If the Italians ever get their minds off Silvio Berlusconi and the Bunga Bunga parties, there could be a good future for Fiat in Australia
For over 110 years Fiat has been making commercial vehicles, prompting the question as to why it has taken this length of time before the Italian manufacturer really made any great attempt to market its products in Australia?
Actually, that description might be somewhat harsh, as IVECO, the Italian truck maker, is under the same Fiat umbrella and has a long association with this country, making trucks at its Dandenong plant as well as importing certain models direct from Europe.
While everyone can spot a Fiat 500 from 1000 paces, the commercial vehicle division does not enjoy the same instant recognition. However, that position does look as though it may finally change for the better, as the Italian manufacturer launches Fiat Professional, the generic term for most things of a commercial nature around the globe.
The Australian auto industry has changed dramatically in the past two decades. It’s gone from local manufacturing to the almost universal position of being a full importer. And while Federal Government may seem to have set its sights on providing yet further bags full of taxpayers’ money to the wealthy overseas head offices of the global carmakers, in reality it’s only a temporary placebo to pre-election promises.
In place of Fiat relying on its future in the hands of independent importers, the Italians in the boardroom in Turin have decided to spend the money and set up their own sales and marketing operation.
Fiat Professional now joins Fiat car, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Lancia, Maserati and IVECO. The list of associated divisions doesn’t end there, with Fiat PowerTrain providing engines for most of the group, now backed by engine maker VM-Motori, which, by the end of 2013, will be another wholly-owned subsidiary of Fiat Group.
Although that scenario covers off the European members, there is more in the storeroom, with American agricultural giant Case New Holland remaining a strong member of the group, together with Chrysler and Jeep.
Heading the Australian operation Fiat Chrysler Group is president and CEO, Veronica Johns, while Robert Moorcroft, a 19-year veteran with Chrysler Group, manages the newly formed Fiat Professional division.
Fiat Professional vehicles on sale in Australia are currently confined to the Scudo and Ducato. Overseas, the range is considerably greater than we have been getting here, but, as outlined to Delivery Magazine, there are moves afoot to add in the Doblo small van and larger Ducato-based people movers early in 2014.
In 2012, Scudo managed a market share of just 0.7 percent, but within 12 months raised that to 1.3 percent. Ducato also rose in market share terms, from 5.1 percent in 2012 to 7.6 percent in 2013.
As Fiat Professional was establishing its own credentials, it was also working hard behind the scenes to revitalise its dealership representation. This resulted in some razor cutting of existing outlets from 16 back to 9. The new executive team then consolidated these core dealerships with new appointments that have now brought the dealership numbers up to 52 separate outlets, with an estimated 8 more still to be announced.
As even the most casual observer might suggest, if you don’t have the dealership commitment and spread of national coverage, you can’t grow the business, and this rapid expansion should go a long way towards promoting much greater brand awareness.
Fiat Professional vehicles are manufactured in eight plants worldwide, including the Sevel Sud factory in the Val di Sangro, Italy, which is home to the Ducato and can boast being the largest commercial vehicle plant in Europe. The Scudo is built at Sevel Nord, which happens to be over the border in France. Both factories are joint venture operations with PSA group. The Doblo doesn’t quite make the French connection (or Italian for that matter), being produced at the company’s Tofas plant in Turkey.
Doblo is due to launch in the first quarter of 2014, and it’s through this model that Fiat Professional wants to attack the small van market, currently dominated by Volkswagen with the Caddy.
Turkey is not such an unusual home for vehicle manufacturing, as, also next year, Ford’s new Transit will be boarding a boat from its Turkish home port on its way to our market. What is slightly bizarre is that Doblo, or its Opel and Vauxhall alternative that Fiat makes for sale as the Combo in the same factory, has not made it here before.
In Europe, Doblo uses a 2755 mm wheelbase to provide a 790-litre cargo volume and is diesel-powered by a 1.3-litre MultiJet four-cylinder engine of 66 kW and 290 Nm, optioning up to a 77 kW/290 Nm 1.6-litre, and with a 2.0 litre, 99 kW/320 Nm diesel topping the range.
As well as a standard van there’s a high-roof version, an extended-wheelbase version and even a small ute and a people-mover version. But before you get too excited, it’s the standard van for Australia at this stage, with auto and manual transmission linked to a choice of petrol or diesel engines.
