Six months after I bought the car it had a serious electrical problem. When any kind of extra electrical consumption was needed (i.e. using the indicators, turning on the lights, brake lights, reverse lights, electrical windows, etc.) the whole electrical system would stop working completely for a second or two. It only affected the running of the engine once, but only for a couple of seconds, and as I was doing 90 km/h the engine restarted itself when the electrics came back. The problem occurred randomly, so it was impossible to pinpoint. FIAT kept the car for a week, but found nothing. I took the car to an independent garage, where they checked all the earth connexions and found a few loose. After that the fault disappeared.
I bought the car because I needed an economical way of transport, and the 1.7 TD engine has proved extremely economical, as the general maintenance of the car. It is stylish even now, and it is extremely roomy inside and bar the initial electrical problem, it has turned out to be extremely reliable, contrary to what most people think about FIATs.
Performance is not great, but then you don't expect huge acceleration from a 1.7 TD. The car is more than enough in most driving situations, and is specially swift in city traffic, thanks to short gearing. Which turns out to be a problem on the motorway. At a cruising speed of 140 km/h the engine is revving at 4000 rpm, and while the red line is still 1000 rpm away, the engine noise is just too loud for long journeys. I recently drove all the way from Belgium to Spain in a day (1423km) and the resulting headache was horrible.
The handling is OK for a small hatch, but I think that the dampers are too hard while the springs are too soft, which results in the car being uncomfortable over bumps and leaning too much on corners.
The general built quality is good, only now at more than 150000 km some cracks and squeaks start to let themselves notice in the cabin, otherwise all plastics and pieces of trim still look solid. My only complain in this respect is the bodywork. Living in Spain rust is not a problem :) but the steel is not very strong, so the car is full of micro-dents from other drivers hitting it when they open their doors in parkings and small stone-chips. And the paint on the front bumper has started to peel off near the license plate (not too serious, considering the car's age).
To sum up, a highly recommendable economical first car, that will happily do long journeys as well. FIAT was not very generous with the equipment list on this first generation, so even if they are more difficult the find, better get one of the well specced ones.
I hope this car lasts long enough (another 3-4 years) so I can afford a BMW 320td Compact or something similar.
Don't hesitate to drop a few lines if you have any questions: