The best minivan ever designed deserved much, much better than being the butt of too many bad jokes. I sometimes wish I lived in a world where family cars are designed to be space-efficient according to their purpose: “honest” vehicles that don’t pretend to be other than what they are. The Fiat Multipla comfortably seats six adults, takes their luggage in the boot, provides excellent, safe handling characteristics, and a comfortable ride. And all in 3,99 meters! That’s less than most current B-Segment cars today.
As the Multipla is perhaps the best minivan ever designed, brilliantly overcoming the packaging compromises typical of its competitors: cars that may have offered seven seats, but two of them were cramped, difficult to access, and came at the expense of luggage space.
Fiat’s solution was brilliant: six places of identical size in a three-abreast configuration. But that meant ripping the car design rulebook to shreds because we’re used to seeing cars with a fuselage-like cross-section: wider at the base on the windows and gently tapering upwards. Which is lovely but also impossible if you’ve just decided to sit comfortably three people across instead of the usual two, given the vehicle can only be widened so much before it becomes impractical: that’s why the Multipla’s sides go up as straight as a wall.
A wall mostly made of glass, letting tons of light into the spacious cabin, whose dashboard, for once, didn’t look like the butt of an elephant thanks to its brightly colored textile covering. Before the advent of LED technology, car headlights could become quite large items. Still, I love the Fiat designer’s thoughtful solution: instead of one big unit, each lighting function had its own smaller module. This coherence through every aspect of the Multipla’s design is what makes it truly special; Clever but in a laid back, playful way: the Multipla doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Yet it bombed.
Fiat designed a car around the practical needs of the average family but underestimated just how much of an irrational, emotional purchase a car still was. The Multipla was too bold a statement for many, as a majority of people find reassurance in conformity.
That’s why Multipla sales stayed below 50.000 units per year while Opel sold almost four times as many Zafiras.
But there’s a group of people who’ve always loved the Multipla: those who owned it. Not only for its space and comfort but also because it drove much better than it had any right to do, thanks to its wide stance and low center of gravity.
By 2003 Fiat was nearing bankruptcy and, in a clumsy attempt to broaden the Multipla’s appeal, it gave it a lame conventional-looking front end that stayed with the model until its final demise in 2013.
Italian production of the Multipla ended in 2010, but Fiat sold the tooling and rights to Chinese company Zotye, which sold the car in China for three more years.