With front-wheel-drive standard throughout the three-vehicle range, Scudo, with its 1,200 kg payload and 2.0-litre diesel of 88 kW/300 Nm, comes as a really good value package for anyone in the market looking for something better than a HiAce.
Pretty much all the expected inclusions are standard, with air conditioning, dual sliding side load doors, wide opening barn doors at the rear, power mirrors and windows, Bluetooth, cruise control and even rear parking sensors. For the safety conscious there’s ESP as standard, together with anti-slip regulation plus a driver’s side airbag SRS.
It’s your call between a single or dual passenger seat, but we’d go for the dual every time, especially as access is so good through sliding doors on both sides into the cargo area. Dimensionally, the load space is 2,584 x 1,600 x 1,449 (L x W x H) to provide six cubic metres.
So far, the spec’ sounds much like everything else on the market, but here’s the exception. Under the back end of the cargo area is a self-levelling, air suspension that is so far ahead of the more typical rear leaf spring that your driver will think the Angels of Mercy have descended.
The Scudo is extremely pleasant to drive, is sufficiently spacious for even large drivers, has good ergonomics, but outscores its competition by being more comfortable. Nor does it have a boring, dark grey fabric covering the seats. In the Scudo Delivery drove, the seats were covered in an attractive blue check that livened up the interior, making it feel more comfortable and upmarket than the average van.
With its 88 kW of power and 300 Nm of torque matched to a six-speed manual gearbox, the visibility is good, it’s easy to drive, and about the only unusual aspect is the fact that Fiat likes to place its handbrake on the right hand side of the driver’s seat, between the seat and the door. It’s the same positioning with the Ducato, and it takes a little getting used to for those that like to use the park brake every time they stop, rather than sitting in traffic with their foot on the brake pedal.
Another good reason for choosing the dual passenger seat option is the flap-down table that appears out of the centre seat and rests on the seat squab. It’s ideal for notes or bits of paper and provides two cup holders. For coffee lovers there’s also a cup holder that slides out of the right-hand-side of the dash for the driver. The passenger has to balance their cup on the inner edge of the dashboard locker door. Cost will be the main attraction, with drive-away pricing slated at $32,000.
While talking with the newly-excited Fiat Professional sales and marketing people that Delivery met during the media introduction to plans for 2014, we also got to drive different versions of the Ducato van.
In the last issue of Delivery we drove the long-wheelbase van with medium roof height to which Fiat Professional has added an extra-long-wheelbase mid-roof version and a smaller medium low/mid roof van. This gives interior volume options of 10-15 cubic metres.
What we didn’t know then, was that coming into our market in early 2014 will be two further derivatives. These will include medium-wheelbase and extra-long-wheelbase (3,800 mm and 4,035 mm) single-cab/chassis versions. Pricing is from $36,690 plus on road costs, and that includes three years scheduled servicing. Additional benefits include fixed menu pricing for service and maintenance, with five-year/300,000 km warranty and 24/7 roadside assistance.
The discussion with the new team at Fiat Professional subsequently resulted in the opportunity to revisit our recent drive of the Ducato and spend time in a selection of different Ducato vans throughout the Melbourne morning traffic.
Our drive involved collecting and delivering fruit and vegetables from the markets to a couple of cafes operated by the Brunetti family. At this point, Delivery has to confirm that inducements were offered to our test team by the Brunetti outlets we visited by way of Italian pastries and exceptionally good Italian coffee, especially when we arrived at the amazing new café the family has opened in Lygon Street.
Despite the temptations on offer, we can report that our independent assessment confirms just how good these vans are to drive. Quiet, comfortable and easy to position amidst the rush and bustle of congested traffic, the six-speed manual gearbox is light and easy to use with well-spaced ratios.
Our advice for potential buyers is to stay with the manual gearbox rather than the automated manual (AMT) transmission and save around $2,900.
And yes, there are more good things planned for the range, with the importer already in discussion with Australian bodybuilders to provide pre-bodied tray backs as well as pre-bodied pantechs. This is in addition to the fully-imported people-mover Ducato that will feature 12 seats for our market, rather than the 14 seats it sports in Europe.
For 2014, the battle lines certainly look as though they are being drawn to take on newcomer Renault with its expanding Master range and present incumbent Mercedes-Benz with its latest versions of the Sprinter. It remains to be seen just how much effort Ford will provide to the launch of the new Transit in the end of the first quarter of 2014. It could be an interesting year ahead.