Home » Never Mind The Looks Feel The Width – The 1998 Fiat Multipla Was Beautiful On The Inside

Never Mind The Looks Feel The Width – The 1998 Fiat Multipla Was Beautiful On The Inside

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Mercifully the oft-threatened Autopian staff road trip has yet to transpire. It’s mainly because none of the moldy old RVs Miss Mercedes keeps suggesting have been remotely fit for human habitation – not for the human writing this article at any rate who has standards. Instead of trying to find an RV we can all agree on I’m going to suggest something totally different that will hopefully please everybody. A vehicle reviled by the ignorant as willfully ugly and venerated by the design literate as a work of genius. It’s so practical there’s room for Torch, David and Matt up front and Mercedes, Thomas and Lewin in the back (as gentlemen of distinction Beau and I will follow along behind in something more becoming. Like a Learjet). The 1997 Fiat Multipla. Spoon some Lavazza into your Bialetti Moka and put it on the stove, it’s time for Damn Good Design.

Fiat (Fabbrica Italiana Automobili di Torino – Italian Automobile Factory of Turin) is one of the oldest and largest European car manufacturers in the world and is almost single-handedly responsible for putting Italy on wheels. Their back catalog is stuffed to bursting with genuinely groundbreaking family cars: 500, 600, 127, Panda, Strada, Uno, Tipo – all of these and more were revolutionary in different ways, and all did it with an infectious sense of style and brio. When it comes to small cars, in Europe no company has consistently done them better. Fiat is the absolute master of the art.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

The Multipla is another tragic story of an OEM not having the courage to stay the course of their convictions, wilting in the face of criticism over the Multipla’s challenging looks despite its tremendous practicality and brilliant design. It was a complete ground-up rethinking of how to package a vehicle, making maximum use of the available space, and introducing some incredibly clever ideas reflecting the amount of research Fiat put into how families actually use their cars. Spacious on the inside and challenging on the outside, the Multipla regularly appears on clickbaity ugliest ever car listicles without any proper consideration of why its appearance is a logical extension of the ethos that drove the design of the car from the inside out.

Minivans In Europe

By the mid-eighties, the minivan revolution had reached European shores. The Matra P18 concept was developed for Chrysler UK, but when Peugeot Citroen bought the company in 1978 they considered the big one-box estate car too much of a risk and let Matra keep the prototype. Finding a grateful home at Renault, it finally appeared in 1984 as the original Espace. Sales were slow at first but middle-class European families soon caught onto the genius idea of turning the family hauler into a monovolume, liberating additional space inside for squabbling siblings as well as making it easier for harassed parents to get into the back to deal with the little blighters. American OEMs gladly shipped over domestic offerings for the mainland: the Ford Aerostar, Chrysler Voyager, and Pontiac Trans Sport all made their way across the Atlantic.

Renault Espace
The original Renault Espace. Image Renault.

Where America leads, Europe sometimes follows. As minivans grew in popularity, slowly replacing the default station wagon for hard-pressed parents, their inherent usefulness and practicality led manufacturers to make them even more helpful. Wheelbases grew creating room for a third row and more cargo space. Sliding doors began to appear, making it easier to access the rear passenger compartment without clanging a door into the car parked next to you. Seats swiveled, folded, and became removable, instantly transforming the minivan into a real van. All of this bloat meant higher prices, but more significantly an increase in size. By the mid-nineties, the third generation Espace was getting on for 180” (4.5 meters) long, and the NS Dodge Caravan (marketed as a Chrysler in Europe) was over 185” (4.7 meters). A victim of its own success, the family hauler was becoming too big and expensive for crowded European roads. Something smaller and cheaper was required.

