Review: 2011 Fiat Bravo 1.4 T-Jet

Tal Bronfer
by Tal Bronfer

Hop back to the distant (or not so distant) days of high school. Remember the complex universe that is class dynamics? Each class had its typical individuals. There was that all-around kind of guy. Perfect looks, perfect grades, perfect girlfriend. Maybe a little boring, but who cares when you can passionately discuss Fermat’s last theorem at your own leisure?

Then there was the troublemaker: not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, but always a lot of fun to hang out with during sleepless nights. Not that your mom would approve.

But tucked away into the darkest, farthermost corner of the classroom was that quiet kid that could stay utterly silent for days, and when he finally had something to say, he murmured it a hushed tone that even the teacher ignored. This, believe it or not, brings us neatly into the subject of the new Fiat Bravo. Euro car buffs probably remember this nameplate from the late 1990s hatchback which replaced the fairly successful Fiat Tipo. The Bravo – and its five door sibling, the Brava – slotted in the family hatchback segment, and were replaced in 2001 by the Fiat Stilo.

The Stilo, to put it mildly, didn’t exactly top the charts back in the Old Continent, and was criticized for its complete dullness. So after 6 years of declining sales, Fiat resurrected a nameplate from the turn of the century and drummed out a replacement: the new Fiat Bravo.

With the (wait for it…) Brave new Bravo, Fiat intends to retake the family hatchback market with a storm – and considerable Italian flair. Fiat would rather you didn’t know it, but the new Bravo isn’t totally new. In many parts it is, but it’s still based on the underpinnings of the unloved Stilo.

Funnily enough, this all-important VW Golf challenging car was developed in only 18 months, and used extensive computer simulation to speed things up. So, how does it all work out?

Well, for starters – no matter where you come from, this is car is a looker. Up front, the Bravo has the familiar Punto grille plastered on it and the back lights are influenced by the original Bravo. The overall shape is sleek and fluent – no design committees here. In a bid to avoid our daily allowance of Italian-car-related-clichés, we’ll let you overview the rest. To our eyes, this is a win for Fiat’s design studio, with clear influences from Fiat group’s other offerings, such as the Alfa Romeo MiTo. However, our metallic-black tester didn’t do the Bravo justice – this car aches for a bright color.

On another note, a closer look at the Bravo’s wheel arches gave us the slight impression that it was a little more high-riding than we’d want. Or maybe it just needs a bigger set of wheels – the ones you see in the photos are a custom job by the dealer.

The interior is a revelation, speaking in Fiat terms. This is undoubtedly one of the best interiors the Italian company has ever produced to date, and we weren’t even bothered by the fake carbon-fiber panels which felt fairly good to the touch. Most controls are logically arranged and there’s orange ambient lighting all around. But wait, there’s more: the door and trunk close with a reassuring thump that’s been long missing from Fiat’s midsize offerings.

Still, there are a few issues. Ask and thou shall find hard plastics where the eye doesn’t see and even where it does – like in the gearlever area. The wiper and turning signal handles belong to the better part of the 1990s and there are not as many soft-touch areas as you’d find in some competitors. We could also see no good coming out of the partially reflective plastic covering the dials either, but the

dials themselves – in good Fiat tradition – are visible to the driver only. No more nagging from the wife when you drift to 85.

On the practicality front, the Bravo takes a few hits. The front seats feel a little awkward at first, but prove to be comfortable on long journeys – if a little hard. Rear legroom, however, is limited and you wouldn’t want to place anyone you love in the middle rear seat. It could get nasty. The trunk itself isn’t exceptionally big, but it’s deep enough to comfortably fit an adult (don’t ask).

Things get interesting under the bonnet. The gas engine range consists of 3 different states of tune of the same 1.4 liter, 16 valve unit – a naturally aspirated variant with 90 horsepower and two turbocharged versions, called T-JET, with 120 and 150 horsepower. If this all sounds familiar to you, it’s because it is – this flexible little engine appears everywhere in the concern’s offerings, including the Alfa MiTo and Abarth versions of the Punto and 500.

Unsurprisingly, Fiat’s intention is to compete with Volkswagen on the small turbocharged engine front. Over the last two years, VW has been constantly replacing its lower capacity gas engines with smaller, turbocharged (and in some cases, supercharged as well) units, and Fiat has clearly spotted the advantage of the added torque and power availability.

Our tester was equipped with the mid-range motor, producing 120 horsepower. Consumers in the Holy Land – much like in the States – prefer their cars with two pedals only and without that odd stick to their right, so our tester was mated to a six-speed Dualogic sequential gearbox.

The first part of this combination impresses. 120 horsepower doesn’t sound like much, and a sub-10-second sprint to 60 doesn’t exactly rock the earth, but the flexibility of the turbo engine allows for excellent mid-range power. The spec sheet says that maximum torque is available from as low as 1,750 RPM – and thankfully, there’s no noticeable turbo lag unless you really push it. As an added bonus, this engine has a great throaty sound and turbo hiss that’s only noticeable if you open the window and concentrate. At which point you may put the Bravo’s 5 star EuroNCAP crash test rating to review – be sure to let us know.

