Fiat's fresh Bravo, whose launch coincides with its introduction of a revised logo, is a breath of fresh Italian flair, much like the Grande Punto launched to much acclaim last year.
Fiat Auto is currently undergoing a global major turnaround with positive results in Europe. Whether these results will filter down to the local market remains to be seen. Goodness knows, the embattled brand (well, locally at least) needs all the help it can get.
To help it on its way, Bravo is one good looking number. Its shared DNA with the equally good-looking Grande Punto is mostly evident from the front, while the rear has an Alfa Brera dumpiness to it that is not unattractive on the more compact Bravo body.
Its wedge-like profile seems dynamic and energetic and, on the whole, is a welcome departure from that of the bland Stilo it replaces.
The engine range being offered is also likely to please potential buyers at the reef since the spread consists of turbocharged petrol and diesel units only.
At launch, Bravo is powered by a 1.9-litre Multijet turbodiesel and a new 1.4-litre T-Jet petrol unit producing 110 kW. A 88 kW version of the petrol powerplant becomes available from early 2008.
For now, Bravo sees the debut of the new range of turbocharged petrol engines (called T-Jet) that the manufacturer promises will deliver lower fuel consumption figures and more instant response.
While I can't vouch for the lower fuel consumption following a hurried test drive (Fiat claims 7.1 l/100 km), I can say that the 16-valve is alarmingly sprightly with vicious power delivery. The powertrain is deliciously flexible too, with almost instant acceleration in any of its gears.
Figures quoted are 110 kW of power at 5 500 r/min and peak torque of 206 Nm at 2 000 r/min. For short periods (under rapid acceleration or when overtaking), torque is bumped up to 230 Nm at 3 000 r/min by using the Sports button on the facia.
Acceleration from 0 - 100 km/h is attained in 8.5 seconds, or 8.2 seconds when the overboost function is used.
The turbodiesel, on the other hand, is not as engaging to drive. It's not a bad thing, since the unit revs freely to beyond the 5 000 r/min line and is whisper-quiet at cruising speeds.
The familiar 1.9-litre has been marginally tweaked to deliver better performance and torque at lower speeds while reducing noise and vibration. This second-generation common-rail Multijet unit produces 110 kW at 4 000 r/min and peak torque of 305 Nm at 2 000 r/min with 90% of this torque available between 1 750 and 3 250 r/min.
The Multijet unit uses an electronic exhaust gas recirculation system and a close-coupled catalytic converter. Its particulate filter lasts for the lifetime of the vehicle and is regenerated without additives.
Equipped with this engine, the Bravo is quick too, hitting 100 km/h from standstill in nine seconds.
However, the turbodiesel does suffer from massive lag in the lower reaches. This initially has to be factored in when changing up, but a few kilometers of practice should soon remedy that.
Fuel consumption for the turbodiesel on the mixed cycle is 5.6 l/100 km.
Fiat claims its engines are extremely reliable and has set services at 30 000-km intervals with no intermediate "check-ups".
Shift action on the standard six-speed manual transmission used feels rather wobbly. But the overall driving experience is superb. Bravo rides on a revised suspension that features a new anti-roll bar at the front and re-tuned springs and new dampers.
The semi-independent rear suspension has a new hollow anti-roll bar that is up to 40% stronger than before. And with tracks wider by 20 mm compared with Stilo, Fiat promises best-in-class torsional rigidity.
A combination of 16-, 17- and 18-inch alloy wheels also ensure impeccable roadholding.
Inside the cabin, quality seems very fair with the manufacturer having opted for a more subdued metallic plastic finish for the centre console. Even hard plastics have a "soft touch" and seven different trim options are offered for the interior so there should be something to appeal to most tastes.
The cabin is very roomy up front with more than enough luggage space for a vehicle of this size.
New Bravo achieved a five-star rating in the Euro NCAP testing procedures. While safety equipment is dependent on the derivative, Bravo stocks up to seven airbags, ABS with EBD, ESP incorporating ASR, hydraulic brake assist, engine torque regulator and a hill-hold function. ESP cannot be disengaged.
Another exciting new addition to the range is the optional Blue and Me multimedia system, debuted recently in South Africa on the Alfa Romeo 159 2.4 Multijet. The plug-and-play system is voice controlled and plays off a USB device.
Fiat in South Africa has come a long way since the days its Uno and Palio/Siena were the brand's mainstays. The recent re-introduction of Uno could have sparked a peculiar sense of de ja vu, but models like Grande Punto and new Stilo are strong indicators of the direction in which the Italians hope to steer the brand.
Entering one of the toughest market segments, Bravo had better be able to hold up its end of the deal.
1.4 T-Jet Dynamic - R187 000
1.4 T-Jet Sport - R197 000
1.9 Multijet Dynamic - R207 000
Indicative pricing for the 88-kW 1.4 T-Jet in Active trim is R177 000.
Bravo comes with a three-year/100 000 km warranty and a five-year/90 000 km service plan. Free AA roadside assistance is provided for a year.