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A Small Revolution

Ever the innovator, Giugiaro had been playing around with the idea of raising rooflines and seating passengers in a more upright position to increase interior room for a given vehicle footprint since the late seventies. In 1978 he showed the Lancia Megagamma concept at the Turin show. Like Peugeot Citroen before them, Lancia considered the idea too risky for the market, but it did Nissan to have a try with the Prairie, which arrived in 1982. The Prairie (Stanza Wagon in the US) was an oddly proportioned small MPV, but being a two-box volume it had an unfortunate London Metrocab appearance. Despite the novelty and usefulness of its twin sliding rear doors, it never made much of an impression on the market. In the United States, AMC had shown the AM Van as part of its Concept 80 traveling motor show in 1977, but this was little more than a styling exercise to excite the public as opposed to a serious proposal for a new category of vehicle.

1991 Renault S.C.E.N.I.C concept
1991 Renault S.C.E.N.I.C concept. Image Renault.

MPV pioneers Renault revealed the torturously named Safety Concept Embodied in a New Innovating Car (S.C.E.N.I.C.) Concept in 1991. Another one-box shape with four sliding doors, five separate seats, and a chaotic earth tones interior presumably inspired by David Carson’s living room, a production version designed by the legendary Partick Le Quement appeared in 1996. Based on the standard Megane C segment (US sub-compact)  hatch, unlike the boxy Prairie the Megane Scenic was a sloping fronted monovolume that packaged five fully individual seats, the rears being foldable and removable. With a 164” (4.2 meter) overall length, the Renault was right sized, right priced, and became an overnight smash hit all over Europe.

Megane Scenic
Renault Megane Scenic. Image Renault UK.

Very rarely does an OEM create a new segment and keep it to themselves for very long. Although it usually takes about four to five years to go from sketch to showroom (infamously the Alfa Romeo Giulia was done a lot quicker), once something revolutionary hits the streets rivals are not more than a year or two behind. OEMs have whole departments dedicated to figuring out exactly what their competitors are up to, and if there’s a gap in the market that’s obvious to one, it’s obvious to all of them. When it came to the burgeoning small MPV market, Renault were muscling in on Fiat’s family car turf, and they were not about to take that lying down.

Post-war Italy underwent a huge economic expansion. As more and more Italian families benefitted from increased prosperity Fiat put them in a series of brilliant small cars starting with the rear-engined 600 in 1955.

Multipla
In 1956 Dante Giacosa gave the 600 a new flat fronted one box body, moved the front seats over the front axle and created the original Multipla, the world’s first MPV. You’d need to be good friends with your traveling companions or a very close family but in an object lesson of squeezing the maximum from every cubic inch of interior space, the Multipla could carry up to six people and some luggage within a total vehicle length of 139” (3.5 meters). For its modern namesake, Fiat wanted to do something even more impressive to put Renault back in their box.

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A Small Revolution

The initial idea for nuova Multipla was not for a production car at all, but a concept. Managing director of Fiat Paolo Cantarella issued a disarmingly simple research brief: “How to comfortably accommodate six people and their luggage in a car no more than four meters (157”) long?” According to Auto & Design magazine:

Roberto Giolito was appointed project manager, while Peter Jansen took care of the interior design. Mauro Basso handled the initial phase of the exterior. “As the research progressed,” says Nevio Di Giusto, head of Style/Design, Innovation and Ergonomics for the Fiat brands, “the concept seemed more and more interesting to us, so much so that we were led to hypothesize the birth of a production product.

Multipla Design Sketches
Multipla design sketches. Screenshots Niels van Roij Design via Youtube

Initially, three rows of two seats were considered for the interior layout, but this would have been impossible to package within the 4-meter length constraint, limiting the cargo area and compromising the crush zones at the front. According to engineer Guiseppe Piritore:

“The result was invariably a narrow, tall vehicle with a compact nose, disadvantageous in terms of engine positioning and impact absorption areas, while the boot was extremely sacrificed with the 6 seats in use and very irregularly shaped”

Packaging is working out where all the constituent parts of your car are going to fit. It’s like rearranging that one drawer in your house that’s full of crap so you can squeeze more crap in. On a fundamental level, you have the basic building blocks of your car: the powertrain, suspension systems, passenger compartment, and cargo area. Once you’ve decided on the best arrangement for your vehicle type, you think about ergonomics: H-point (the height of the driver’s hip joint above the ground plane) and making sure passengers can reach the controls and they don’t get their bell rung by bashing their heads on any of the body structure in an accident. Imagine squeezing a balloon full of water; it expands where you’re not applying pressure. Same principle with vehicle packaging – to move one thing, something else has to make room for it.