The bad news, as you’ve probably expected, come from the gearbox. We’re well acquainted with the said Dualogic gearbox, but with this engine and car it feels even more frustrating. Instead of a traditional automatic setup utilizing a torque converter, this gearbox uses an electronic clutch which shifts gears automatically. The result is, well, bumpy.

The Dualogic is simply not as smooth as a conventional automatic or a dual clutch gearbox like VW’s DSG. And unlike the 500, the Bravo isn’t equipped with any sort of a hill holding system (and there’s no creeping), which means that the second you release the brake, the car will immediately succumb to the laws of physics and roll in the general direction of the gradient, which could coincide with the general direction of the car behind you. Possible solutions: growing a third leg or braking with your left foot, neither of which TTAC recommends.

To make matters worse, this autobox is hesitant and when it does finally decide on the proper gear it lets you know with a friendly kick. In town, it’s a rocky and unpleasant experience. On the highway, it gets better. Here’s the thing: if you drive this car like a regular automatic, you’ll be disappointed. If you keep its manual roots in mind, lift off the throttle during upshifts and use the handy steering wheel mounted shifters, it’s actually not an entirely traumatic experience – it even blips on downshifts. Which begs the question: why not get the manual (and save money) in the first place?

The ride leans to the harsh side. It’s by no means uncomfortable, but slightly restless around town. On better roads it feels fairly composed, but wind noises intrude the cockpit in speeds approaching the legal limits.

When the roads got twisty, we had some expectations from the Bravo, as it comes from the company which has been producing sweet handling cars since the dawn of automotive time – not to mention owning Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Maserati and Lancia. Coincidentally, this was also one of the most disappointing aspects of the Bravo.

There’s the steering. The thick-rimmed leather wheel – which

is pleasant to the touch – quickly proved just how bad an electro-hydraulic setup can get. It’s over-assisted, imprecise and vague, with minimal Playstation-like levels of feedback. The gas pedal has a rubbery feel to it and the brakes – although having good initial response – give up and go on a smoking break way too quickly. Not exactly a recipe for a fun Sunday drive, but in the end of the day, there are worse cars to drive, thanks to a good chassis and controlled body roll thanks to the toughened suspension. It’s a shame you have to dig deeper than most drivers naturally will to discover these positive qualities.

The Fiat Bravo isn’t a bad car. It’s actually one of Fiat’s best efforts to date: it’s an attractive and fairly refined car with a worthy engine that’s let down by disappointing driving dynamics and a poor automatic gearbox – though the latter is about to change with the introduction of Fiat’s first dual clutch transmission (DCT) later this year. But it’s still not as complete as the Volkswagen Golf or even the Ford Focus, and it suffers from Fiat’s poor reputation when it comes to family hatchbacks.

The Bravo then, is that quiet student perched against the class wall. It can’t be that awe-inspiring all-knowing guy – let’s call him Golf – but neither can it be ‘the dude’ because of its mediocre driving dynamics and lack of driver appeal. And as quiet individuals go, it’ll be ignored by most shoppers looking for a family hatchback – and that’s a shame, because it still manages to be a refreshingly original pick in an otherwise boring class (pun unintended), that’s also significantly cheaper than its more accomplished competitors. Bravo (sorry, we had to).

Fiat provided the vehicle for this review, along with insurance and one tank of gas

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Tal Bronfer
Tal Bronfer

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2 of 19 comments
  • PeriSoft PeriSoft on Feb 05, 2010

    OK, two things: First, the pop-up-on-hover ads are getting very close to being enough to drive away this newly-obsessive TTAC reader. I'm sitting here, late at night, enjoying a PB&J and some TTAC before I join my wife in bed, and the merest brush against the mouse yields a blasted, "THE WHATEVER CAR HAS A RACE INSPIRED SUSPENSION! THAT'S A GOOD THING, BECA..." and I finally manage to hit the tiny-ass little close X, after which I fail to navigate the maze of double-underlined ad triggers on the way to the volume icon in the system tray... "THE WHATEVER CAR HAS A RACE INSPIRED SUSPENSION! THAT'S A GOOD THING, BE..." You know what? Screw that s**t. If I want to find out about a car, I'll click on the ad. Forcing it - LOUDLY - down my throat because I didn't concentrate enough while mousing across the page is the epitome of crass, pointless obnoxiousness. I shouldn't have to remember to mute my audio before I come here, and even without the audio the ads are incredibly intrusive, not to mention ludicrously arbitrary. Hey, you triggered a car ad on 'engine'! Because -cars- have -engines-! I see what you did there! You've got a good web site whose -normal- ads I pay attention to. Don't ruin the party by shoving your flier-laden fist down my throat if I open my mouth to cough. Now - second - what has TTAC got against left foot braking? If you're driving an autobox, it's almost foolhardy not to, if for nothing else than the half-second you gain in panic braking scenarios. In competition driving, left foot braking is fairly normal, even for cars with manual boxes, since you can shift clutchlessly if you know the car and have the right gearbox. In an automatic, I fail to see any rational arguments against it, save for those which presuppose an already hopelessly idiotic driver.

