CC Capsule: 2002 Fiat Multipla – Muffin Top

I don’t know what it was like before the Edsel came out. Nor did I witness the launch of the Citroën Ami 6, the Austin Allegro or the VW 411/412. Those all came out before I did, so they were just a fact of life, a questionable piece of automotive history that could not be helped. But I do remember how prettier the world was before the Fiat Multipla.

It seemed to have emerged, one dark day late in 1997, from the depths of the Mediterranean Sea and landed with a big flop on the European market. The well-known Japanese affinity for all things fishy must have played a part in this one’s presence in Tokyo. It’s not the first one I’ve found there…

What the hell was going on at Fiat Centro Stile in the last years of the 20th Century? The Italian giant had done a complete 180 from the overly conservative-looking (if not downright boring) products that were its mainstay in the ‘80s and early ‘90s to going full oddball with the edgy Coupé, the sexy Barchetta, the blobby Marea and the WTF-happened MPV we have here.

The Multipla borrowed its name from Fiat’s distant rear-engined past, but the vehicle was decidedly unlike its historic namesake. Based on the Bravo platform, the new Multipla was a mid-sized minivan (the large one was the Ulysse, shared with PSA), packing a 102hp 1.6 litre driving the front wheels, soon accompanied by a 1.9 litre Diesel. The only transmission on offer was a 5-speed manual.

So if you could get past its far-left field looks, the oily bits underneath were all quite middle of the road. Space utilization was also a strong point: Fiat aimed to make a genuine six-seater, reintroducing Europeans to front three-abreast seating – something not really seen there on non-commercial vehicles since the days of the Matra Murena.

But then Fiat went all weird again with the dash. It’s less egregiously bizarre than the external design, but it still gives out Nautilus-on-acid vibes.

People either loved it or hated it. A large majority were in the latter camp, unfortunately for Fiat, and the car sold poorly outside of its home market. Between January 1998 and early 2004, Fiat sold just over 120,000 Multiplas – not a very impressive total. It was really down to the looks and nothing else: everyone who rode in one knew its exceptionally airy cabin and competent drivetrain made for a top-notch MPV.

In early 2004, the Multipla was given a thorough makeover. The highly distinctive bulge under the windshield, with that random extra pair of headlights, went away, as did the front end’s roly-poly styling and the quirky taillights. The overall shape remained, but the Multipla was definitely “rectified” to something more orthodox. Losing the love handles was the right move: the restyled Multipla broke the 200,000 unit barrier. Production stopped in 2010 in Italy, but carried on until 2013 in China.

Does this go to show that weird doesn’t sell? Well, let’s go ask the Pontiac Aztek, the Leyland P76 or the Ssangyong Rodius. I know, you’ll say “But the Citroën Visa sold pretty well and millions of Datsun-badged little nightmares were made throughout the ‘70s and let’s not forget about the AMC Gremlin…” Yes, yes, yes. And it’s also true that Mitsuoka are thriving. Still, Fiat moved the cursor a little too far into rotund oddity for the image-conscious naughties to accept the Multipla in its original form.