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Fiat Multipla with passengers and luggage
I think the one in the middle of the front row is Torch. Screenshot Niels van Roij Design via Youtube.

Still So Strange

Fiat realized the only way to fit six people was to make the car wider and seat them in two rows of three seats. Everything about the exterior design followed that revelation. Revealed at the Turin Motor Show in 1998, the production Multipla had an enlarged passenger cabin with extensive glazing that was inspired by the bulging canopy of an Augusta A109 helicopter. The low beltline gave a feeling of airiness to a crowded interior and gave occupants a panoramic view of the outside world. To keep the windscreen a sensible size the exterior shape of the Multipla ended up not as a monovolume or two-box, but something in between – a sort of one-and-a-half box; a short but tall and wide passenger cabin with a vestigial engine compartment tacked on the front. Just how stubby did the Multipla end up being? At 157” (4 meters) long and 74” (1.9 meters) wide it’s a staggering 7” (150 mm) shorter and the same amount wider than the Renault Scenic. According to Hagerty it was the widest car on the market apart from the Rolls Royce Seraph. And the Fiat had more legroom.

Mutlipla design sketch
Multipla sketch, Screenshot Niels van Roij Design via Youtube.

On the inside the instruments and gear shift were mounted on a central pod to liberate space on top of the dash for lidded storage compartments and to prevent any inadvertent touching of the middle passenger, which doesn’t seem very Italian. Because this was the nineties, the interior was a playpen of color and fun ideas. The HVAC vents were specifically designed to resemble a robot face to amuse smaller passengers in the rear. There’s a handy slot for keeping your credit card close for the inevitable breakdown callouts. The seats all slide, the middle ones fold to make a table, and the back row can be yanked out to provide more space for cargo. With 15 cu ft (430 liters) of room in trunk, you’d rarely need to.

Multipla dashboard
Multipla dashboard and IP. Image Fiat via Netcarshow.
Multipla Interior
Multipla Interior. Screenshot Niels van Roij Design via Youtube
Multipla Interior
Multipla Interior. Screenshot Niels van Roij Design via Youtube.

Form Shouldn’t Always Follow Function

A constant criticism of car design I hear a lot is the ‘form should follow function’ bullshit. Be careful what you wish for, because the Multipla is what you could end up with. For all the logical thinking that dictated its design, why doesn’t the exterior of the Multipla work? The proportions are challenging for sure – it’s high and short, but you can design around this to a certain degree – careful consideration of the graphical elements, the lighting, and the daylight opening (DLO) can help disguise an odd shape.

Multipla Exterior
Image Fiat via Netcarshow.

The main problems with the Multipla are the haphazard door shutlines, the gawky pillars –  particularly the D pillar at the back, the blobtacular surfacing, and the stance. It looks like a fat person with a too-tight waistband. The rigid beltline creates a big dissonance with the bulbous top and bottom halves of the car. Giolito’s commitment to making the interior as airy as possible means the slim D pillar works when viewed from the rear three-quarter view but looks awful when looked at from any other angle. Because the third side window curves in a vertical plane at the top and a horizontal plane at the bottom, it’s forced into a horribly tortured shape. The rear windshield is wider at the top than at the bottom, completely the opposite of how it should be. Because it used running gear from the Brava hatch, the wheels sit too far inside the Multipla’s significantly wider fender, adding to the obesity.

