GM’s Epsilon platform was used by a vast array of vehicles, including the Chevrolet Malibu, Saab 9-3 and Opel Vectra. As part of Fiat’s ill-fated tie-up with GM, the resurrected Fiat Croma used this platform too. It also had something else in common with a few of its GM cousins. Like the Chevrolet Malibu Maxx and Opel Signum, the Croma was both a strangely-shaped hatchback/wagon and a commercial failure.
Perhaps if this idea of an upper-medium hatchback had taken off, GM and Fiat would have been seen as pioneers and trendsetters. One can’t blame them for trying something different, particularly when the concept itself had merit. Take a regular sedan, make it a bit longer and/or taller, give it some extra versatility and voila!
The Opel/Vauxhall Signum was identical to the Vectra from the A-pillars forward. It was also the sleekest of these three chimeras. The Chevrolet Malibu Maxx afforded the Malibu with a second body style and, again, was identical to its sedan counterpart from the A-pillars forward. The Croma, however, had no Epsilon counterparts within the Fiat range and was Fiat’s first D-segment product since the first-generation Croma expired in 1996 (the intervening Marea was little more than a sedan and wagon version of the C-segment Bravo and Brava). Perhaps Fiat realized the European D-segment was dominated by the Volkswagen Passat and other established models and so they had to do something a little different.
Why, then, did they choose to call it Croma? The first series of Croma had sold relatively well in Italy but was a slow seller in other European markets like the UK. Although that Croma had been a hatchback, too, it had a much more conventional silhouette than this Croma. And yet, despite the Croma’s unorthodox shape, it was all rather boring to behold.
Giorgetto Giugario was clearly having an off day when he penned the Croma. It’s bland and droopy and utterly forgettable. In the early-mid 2000s, Fiat was experimenting with inoffensive styling like on the compact Stilo and second-generation Punto, handsome yet derivative designs lacking in Fiat’s characteristic Italian brio. Their replacements, the 2005 Punto and 2007 Bravo, were much more chic but, clearly, the Croma’s design was signed off before this design renaissance.
The Croma wasn’t even fun-to-drive. With overly light steering and soft suspension tuning, it was generally considered a good cruiser but lacking in the handling department – a shame considering what Fiat engineers had accomplished in the past. It did use some genuinely good Fiat diesel engines, however – 1.9 and 2.4 MultiJet diesel fours, producing between 118 and 197 hp and 207 and 295 ft-lbs of torque. Petrol engines were borrowed from GM – 1.8 and 2.2 Ecotec fours, with 138 hp and 129 ft-lbs and 145 hp and 150 ft-lbs, respectively. Manual transmissions were standard across the range with six-speed automatics available only with some of the engines.
Compared to established rivals, all the Croma had going for it was its spacious interior and even that was a let-down. For starters, it lacked the trick rear seats of the mechanically-related Opel Signum or the Chevrolet Malibu Maxx across the pond. In those cars, the rear seats slid on tracks and could be folded flat. That wasn’t the case for the Croma. Seats down, the Croma also fell short of rivals like the Opel Vectra estate in cargo volume.
While the Malibu Maxx had few wagons to do battle with in the North American market, the Croma was going up against station wagon variants of almost every D-segment car. For reference, the Croma was 2.3 inches shorter in the wheelbase than the Malibu Maxx and half an inch shorter overall; a Vectra estate, in comparison, was about two inches longer than the Croma with an inch-longer wheelbase. At least the Croma was quite upright, being four inches taller than a Vectra estate. Cromas equipped with the SkyDome full-length glass roof were even more airy inside.
It was such a flop that Fiat UK withdrew it from showrooms after just two years. Overall, the Croma sold better than the more expensive Signum did but sales tapered off pretty quickly. It was never a threat to the mid-size establishment.
A 2008 facelift went some way toward addressing the Croma’s stylistic challenges, the Nuova Croma adopting a front fascia similar to that of the shapely new Bravo. Alas, it couldn’t arrest the car’s sales slide. The Croma was discontinued in 2010, eventually to be replaced within the Fiat range by the Freemont, a rebadged Dodge Journey.
The Croma had great safety credentials, a comfortable and well-presented cabin, a competent chassis and some competitive engines. But Fiat was re-entering a segment it had abandoned almost a decade prior and which was full of well-rounded competitors. Against them, the Croma’s dull styling, questionable packaging and poor resale value made it a less than compelling option for buyers. Now, maybe if Fiat had put some flared wheelarches on it and some plastic cladding, they might have really been successful trendsetters.
Croma photographed in Vienna, Austria in September 2018.