The new car, just released to the media in a marathon drive that started in Natal and finished in Johannesburg, is Fiat's biggest yet in this country, and it's also the most modern, having only recently been released on world markets.
What's more, it's the first Fiat to get the acclaimed 5 star Euro NCAP award for safety, with no fewer than seven airbags in its armoury, as well as a host of electronic driver safety aids.
At 1 775 mm high and 4 756 mm long the Croma - the name doesn't mean anything in particular, by the way - is no wilting violet, although its smooth Giorgetti Giugiaro design does a great job of making it look smaller.
The car exudes class, with very clean lines, a sweeping front to rear style, large windows, and modern lights.
On the outside
Styling sees a very aerodynamic front with a chromed slatted grille flanked by wide slanted lights, and incorporating a large Fiat "laurel leaf" badge.
The sides see slightly bulbous wheelarches front and rear, to give the requisite touch of machismo, with strong side strips and big chromed door handles as highlights.
The designers also took into account the possible blind spot at the rear, and added a large quarter light which makes the passenger compartment more airy.
Roof rails are an optional extra.
The back of the car is smoothly flowed through from the sides, and there's a big lift-up tailgate.
Big rear lights
The lighting clusters are large and bold, with three round lights each side.
However, the turn indicator, inset into the brake lights, can get a bit lost.
Perhaps Fiat can shuffle the lights around a bit to make it easier to see when Croma drivers are turning...
Inside the first impression is of space, especially in the back.
This is one vehicle that will easily carry five adult males, without anyone feeling cramped, and what's more it can carry all their luggage, too.
Fiat says there's 900 mm between the rear seat backs and the front seats, which is a lot of legroom - plenty, from our observation - while headroom from the squab to the roof is 1 011 mm., again, plenty.
In a normal seating position there's no less than 500 litres of boot space, including a "secret" area big enough to hold a laptop, but this increases to a massive 1 610 litres when the 60/40 split seats are folded.
The interior is bright and cheerful, with two-tone trim and a definite feeling of quality.
The dashboard is made of soft-touch material, with trim strips between top and bottom in a dark "chrome-look" plastic material that is quite classy.
The same material is used to trim the rim of the centre console, and there's lots of neat detailing, such as the chromed gear knob and the bright trim rings on the instruments.
Instrumentation is contained in a binnacle right in front of the driver, and comprises large speedo and revcounter flanking water temperature and fuel gauges.
The centre console is the command centre for the climate control aircon, which has an LCD display for greater clarity on where the air is going, plus the front/loader CD radio.
There are also satellite controls for the audio system on the leather-rimed steering wheel.
Between the two front seats is a big box that also doubles as a centre armrest, and this is a feature all on its own.
It's very deep - enough to take two 500 ml mineral water bottles, and the good news is that by opening a slot inside you can allow cool air from the aircon to circulate through the box and keep the bottles cool.
As mentioned the car gets climate control aircon as standard, with a fully automatic system optional, plus electric windows front and rear, electric mirrors, and power steering.
There are also cruise control and side curtain blinds, and remote central locking, while options include leather upholstery and a panoramic sunroof.
There's also a unique "hill holder" device, which makes those dreaded hill starts easier - the car holds for about 15 seconds without the driver having to juggle with the clutch, handbrake, and accelerator.
On the road
Getting into the car is easy, especially thanks to the high seating position, and it's the high seating which gives the impression of space - because you sit higher than in a normal sedan your legs are in a more natural position, and you don't need as much "stretch" room.
Getting a great driving position is easy, too, with back/forward and seat backrest recline, plus a steering column adjustable for both height and reach.
There's lots of room in the driver's footwell, with a left footrest provided.
On the road it's immediately apparent that a LOT of time and money has been spent on making this into a very refined car.
The car has MacPherson struts at the front and four-link multi-link suspension at the rear, and it's fitted with 16 inch alloy wheels with 215/55 R16 tyres as standard with both 17 inch and 18 inch alloys optional.
This results in near-neutral handling at most speeds, and you'd be hard pressed to prove this one has front-wheel drive - it feels like rear-drive.
The electro-hydraulic speed-related steering is very precise, and with ASC traction control, ABS with electronic brakeforce distribution, and ESP stability programme, it will be almost impossible to get into trouble in normal driving (bearing in mind that the laws of physics always apply).
Ride quality is superb, coupled with the sort of handling you'd expect from a company that also owns Alfa and Ferrari, but the most endearing feature is - the silence.
Even when we pushed it to highly illegal speeds during our tests we were still able to converse in a normal voice, with the only impingement slightly louder road noise than at lower speeds.
When you lift the bonnet you realise why, for it's extremely heavy, covered in sound-proofing material.
Even more remarkable is that under the bonnet is a 2.2-litre four-cylinder engine.
Bear in mind that the Croma comes in at close to 1 1/2 tons, and the fact that you don't hear the engine working speaks volumes (or not!!).
The motor adheres to the strict Euro 4 emissions standards, and delivers 108 kW at 5 800 r/min and peak torque of 203 Nm at 4 000 r/min.
Fiat claims a top speed of 210 km/h 0 to 100 km/h acceleration in 10.1 seconds.
The sequential automatic transmission version gives 205 km/h and 10.7 seconds.
The Croma has a full trip and consumption computer built-in, and at an average speed of 124 km/h we achieved 11.8 litres/100 km - not bad at all.
Fiat claims 11.5 litres/100 km in the urban cycle, 7 litres/100 km in the out-of-town cycle and 8.6 litres/100 km in the mixed cycle.
The indirect injection motor is a newly designed twin overhead camshaft, all-aluminium four valves-per-cylinder unit.
Fitted with hydraulic tappets and twin balance shafts for smoothness, it weighs just 138 kg thanks to the use of lightweight materials and modern construction with low maintenance requirements.
Another big plus with the Croma is that servicing is only required every 30 000 km!
Fiat has made steady progress in the past two years, changing from a "cheap" car maker into one which embraces a wide variety of models and model segments, and now including commercial vehicles, too.
Giorgio Gorelli, Fiat SA's highly motivated MD, speaks enthusiastically about the company's aims.
Yes, he says, it's organic growth, driven by customer needs. And yes, there will be an ever-growing accent on after sales service.
When Fiat was aligned with Nissan there were as many as 96 Fiat dealers.
Although this has now shrunk to 35 - rising to 39 soon - the dealers are more profitable, with turnover per dealer on average six times higher than it was a few years ago.
"At Fiat we really believe we can deliver what customers are looking for," he says.
The Croma is typical of this ethos. It will have to fight hard to establish itself in what is essentially a small market niche, but I believe customers WILL be satisfied.
Even better, though, will be the 1.9 turbo-diesel version, which will come here in the middle of next year.
With more low-down torque it will have better driveability, while economy will drop to the level of a small sedan. I look forward to it.
Croma 2.2i Dynamic manual R215 000
Croma 2.2i Dynamic automatic R227 000
A maintenance contract is an optional extra
The car comes with a 24-month manufacturer warranty, unlimited mileage and an additional 12-month dealer extended warranty or up to 100 000km in total, three years on paintwork and five years on rust anti-perforation.
The new models are covered by the 24/7 AA Fleetcare roadside assistance for 12 months.