Multipla Exterior
Image Fiat via Netcarshow.

Conversely when you look at the Multipla from the front three-quarter view, because you can’t see the D pillar, it appears a lot better. Because of the instrument panel, it would not have been possible to make the base of the windshield meet the hood, so Fiat used this vertical surface to provide a home for the main beam unit of the headlights – the thinking being they would be more effective mounted higher up. Again, superbly logical from a pure design point of view, but slightly more challenging from an aesthetic one.

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Let’s Do It After Lunch

So yeah, it’s not exactly a looker. But it is joyfully, delightfully weird, endearing in a derpy, runt-of-the-litter sort of way. I remember design critic Stephen Bayley writing at the time the Mutlipla was released that one of the exterior designers explained the rear lights were like breakfast on a plate, each element representing eggs, bacon, and so on. You can imagine the Multipla design team coming up with the car after a particularly good and well-lubricated lunch. They had a strict design brief and saw it through to its logical conclusion, willfully defying convention with a huge twinkle in their eyes. In the UK cars came with a sticker on the rear windshield that said “wait until you see the front”, dealers being well and truly in on the joke.

Sadly for the Multipla a year later the market was flooded with staid, sensible competitors, most notably the Vauxhall (Opel) Zafira, a car with as much fun and personality as a German railway toilet. But the Zafira brought yet another revolution to the segment – a small fold-away third row of seats in the trunk (for a total of seven) that sent rivals scrambling to catch up. To bolster weak sales and shut critics up, Fiat gave the Multipla a much more conventional front in 2004. Reporting from that year’s Geneva show the Daily Telegraph wrote:

“Fiat, contrary to all the grim rumors, was never likely to be at death’s door, but it was seriously unwell. It has fought back from those hard times, first by radically reorganizing its lumbering structure, and now by hinting at a more promising product range from Fiat Auto.

One example of this is the literally facelifted. All the car designers in the world may be desperately sad that the new Multipla no longer resembles a psychotic cartoon duck, but Fiat noted that, while passengers loved the adaptability of the clever interior, they were less keen on the sarcastic sneers and derisive laughter of their neighbors, friends and schoolmates; children can be cruel.

The new Multipla may look relatively boring and is unlikely to challenge the iron grip of the Espace on leadership of this sector, but it will almost certainly move the model from school-run laughing stock to serious player in one stroke.”

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Facelifted Multipla
Facelifted Multipla. Image Fiat via Netcarshow.

The Multipla’s individuality was neutered, and sales cratered even further. When you have a distinctive and unusual car, you have to stick with it to give the market time to come around to your thinking. Chicken out and you and you take away the reason anybody buys your car in the first place. Customers can and will accept something that looks a bit different if the product is compelling enough. Overall sales figures seem lost to the mists of time but according to the website Good Car Bad Car, 400,000 units were sold by the end of production in 2010.

I recently added a LESA Funny radio to my collection. It’s spherical in shape, bright turquoise in color and has a wrist strap even though it weighs the equivalent of a bowling ball. It’s an impractical and unusual form for a radio, but I love the bright color, sense of fun and simplicity of it. Car design can never purely be an exercise of function, logic, and rationality. A car needs to appeal on a visual level because that’s what attracts you on an emotional level. Viewed as one of the last gasps of Italian Modernism, with a bit of finessing to the glazing, pillars, and shutlines the Mutlipla would have worked a lot better. It still would have been a bonkers oddball, but it would have been a slightly more cohesive and successful one.

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Freelivin2713
Freelivin2713
10 days ago

Still one of the ugliest cars ever and that dashboard is just totally wretched and terrible
Good use of space w/ seating for 6 though

Gilbert Wham
Gilbert Wham
12 days ago

I always loved how the 1st gen absolutely did not give a fuck about looks. They were great. The 2nd gen were much uglier, IMO. Because it was trying so hard not to be.

