The new Multipla is a landmark vehicle for Fiat - and not just because it introduces a new spaceframe concept.
The compact minivan also features a new range of environmentally friendly engines as alternatives to the standard gasoline and turbodiesel models.
The Multipla went on sale in Italy on 21 November. It will be available across continental Europe by February 1999.
The first models are equipped with the 1.6-liter gasoline or 1.9-liter turbodiesel engines. But by the end of the year Fiat will offer 1.6-liter Bipower and Bluepower versions. The Bipower will run on either gasoline or methane, while the Bluepower will use methane only.
In the second half of 1999 a hybrid Multipla will arrive. This model will combine an electric motor with a gasoline engine, and will become the first European hybrid car in normal production.
In basic SX trim level, the 1.6-liter Multipla costs L29.9 million ($18,012) in Italy. The 1.9-liter is priced at L34.6 million. Both the Bipower and the Bluepower will cost L32.5 million.
'We plan to sell 60,000 Multiplas next year - 27,000 in Italy, plus significant numbers in France and Germany.
These three markets are expected to cover about 75 percent of sales next year,' said Flaminio Orazzini, Fiat Auto marketing director for Italy. Right-hand-drive versions for the UK and Ireland will follow in late 1999. The car will move into profit once sales of 40,000 have been reached.
'We have tooled the line (at the Mirafiori plant) for 60,000 units a year,' said Fiat Auto Managing Director Roberto Testore. 'But we can easily grow to 100,000 or 110,000 and, with limited investment, up to 140,000 Multiplas a year.'
Orazzini said he expects the Multipla to lure customers away from traditional station wagons and compact minivans.
'We also see it as a rival to the Renault Megane Scenic and Mercedes-Benz A-class,' he said.
Orazzini said research indicated that the turbodiesel version will account for over 50 percent of Multipla sales. The higher ELX trim will be chosen by 75 percent of customers. But Fiat admits it is unsure of the potential of the Bipower and Bluepower versions.
The Multipla is being launched with a pan-European TV advertising campaign featuring Ferrari's Formula One driver Michael Schumacher. He explains the Multipla's interior layout - two rows of three seats - by rearranging chairs in a luxury restaurant. Schumacher then illustrates the minivan's luggage space by putting a serving cart behind the six chairs.
The Multipla has a standard cargo capacity of 430 liters, which can rise to 1,300 liters with one row of seats removed.
Fiat invested L350 billion in the Multipla; L150 billion for research and development and L200 billion for tooling. It is the first Fiat passenger vehicle to be based on a spaceframe, and 77 percent of its value comes from outsourced components. All the steel parts are built and subassembled by outside suppliers. Only part of the body stampings and the complete spaceframe welding is carried out in-house.
The entire production process takes 20.9 hours, compared with 26 hours for the Marea, which is also built at Mirafiori.