(first posted 8/15/2015) If Fiat’s global strategy seemed confusing in the 1980s, this conservative four-door sedan will not alleviate that confusion. The Regata was a three-box version of the Ritmo/Strada hatch, later available as a wagon, and was the Fiat that was to keep the brand alive in Australia. It failed.
First, it’s worthwhile pointing out that Fiat got its wires crossed in the North American and Australian markets. Sub-compact and compact hatches were certainly prevalent in 1970s and 1980s North America – witness the Colt, Chevette and Pinto – but people generally preferred sedans. However, Fiat chose to introduce the quirkily-styled Ritmo/Strada hatch in America, which failed to save Fiat from exiting the market in 1981.
In Australia, small sedans are rarer. Sure, Ford had its three-box Laser, the Meteor, and there were plenty of Corolla sedans driving around. However, hatchbacks were at an all-time high in popularity in the 1980s, and remain the preferred body style in the compact segment. Small sedans tend to be favoured more by older people and have a more conservative image. Despite this, Fiat decided to plod along with a sedan offering despite the mediocre sales of the defunct 131.
Fiat had been a rising star in 1960s Australia, gaining momentum with fun-to-drive sedans like the 1962 1500. While Ford and Holden were selling truckloads of conservatively engineered, six-cylinder sedans, Fiat arrived with a sporty sedan featuring front disc brakes and an excellent and rev-happy four-cylinder engine.
The 1967 124 had even greater handling and was priced close to base model Falcons and Holdens. But it wasn’t the only sport compact game in town, as the dynamic Datsun 1600 arrived and earned critical and commercial acclaim.
Fiat sales still surged to record highs for 1970, with 5692 cars sold. Fiat’s fortunes were fading, though. The modern, front-wheel-drive 127 and 128 were unsuccessful in a market dominated by conservative, rear-wheel-drive compact offerings like the Holden Torana. Fiat’s new generation RWD offerings, the 131 and 132, rode and handled worse than their forebears and were visually bland. They ended up sticking around for far too long and although they received tweaks and new names, SuperBrava and Argenta, they were decidedly old-hat by their swansong year, 1984.
Fiat sales were in the wilderness, having fallen precipitously to a low of just 406 units in 1983. Fresh metal was needed, and it came in the form of the 1985 Regata (spelled Regatta in Sweden and Latin America) and 1987 Croma.
To call the Regata fresh was a misnomer. It was simply a three-box Ritmo, and thus the mechanicals were a good 7 years old at the time of its launch. Still, it was a huge change from the 131/SuperBrava mechanically. Gone was the rear-wheel-drive layout and the venerable 2.0 four-cylinder, replaced with front-wheel-drive and a 1.6 four-cylinder in either SOHC (Regata 85S) or twin-cam (Regata 100S) variants. Suspension was all-independent, and the Regata featured rack-and-pinion steering and front disc brakes.
Despite the smaller engine, the Regata 100S stacked up well against its predecessor. Power was 99 hp at 5900rpm, while the 131’s bigger engine produced 108 hp at 5500rpm. The 1.6 four was an old engine, but it had been extensively updated with revised ports, new combustion chambers and a new carbureter. In 85S form, power was 80 hp and 88 lb-ft.
The new sedan was about an inch longer, but was 286lbs lighter at 2138lbs. The Regata’s styling may have been boxy, but it had a slippery drag coefficient of 0.37. By most accounts, it was also quieter and more refined than its predecessor but retained a distinctively Fiat engine note.
Standard transmission was a five-speed manual, but a three-speed automatic arrived later along with a practical wagon variant known as Weekend. The Regata was initially priced at $AUD13,995, identical to the outgoing SuperBrava. Power steering and air-conditioning were optional, but front power windows and central locking were standard equipment. Interior packaging was superior to its predecessor, owing to its FWD layout, and the cabin was light and airy and the trunk huge. The Regata featured full instrumentation including an elaborate vehicle monitor display.
The features list and roomy interior were about all the praise the Regata would receive from the motoring media. Simply put, the new FWD Fiat failed to carry on the legacy of fun-to-drive Fiats. A serial understeerer, the Regata had mediocre roadholding abilities and excessive body roll. Wheels was critical of the car’s excessive nose-diving upon braking, and complained it squirmed and tugged upon take off. They were, however, impressed with the fit-and-finish which they claimed rivalled the Corolla.
Clearly, the Regata was dynamically off-the-pace. Its showroom companion, the Croma, was a much newer and more appealing offering, sized similarly to the Holden Commodore and based on the Type Four platform shared with the Saab 9000 and Alfa Romeo 164. It was targeted and priced against the Peugeot 505, BMW 318i and Volvo 240, but despite its modern styling and practical hatchback layout, its sales were weak.
LNC Industries, Fiat’s importer, was bullish about sales. By 1988, they hoped to reach 5000 annual units with the Regata and Croma, and were to introduce the Lancia Thema and Fiat Uno to book-end their lineup.
The importer had been overly optimistic. During the latter half of the 1980s, Fiat Australia sold around 450 to 700 units per year. Those figures were well below expectations, and instead of trying to expand the lineup with more desirable offerings like the pert Uno or the roomy new Tipo, Fiat threw in the towel by the beginning of the new decade.
The Italians were leaving Australia. Lancia was already gone, the Thema’s Australian launch having never eventuated. Alfa Romeo would leave in the early 1990s. So began the long cycle of false starts and relaunch rumors. Fiat planned to return in the mid-1990s with the Bravo/Brava twins, but that fell through. Then, the 2000s were to see the return of Fiat with the new-generation Croma and Stilo but neither arrived. Fiat would finally return in 2006 with the stylish Ritmo and Punto, but still wasn’t successful until the retro-chic 500 arrived and Fiat bolstered its Fiat Professional commercial vehicles lineup.
European brands tend to perform best when their products are either keenly priced or distinctively styled. The Regata had been well-equipped but it was priced a not-insignificant $2k above high-end trims of the Corolla and Holden Camira, and its conservative styling didn’t help it stand out in a very competitive market. Sure, it was the cheapest European car on sale but what was its competitive advantage?
Fiat’s Australian operations had dug their own grave. Buyers who took the plunge were invariably left sweating when Fiat disappeared soon after from the Aussie market. The Regata stuck around far too long in its homeland, too, but at least there you could buy more competitive and stylish Fiats like the 1988 Tipo hatchback. Had Fiat been stung by the failure of the 127 and 128 in Australia, and does that explain their steadfast refusal to bring over some of the company’s cute and competitive hatchbacks?
Instead, Fiat had pinned its fortunes on a bland, outdated sedan that couldn’t even offer the Italian brio the company’s products had been known for. The Regata wasn’t a huge success in a hatch-hungry Europe either, except in certain markets like Turkey. The car that was supposed to save Fiat in Australia ended up killing it, and there would be no resurrection for 15 years.