1999 Fiat Siena: An Italian Delight | Nostalgia!
The first-generation 1999 Fiat Siena sedan was my first car. An excellent sedan with high levels of quality and comfort, this car would easily shame many of the present-day cars in the segment. Nearly 15 years on, it still looks and feels fantastic and serves as a reminder that Fiat makes passionate cars, let aside their crappy marketing in India. The car still adores my garage with pride and passion!
“Every Fiat is driven by passion. Those who drive love them”, goes one of the Fiat’s TVC advertisement. That’s a word of wisdom, perhaps, in my own case. This car may look dowdy for many, not punchy enough to drive and hardly garners any respect on roads now. But trust me, owing a car for some many years and taking care of it like day one is a wonderful feeling. Back when I was a kid, I remember seeing an old man in my locality who owned a Morris Minor of 1950s. I used to see him roam in his damn old car and get stranded midway at times, with hood wide open and tools in his hand. I have laughed at him, as did others. But it actually took these many years for me to realise his love towards his car, it’s a life learning perhaps.
Let’s begin with some background sniffle on the car. The Siena was conceived as a part of Fiat’s 178th World Car project of mid-1990s that worked on a affordable platform to withstand the arduous driving conditions of developing countries. As a result, one could find high impetus on durability, safety and comforts in this car. Its body shell felt like that of an armoured vehicle as against its chief rivals at that time, the feeling of solidity is immensely present all over this car. You must feel the way the well-weighted doors and boot lid thud shut everytime. A rock-solid chassis complements the heavy body, giving the car excellent dynamics. And, the car was designed by the ever-loving designer of the century Giorgetto Giugiaro of Italy!
The Siena is unique to put in perspectives. Though it was built for global markets and assembled outside Italy, the Italian flair was intact. Apart from the solid built, its peculiar design and styling was like never before – less boxy and distinctively curvy – at the turn of the century. Its slinky-eyed headlamps and handlebar grille up front, thick ‘A’ pillars and even more chummier ‘C’ pillars, bulbous rear and ‘stubby’ overall appearance worked quite well to stand out of the league. The styling looks diminutive to its actual size except from the rear, which appears a bit bulky and plain. Sides look neat, largely plain panels with mild creases and wheel arches. Many may find its design uninspiring now, but in my opinion it was a distinct departure from the conventionality of its times – boxy sharp edges and long hood lines.
A face-lifted model featuring Palio-like frontal styling and tweaked rear appeared in 2002, but I love the styling of the old model. I’ve loved the look of this car for so long and I am a certified Siena addict now. Whenever I spot the car’s semblance anywhere in any movies or on road, I pause for a while, take a moment to admire the car. It’s rare to spot one on road these days.
The Siena’s body is incredibly rust-free. Even after 15 years, it is hard to find any rust in the exterior body of my car. That gives a built-to-last feel and exudes a sense of safety. Interestingly that’s not the case with few other cars of its segment. My 2005 Ford Ikon’s body panels shockingly developed rust in a very short span, especially at wheel arches and running board. My uncle had to exercise care every time while washing his 2004 Hyundai Accent, as rusted roof let to the seepage of water inside the cabin!
On the inside, the dashboard layout was once again distinctive to the prevailing standards of its time. It looks a bit dull, but its utilitarian appeal is appreciable. Things are appropriately placed where they ought to be for maximum functionality. One thing that I badly miss is a tachometer, and the instrument cluster illumination is a bit boring after all these years. Yet, the dials are clear and easy to read. The blower throw has deteriorated, after working all these years effectively. Some say that the thick ‘A’ pillar of the Siena limits vision, but I never experienced great annoyance out of it. Accessibility to the boot is phenomenal, flip fold the rear seats to make as big as 500 litres. Seats are designed for optimum comforts and pampers you especially for long drives. Not to forget the eccentric rail mechanism that lifts the seat while adjusting. Not even my new Ford Fiesta classic is supportive and comfy as this car. No exaggeration.
Exemplary ride comfort is Siena’s greatest strength. Put your hands on the boot lid and push down the car down, it’ll be like moving a hanging cradle back and forth! The ultra-soft rear suspension system smothers even the most dreadful bumps and potholes. Even those who are not interested about cars would be struck by its serenity while wading through bad road, filtering most into the cabin. But you are sure to complain about the car’s ridiculously low ground clearance, just 140mm. Take no effort, you are sure to easily scratch the Siena’s under body! That would be a nuisance at times for me frankly, therefore I have to slow down, confront the speed bumps diagonally and get less scraped!
The recipe for the Siena is a pretty good one, a 1,242cc 8V FIRE (Fully Integrated Robotised Engine, as per Fiat’s terminology) MPFI petrol engine, mated to a 5-speed manual transmission. It’s like a Chettinad non-veg recipe falling short of adequate spiciness perhaps; it’s light weight, compact, but small for the car of this kind. Back in its era, the Siena had the smallest petrol engine in its class. Later on, it added a bigger 1.6-litre 16V motor during the mid-term facelift. Driving the car is a heartfelt job to me, it isn’t a nimble handler yet fun to drive even today. The performance may appear inadequate for today’s standards, but it is certainly better if you compare it to 1.0-litre petrol engines of today.