AlfaWhiz
AlfaWhiz
12 days ago

I’ll readily confess that I’ve always liked the Multipla. We always bitch about form following function, so here we are. It’s spacious, practical and unique. I actually quite like the step nose look too. Not your typical, bland family hauler for sure.

Hugh Crawford
Hugh Crawford
12 days ago

Not as wide as an AMC Pacer.

Jakob K's Garage
Jakob K's Garage
12 days ago

It’s easy to pick on the Multipla, so I won’t!

It’s just very different in really many good ways – much like the Twingo mk1 I think – but didn’t really catch on. So byers of that size of car are more conservative than byers of small cars? Who knew? 😉

For instance it’s got those low shoulders with high side windows, which everybody loves about the Range Rover Classic. But here it’s just ugly? Why?

Norek Koss
Norek Koss
12 days ago

de gustibus est nost disputandum

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
12 days ago

I think if they made a longer version with a couple of rear-facing seats, they could have one-upped the competition with a 8 passenger version.

Dingus
Dingus
12 days ago

Panapet was better than the Funny. On this hill you shall find my corpse.

Cheery Swede
Cheery Swede
12 days ago

“(as gentlemen of distinction Beau and I will follow along behind in something more becoming. Like a Learjet)” No, you follow along in the Renault Avantime. It’s the correct rejoinder to the Multipla. 🙂

Dirk Diggler
Dirk Diggler
12 days ago

Adrian, I really enjoy all of your facelifted/revised renderings. I’m sensing a business opportunity here… Similar to a Sandy Munro advising OEMs on engineering for manufacturing simplicity, you could offer your “last mile design review” services to OEMs and fix up their awful, design by committee creations, before the big investments of production begin, and those Aztecs make their way into the dealer lots. Come to think of it, maybe there’s an Autopian-wide offering to provide a comprehensive, “enthusiasts review” before calling a design ready for production. If I was an OEM, I would pay for that.

Pit-Smoked Clutch
Pit-Smoked Clutch
12 days ago

That is the most 1998 dashboard I have ever seen.

Turn the Page
Turn the Page
13 days ago

I appreciate vehicles that maximize the interior space/exterior dimension ratio. At my OEM alma mater, one of the Design Office guys referred to the exterior appearance of the ’90s Multipla as “a car that swallowed a car”.

PaysOutAllNight
PaysOutAllNight
12 days ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

I always thought the design problem of the Multipla was that it was trying too hard to look fun and friendly. A little more utilitarian on the exterior might go a long way.

PaysOutAllNight
PaysOutAllNight
11 days ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

I didn’t mean a full simplification, but really, the Multipla’s version of “friendly” seems the kind of thing only a Japanese pre-teen schoolgirl would like.

FIAT’s design easily cleans up with slight changes.

Change the headlights at the base of the windshield and the front of the hood so the lenses are slightly proud of the surfaces they’re mounted in instead of being recessed. I would make the overall shapes of these light pods similar to each other. The fog lights would be unchanged.

(Or at the very least, recess the top pair of lights into the same color as the other recessed lights. The top pair is recessed into black while the others are recessed into silver. This is a detail that emphasizes the overall incoherence of the design.)

After fixing the lighting, give the car more conventionally shaped mirrors, make the grilles just a bit less rounded, and move the FIAT badge down from the base of the windshield onto the front of the hood near the grille.

Do these things and it’s a bit more utilitarian, a whole lot less “Sailor Moon”, and probably even a bit more premium looking. When I heard FIAT was redesigning the Multipla soon after introduction, these are the changes I expected.

EricTheViking
EricTheViking
13 days ago

Renault had engineered Espace to be sold through AMC/Renault sales centres in the United States. It had the sealed beam headlamp capsules, side running lamps and retroreflective markers, and such. After acquiring AMC from Renault, Chrysler didn’t want another van in the model range competing with its successful minivans.

Espace (US version)

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