  • Fred schumacher Fred schumacher on Feb 24, 2010

    In spite of what the car press likes or car enthusiasts want, in the States a car is an appliance. The less we have to interact with it, the happier we are. That's why automatic transmissions are preferred and why Toyota flew to the top (until the latest glitch). Toyota produces the car equivalent of the electric toaster, and that sells. If this car is coming to the U.S., it would be nice to see a review of how it does in bland driving. We understand that in Europe, drivers like to use the throttle as an on-off switch. Over here, we go long distances on boring roads every day. For perspective, take away the Negev and the lived in part of Israel is smaller than my home school district in Northern Minnesota. How will this car do in boring driving? That's the key question.

  • Pau65792686 I think there is a need for more sedans. Some people would rather drive a car over SUV’s or CUV’s. If Honda and Toyota can do it why not American brands. We need more affordable sedans.
  • Tassos Obsolete relic is NOT a used car.It might have attracted some buyers in ITS DAY, 1985, 40 years ago, but NOT today, unless you are a damned fool.
  • Stan Reither Jr. Part throttle efficiency was mentioned earlier in a postThis type of reciprocating engine opens the door to achieve(slightly) variable stroke which would provide variable mechanical compression ratio adjustments for high vacuum (light load) or boost(power) conditions IMO
  • Joe65688619 Keep in mind some of these suppliers are not just supplying parts, but assembled components (easy example is transmissions). But there are far more, and the more they are electronically connected and integrated with rest of the platform the more complex to design, engineer, and manufacture. Most contract manufacturers don't make a lot of money in the design and engineering space because their customers to that. Commodity components can be sourced anywhere, but there are only a handful of contract manufacturers (usually diversified companies that build all kinds of stuff for other brands) can engineer and build the more complex components, especially with electronics. Every single new car I've purchased in the last few years has had some sort of electronic component issue: Infinti (battery drain caused by software bug and poorly grounded wires), Acura (radio hiss, pops, burps, dash and infotainment screens occasionally throw errors and the ignition must be killed to reboot them, voice nav, whether using the car's system or CarPlay can't seem to make up its mind as to which speakers to use and how loud, even using the same app on the same trip - I almost jumped in my seat once), GMC drivetrain EMF causing a whine in the speakers that even when "off" that phased with engine RPM), Nissan (didn't have issues until 120K miles, but occassionally blew fuses for interior components - likely not a manufacturing defect other than a short developed somewhere, but on a high-mileage car that was mechanically sound was too expensive to fix (a lot of trial and error and tracing connections = labor costs). What I suspect will happen is that only the largest commodity suppliers that can really leverage their supply chain will remain, and for the more complex components (think bumper assemblies or the electronics for them supporting all kinds of sensors) will likley consolidate to a handful of manufacturers who may eventually specialize in what they produce. This is part of the reason why seemingly minor crashes cost so much - an auto brand does nst have the parts on hand to replace an integrated sensor , nor the expertice as they never built them, but bought them). And their suppliers, in attempt to cut costs, build them in way that is cheap to manufacture (not necessarily poorly bulit) but difficult to replace without swapping entire assemblies or units).I've love to see an article on repair costs and how those are impacting insurance rates. You almost need gap insurance now because of how quickly cars depreciate yet remain expensive to fix (orders more to originally build, in some cases). No way I would buy a CyberTruck - don't want one, but if I did, this would stop me. And it's not just EVs.
  • Joe65688619 I agree there should be more sedans, but recognize the trend. There's still a market for performance oriented-drivers. IMHO a low budget sedan will always be outsold by a low budget SUV. But a sports sedan, or a well executed mid-level sedan (the Accord and Camry) work. Smaller market for large sedans except I think for an older population. What I'm hoping to see is some consolidation across brands - the TLX for example is not selling well, but if it was offered only in the up-level configurations it would not be competing with it's Honda sibling. I know that makes the market smaller and niche, but that was the original purpose of the "luxury" brands - badge-engineering an existing platform at a relatively lower cost than a different car and sell it with a higher margin for buyers willing and able to pay for them. Also creates some "brand cachet." But smart buyers know that simple badging and slightly better interiors are usually not worth the cost. Put the innovative tech in the higher-end brands first, differentiate they drivetrain so it's "better" (the RDX sells well for Acura, same motor and tranmission, added turbo which makes a notable difference compared to the CRV). The sedan in many Western European countries is the "family car" as opposed to micro and compact crossovers (which still sell big, but can usually seat no more than a compact sedan).