This 1.2 motor is internationally acclaimed, found its use in many of the Fiat cars including the Palio, Punto, Marea, and Bravo. It develops 72 bhp, refinement and drivability is all I like in its performance. Straight-line acceleration maybe lethargic, but the responsiveness in all five gears will surely impress. Throttle response and force feedback while driving will say you that a brutish machine is under the hood. Even at a speed as low as 30 kmph in top gear, step on the gas and you’ll notice the car hopping without major hick-ups. I still find this very trait amazing for an engine of this size. It’s characters have waned a bit after all these years, with increased NVH levels and drop in acceleration, especially while switching to LPG fuel. Fuel efficiency is not excellent I would say, but is absolutely decent in both petrol and LPG.
Further, the Fiat Siena is synonymous to passenger safety. You may find hard to believe, my car is equipped with ABS and a driver-side Airbag. Fiat did offer the passenger Airbag as an option. In fact, Fiat was the only brand in India that offered ABS and Airbag in the Siena sedan and Siena Weekend, beside Mercedes-Benz until 2002. Other features includes Collapsible (energy absorbing) steering wheel, Anti-intrusion side impact bars in the doors, Front structure with controlled deformation and reinforced struts, Fire Prevention System, Fiat’s Anti-theft device (Key-code system) and Rear seat belts.
The steering of the Siena is undoubtedly a boon, I simply love it. Albeit doing its duty for almost a lakh kilometers for 15 years, the steering is incredibly responsive now, free and fun to work with. Especially at higher speeds, the steering is firm, without any tremble. Cross the 140 kmph mark, only then you can feel some jerks. Comparing to Hyundai Accent and Mitsubishi Lancer, the Siena’s high speed stability is worth praising. I managed to clock a top speed of 165 kmph (speedo reading) on a flat-out highway some years back. However, the turning radius is restrictive comparing to other sedans. Got used to it!
A CBU-import, you know!
What makes my Siena (manufactured in February 1999) a priceless car is the fact that you can hardly find any local or second-rate components used in it. There is hardly any made in India products to be frank! The body panels (in completely died and stamped form) were imported from Fiat’s facility in Turkey. The windshields and the door glasses are Brazil-made, while the engine was imported in fully assembled and tested form from Italy. The ABS system is sourced from Bosch, Germany. The ECU has been designed by Magneti Marelli and the fuel injection system by Weber, both shipped from Italy. The engine case unit has “Lancia” name carved in it, I’m not sure of its significance yet.
That’s because by the end of 1998, Fiat began selling the Siena sedan in India. The company simply assembled the car at its Kurla plant out of products imported from its global facilities. The sedan was a CBU until October 1999, later on the level of localisation was raised up to 65 percent. Only in October the same year, Fiat opened an exclusive assembly line for engines and axles. Ancillary systems were then outsourced to local vendors. With further expansion of their facility and the operationalisation of the Ranjangoan plant, the company sourced components for the Siena, Weekend and the newly launched Palio from the domestic suppliers. Since my car was brought to life in February 1999, it was a fully imported car, something I can be proud of!
You wonder how that matter, let me explain. The Siena’s factory-fitted electric horns, for instance, were that of Mixo, imported from France. It has a matchless sound, to which I could not find any match in local market. I tried a variety of brands for my other cars but nothing could rightly match. It works hassle-free for all these years, that says a lot about the quality of product. The electronic relays used in my car are unusual to the ones normally found in other cars, quite different in their designs and their brand never heard of in India. They all work well, but I fear finding alternatives now would be difficult now.
I usually don’t knock the doors of a workshop for common problems that pop up at times. That’s when being a car nut pays, I would join my dad, also a car enthusiast, and try to work on the same on our own. We always find workshop repairs less satisfying, except for those repairs for which we have no solutions and tools. That’s perhaps how we have stripped out many parts of this car – a great opportunity to learn more about it!
Its uniquely designed electronics and neat wiring arrangements points to Fiat’s incredible R & D in developing this car. Especially when you compare with the likes of Maruti, Ford, Hyundai and Tata cars in this regard, you can see the difference. The car’s engineering is on par with the German cars of today, a legacy out of making cars for more than a century. From each and every screw or bolt fittings to dashboard plastics to gear-shift lever mechanism, things are smartly designed and consistent with other allied components. It takes hell lot of time to decipher the procedure to disassemble them, have to pay utmost attention, else will end up in breaking the part or its allied unit. Once you grasp the right way, things will perfectly fit in, that’s what a fool proof design is all about. Most of the workshop mechanics hardly pay attention to such nitty-gritties of the car, in my experience. It’s not a usual car they always work with perhaps, so you can’t blame them either. Nor do they have such time and interest on doing the same.
I did face some complex problems with my Siena. The engine coolant got over-heated due to malfunctioning radiator fan. The occurrence became habitual and so we had to design a circuit system on our own to make the radiator fan run on time. Power steering rack seal failed twice, resulting in leakage of steering oil, and the steering rack assembly has been serviced twice. Clutch overhaul and suspension system services are regular. There is a persistent problem of uneven tyre wear at rear for a really long time, but the wear out remains too nominal. Some rattling noises inside the cabin comes up now and then, but considering the age of the car, these are pretty common.
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