia was mercifully short: it lasted only 14 months here. Fiat may have withdrawn from the US market but it was here more or less in name only during the 1980s, such was their poor sales performance. Planned product introductions, like the Fiat Tipo, never eventuated. In a rather sad state of affairs, the Regata had been keeping the brand alive here. In comparison, Kiwis were treated to a much larger range of Fiats including the Uno and Panda.
It was hard enough selling a flagship Fiat in Australia, especially considering such a car almost always cost more and had less (power, space) than a typical Australian family car like a Ford Falcon or a Mitsubishi Magna. Fiat couldn’t compete on prestige either, not in the way a brand like Saab or Volvo could. The rear-wheel-drive Argenta, a nipped-and-tucked 131, had been wildly unsuccessful and so its replacement, the Croma, really had to stun buyers if Fiat hoped to sell any. With an $AUD45k price tag and just one powertrain, a 112-hp 2.0 four with a three-speed automatic, the Croma was dead on arrival here. Shortly after its launch, Fiat’s distributor slashed $10k off the price tag but it wasn’t enough to save the Croma. A promised turbocharged, 5-speed manual model never eventuated. Would it have made a difference other than to educate Aussie buyers on torque steer? Even after its huge price cut, the naturally-aspirated Croma still cost a few grand more than a loaded Mazda 626 Turbo hatch. Who, other than slavish Fiat fans, would have bothered?
The Croma did better in some other markets, especially the Italian market, naturally. It wasn’t often that a large mainstream European sedan – or, in this case, five-door liftback – shared a platform with genuine executive cars. To keep the cost down and to suit its positioning, the Fiat used lower-quality materials than its cousins and had a range of DOHC Fiat engines. These included the aforementioned 2.0 in both 8V and 16V variants, as well as a turbocharged 8V 2.0, a diesel 2.5 and a turbo diesel 2.5. A small 1.6 four was available in select European markets.
This was a spacious family car, thanks to its relatively large dimensions and front-wheel-drive layout, and it was also rather versatile due to the hatchback. To drive, the Croma was a mixed bag: critics praised its willing engines and nimble handling, deeming it more fun-to-drive than rivals like the Opel Omega, but they panned its stiff ride. The Croma also had a reputation for creaking and rattling, sounding noisy and harsh when revved, and for having a rather cheap interior. British Car magazine went so far as to say, “It’s as though the Croma has been built down to a price to separate it from the superior Lancia Thema.” That price difference was a thousand pounds or so in the UK, though, and the Thema may have rattled less but rode just as harshly by most accounts.
Visually, the Croma was a fine design by Giorgetto Giugario, deftly maintaining a familial resemblance to other Fiats while appearing both aerodynamic (it had a Cd of 0.32) and crisply tailored. It was arguably the second best-looking of the Type 4 cars after the 164 and looked more athletic than the Lancia Thema with which it shared some sheetmetal.
The 1991 facelift further smoothed out the Croma’s appearance and also heralded the introduction of a 2.5 V6 borrowed from Alfa Romeo, the first use of an Alfa engine in a Fiat.
The Croma held on until 1996 when it was finally discontinued, having outlived the Thema (by two years). In total, 438,000 Cromas left Fiat’s Turin factory between 1985 and 1996. Although it competed at a higher price point, this compares rather favourably with the Saab 9000 of which 503,087 units were produced over the same time period (plus an extra year). Credit likely goes to strong domestic market sales – the 9000 was exported to the US and Canada and enjoyed a much, much longer run in countries like Australia and yet Fiat still sold more Cromas.
Fiat didn’t directly replace the Croma, the marque’s new flagship now being the Marea sedan and wagon. These were simply sedan and wagon versions of the C-segment Bravo/Brava hatch and were smaller than the Croma in every dimension. The name reappeared in the mid-2000s on a very different-looking hatchback, but that’s a story for another day.