Fiat has applied world car principles to the C-segment and has created the Linea, a more expensive cousin to the Palio. Mark Bursa reports

Fiat pioneered the emerging markets world car concept in the 1990s with the Project 178 Palio/Siena family. Since then, Renault has stolen some of Fiat’s thunder with the hugely successful Logan – but now Fiat has developed the Linea, which adds a new twist to the concept.

Like Palio and Logan, Linea is specially designed for emerging markets. It only comes with one body style – three-box, four-door sedan, a niche concept in Western Europe these days but the most popular body style in most emerging markets. And it’ll be built in several locations around the world – Turkey, Russia, India, Brazil and China. Fiat Auto CEO Sergio Marchionne said: “Exporting no longer suffices – we have to produce where we sell.”

Unlike Palio and Logan, Linea is no “€5,000 car” – prices in Turkey, its launch market, will start at around €12,500, with the top-line variants costing €18,000. And those prices mean it’s certainly not a replacement for the Palio-based Siena sedan – indeed, an all-new replacement for the Project 178 family is due in 2008, and these cars will compete head-on with Renault’s Logan as an entry model for global markets.

Instead, Linea is pitched squarely at the growing and profitable C-segment sedan sector, giving Fiat a state-of the-art competitor in a sector where it previously competed with the obsolete Marea sedan.

Fiat has cleverly created Linea from the basic platform of the Grande Punto supermini. Grande Punto is one of the biggest cars in its class, and extending this wheelbase and adding a massive 500-litre boot has created a car that will compete with the likes of the Toyota Corolla and the VW Jetta. Linea is 4.56m long, 1.73m wide, 1.5m tall and its wheelbase measures 2.6m.

It was developed jointly by Fiat and its Turkish manufacturing partner Tofas, and as a result Fiat chose a highly symbolic location in Turkey for the launch of a world car – the island of Buzada in the Bosporus – the stretch of water that runs through the city of Istanbul, dividing Europe and Asia.

Tofas is a 50:50 joint venture between Fiat Auto and local industrial conglomerate Koç Holding, and it has a long relationship with Fiat, having been set up in 1968. Linea is being built at the Tofas plant in Bursa, Turkey, at a rate of 60,000 cars a year once the plant reaches peak output in 2009. Around 40% of Turkish output will be exported to Europe and North Africa. Not all countries are taking the car – France, for example – but Fiat has confirmed so far it will be sold in Spain, Germany, Morocco and Finland. In 2008 Fiat expects to sell 27,000 Lineas in Turkey and 15,000 in Europe.

Right-hand drive production will not be available until production starts in mid-2008 at the Tata-Fiat JV plant at Ranjangaon in India’s Maharashtra state, which also builds the Palio. Marchionne said Indian production volume would be 50,000-60,000 cars a year. India will export to other RHD markets, including South Africa and the Republic of Ireland with Linea, though for the moment, the UK has no plans to take the car.

As well as India, Fiat is planning to build Linea at its existing plant in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, from October 2007, and in partnership with Severstal Avto in Tatartsan province, Russia, from January 2008. Production in China will follow as soon as Fiat has sorted out its problems with partner Nanjing Automobile (see separate story). By 2012, Fiat expects to be building 280,000 Lineas worldwide, making it the second best-selling individual model in the Fiat range worldwide, after the Grande Punto.

“Linea will speed up the internationalisation of Fiat Auto’s business,” said Fiat’s global brand chief Luca di Meo. As a C-segment sedan, it will be a prime offering in many of its target markets. “There are 6.5 million potential customers for C-segment sedans worldwide,” he added.

In Turkey, the C-segment represents 52% of the total market, and sedans account for 75% of this, with 170,000 registrations per year. In Russia, the C-segment accounts for around half of the 2m total market, and while the C-segment’s share in China is smaller at 20%, the total market is much larger at 4m cars a year, and rising fast to an estimated 7.5m by 2013. “The Indian C-segment of 200,000 cars a year is also expected to double in the next five years,” di Meo said.

Sharing the Grande Punto platform has helped keep down development costs. Linea has been developed in just two years at a cost of €170 million. In was designed in-house at Fiat Centro Stile, and Fiat has attempted to strike a balance between practicality and specification levels. All engines are Euro IV-compliant; there are two petrol engines from the new T-Jet family (77bhp 1.4-litre 8v and 120bhp 1.4-litre 16v Turbo) and a turbodiesel (90bhp 1.3-litre Multijet 16v). The petrol engines are made in Turkey, while the diesels come from Fiat’s Bielsko-Biala plant in Poland.

The Linea has three specification levels (Active, Dynamic and Emotion), and 11 body colours. Features include climate control, Bluetooth compatibility, Cruise Control and parking sensors. The suspension has an independent MacPherson system at the front, and semi-independent wheels connected by a torsion axle at the rear. It has been tuned especially for poor roads, with long travel but limited body roll. Interior build quality is solid, and plastics put durability above luxury.

Fiat plans to introduce new flexibility to the manufacturing programme for the Linea, which will mean versions built in different markets may be subtly different. Chinese Lineas might have engines sourced locally from Chery, for example, while Brazilian Lineas will have flex-fuel engines that will allow them to run on Ethanol. Other specification differences may be more subtle, with local suppliers used wherever possible rather than extending the supply chain, said Marchionne.

At Bursa, the Linea replaces the Marea sedan in production at the plant. Tofas produced 180,000 vehicles and exported about 120,000 in 2006, and earlier this year the company said it planned to invest $1bn in new models, in a bid to double production by 2008.

Turkey remains a low-cost centre for Fiat. As well as Linea, the Bursa plant builds the Doblo van, the Palio hatchback and a version of the Siena which is badged Albea in Turkey. Tofas employs 4,500 factory workers, earning on average $12,000 a year.

In the pipeline is an all-new Doblo, which is still under discussion, but looks likely to be built at Tofas. Marchionne said: “We agree that Turkey is the right place to build it, but there is still work to do.”

Definitely coming is a new, smaller ‘mini cargo’ light commercial vehicle which will be built under a new three-way joint venture between Fiat, Koc Holding and Psa Peugeot Citroen. These vehicles, expected to be unveiled later this year, will fill gaps in the Fiat and PSA ranges left vacant since the demise of the Fiat Fiorino, Citroen C15 and Peugeot 205 Fourgonette vans.

Mark Bursa

See also: Linea launched in Turkey