Fiat Multipla

It's all very well having a great personality and lots of talent, but when it comes to finding a partner, it's first impressions which really count. Fiat has learned that lesson the hard way.

The new Multipla offers all the advantages of the original, but has a far more conventional approach. Long-time fans will be disappointed that Fiat has smoothed off the previous car's oddball image - but in doing so, the Italian maker has opened up the Multipla to a whole new market.

It's all very well having a great personality and lots of talent, but when it comes to finding a partner, it's first impressions which really count. Fiat has learned that lesson the hard way.

In 1999, the company launched the innovative Multipla to critical acclaim and a hatful of awards. Here was a mini-MPV that offered genuine practicality and distinctive styling. It was roomy, well equipped and good to drive, while its novel seating arrangement let six passengers travel three abreast. It was a clever concept, and one that really should have enjoyed success... only car buyers here didn't see it that way.

The Multipla's sales figures have never matched the initial hype, for one simple reason: you either loved or hated the challenging styling. And unfortunately for Fiat, most potential custom-ers fell into the latter camp.

As a result, there's now a new Multipla, boasting a far more conventional look. Gone are the split-level headlamps and bulbous front screen, to be replaced by Fiat's fresh family grille. Meanwhile, the original rear lights have been swapped for a pair similar to the Stilo hatch's. Elsewhere, not so much has changed. The cabin is largely the same, offering good levels of comfort, even when travelling six-up, while the oddball dashboard continues to draw away from convention.

Our only criticism of the newcomer is reserved for some of the plastics used inside and out. The dashboard has a brittle finish, the rear parcel shelf seems cheap and the black moulded door handles have a real downmarket feel.

Standard specification has been improved across the range, and the same engine choices - 1.6-litre petrol or 1.9 common-rail JTD diesel - remain. The driving experience is also little different, with the MPV delivering surprisingly agile handling and adequate performance, whichever motor you choose. Safety has been improved to provide side airbags on all but the entry-level Dynamic, while the base model alone now omits climate control as standard.

Given its keen pricing - the range starts from £13,295 - the Multipla represents a serious threat to more conventional competitors in the class. But while the Fiat's toned-down looks are bound to widen its appeal, we can't help but think that it has lost some of its originality in the process.

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