Price reductions aligned with new product have enabled Fiat to emerge as a brand determined to gain market share
I must confess to having a soft spot for the FIAT 500. Even its latest incarnation it has retained the cute quirkiness that has kept it in the European sales charts, and it remains today one of the few budget models that can appear equally at home in a Big W car park or a Hilton Hotel driveway.
In Australia the sales performance for FIAT in past years has been nothing short of depressing, but, since the takeover of its destiny by Fiat/Chrysler from the previous private importer, this year has seen its car sales jump 71.2 percent. The light commercial division, now rebranded as FIAT Professional, has not achieved the same stellar rise, but, even so, has gained 3.3 percent in sales.
There are good reasons why the fortunes of FIAT Professional are likely to change for 2015, and one of the main factors is the launch of the FIAT Doblo.
Entering the small van category gives FIAT a competitive product to sell against the market leading VW Caddy, which currently holds 56.1 percent of this segment (YTD Nov 2014). Renault is also fighting hard in this segment with its Kangoo, and has also achieved major gains in its sales performance achieving 20.3 percent market share in the light commercial vehicle segment, which itself has grown in 2014 by 10 percent.
The arrival of the Doblo brings the FIAT Professional range to three models, joining the Scudo as the medium-sized van that can still gain access to underground car parks, and the larger volume Ducato, which has to stay outside.
There’s an instant appeal to the Doblo, not least because it comes with a really impressive list of standard features plus some additional and sensible optional inclusions.
For what is dimensionally a small van, the Doblo provides a very spacious impression with its interior cabin design. Seats are comfortable, there’s plenty of legroom, headroom and shoulder room and around the van there’s plenty of stowage space, including a full-width tray just above the windscreen.
If you like changing gears manually, the six-speed shift is light, easy to use and has a well-defined gate. There is an AMT (Automated Manual Transmission) five-speed that Fiat calls a Comfort-Matic transmission, and this incorporates auto start/stop to maximise fuel saving for the inner city. Steering is responsive and precise and the suspension seems to be well sorted, even for some of our inner-city potholed streets.
As with any small delivery van you need interior space, and if you are not carrying a front-seat passenger the centre of the seat squab can be flicked forwards to create a document box within the seat base. Bluetooth connectivity applies to just about everything for music streaming and mobile phone links, and the audio system has a good sound quality to it.
Although the European spec’ features a floor to ceiling bulkhead, the Aussie version stays with an open interior. Usually that means annoying road noise and reverberations throughout the cargo area, but the Doblo is surprisingly quiet in this respect. In case a load shifts forwards under heavy braking, the driver is protected by a ladder-style cargo retention fitting behind the driver’s seat.
Doblo provides access on three sides of the cargo box, with sliding side doors on both sides, plus barn doors at the rear. Each side door measures 1,175 x 700 mm with the rear barn doors covering 1,250 x 1,231 mm. Thanks to the front-wheel-drive set-up that negates the need for a driveshaft to the rear, and the low-mount bi-link rear suspension, the floor height is kept down to 545 mm.
Safety is now a prime concern of any fleet manager, and Doblo delivers its own brand in this aspect with four SRS airbags, ESP (electronic stability) with ABS, traction control, hill holder and hydraulic brake assist.
Moving up the range adds a few more extras, such as rear parking sensors and cruise control, but all the vans include a PVC floor mat to stop whatever you carry from sliding up and down like a morning rower on the Yarra River.
If there is an area within the Doblo specification that could do with refining a little we’d suggest that with four engine options there’s actually too much choice.
The 1.4-litre Euro 6 emissions level petrol four-cylinder has 70 kW and 127 Nm, and this leads the buyer into the three remaining Euro 5 level diesels. Two of these diesels share the same capacity of 1.6 litres, offering either 77 kW and 290 Nm, or 66 kW and 200 Nm. The selection criteria between these two alternatives come down whether you want a six-speed manual with the former or the Comfort-Matic AMT with the latter. Final choice is a 2.0-litre diesel offering 99 kW and 320 Nm matched to a six-speed manual gearbox in the long-wheelbase Maxi.
With the 1.4 and 1.6-litre engine variants supporting a cargo volume of 3.4 cubic metres and a payload capacity of 750 kg, it’s left to the 2.0-litre diesel long wheelbase to power the larger volume 4.2 cubic metres Doblo Maxi and offer a higher payload capability of 1,000 kg.
Price comes into all buying decisions for light commercials, and here the spectrum runs from an entry-level $22,000 through $27,000, and $29,000 to peak at $31,000, each dependent on the chosen engine category.
Making the engine choice slightly easier comes from looking at fuel economy. A combined figure the 1.4 petrol achieves 7.3 l/100 km, while the diesels return figures of 5.4, 4.9 or, for the 2.0 litre diesel long wheelbase, an increase to 5.9 l/100 km. Emissions levels are 169, 143, 130 and 154 g/km (of CO2) respectively.
So far, Delivery has only driven one diesel version and was impressed with the sophistication of the van and the quietness of the interior. For a definitive view on which is the pick of the range we will have to withhold our judgment until we have had a chance to drive each variant.
Much of the purchase decision will also depend on whether a local FIAT Professional sales outlet is close to your home or business. The organisation claims a distribution network of 50 outlets and that recent investment in parts stocking has cut previously experienced delays in parts supply. Now that these aspects are supported by a full factory-backed operation, any previous concerns should be easily overcome.