There’s an old saying that good things come to those who wait – its been a long time coming, so finally getting our hands on a Fiat Ducato was exciting, and here’s hoping the age old cliché holds true. The particular van tested was the Fiat Ducato 2.3-litre long-wheelbase mid-roof.
The Ducato is powered by a 2.3-litre four-cylinder diesel engine producing 130 kW of power at 3500 rpm and 400 Nm of torque at 1500 rpm – impressive numbers for a van, and we will discuss the performance later in this review. The standard transmission for the Ducato is a six-speed manual; however, this particular vehicle was fitted with optional Comfort-matic transmission ($2900). This transmission is a six-speed automated manual, rather than a conventional torque converter automatic as fitted in most passenger cars.
The other option fitted to the vehicle in addition to the AMT transmission is the reverse camera, which at $890 seems a near mandatory option in such a big vehicle. Although it’s mounted at the very top of the van and points down towards the ground, it gives an unusual view compared with a typical reverse camera, which is mounted near the number plate and faces backwards. In addition, the rear parking sensors fitted as standard are a nice touch, especially for a big vehicle like this.
When it comes to carrying capacity, the big Ducato has a payload allowance of 2145 kg with the volume capacity of the vehicle being 13 cubic metres, allowing plenty of space to add in cargo. The van tested was only fitted with a sliding door on the left side of the vehicle, which is good and bad. From a safety perspective it is good as it forces the driver to unload cargo from the kerbside and not potentially get hit by ongoing traffic; however, for a courier doing multiple drops per shift, it is time-consuming and tiresome having to walk around the vehicle to the other side to access the cargo door. Fortunately, Fiat offer as an option, a right-hand sliding door for $1200. The rear of the van is fitted with a barn door arrangement, with both doors folding out and around to the side of the van to allow for a pallet to be loaded into the back.
Inside the business part of the van (the cargo area) it’s fitted as standard with wall lining. Also as standard is load restraint hooks to make securing the load easier for the driver. While Fiat calls it a mid-roof, it’s more akin to a high-roof van, as the internal height of the van is 1932 mm, which allows almost anyone to be able to walk around in the cargo bay area, and makes access for loading and unloading much easier.
Service intervals for the Ducato are a whopping 48,000 km (or every 12 months), which should appeal to operators doing high kilometres to both reduce costs and time off the road. The warranty is also a very credible three-year/200,000 km. The van has a large fuel tank capacity of 90 litres and the official fuel economy according to Fiat is 8.9 litres per 100 kilometres for the combined cycle, which seems very credible as for the duration of our tests, which included a combination of different driving, a combined average of 9.4 litres per 100 kilometres was recorded on the in-dash trip computer.
Fit and finish of the van seem very high, the interior was modern looking, and all controls worked well. For my liking, the bulkhead was fitted too far forward, which limited seat travel and seat recline immensely. Nonetheless, the bulkhead is a good feature as it would be near impossible to both heat and cool such a large area without it, and it also helps to reduce noise entering the driver’s cockpit from the rear of the van. There is a height-adjustable bucket seat for the driver and a two-seat bench for passengers providing legal seating positions for three people. All are fitted with three-point seat belts.
Standard fit is a colour touchscreen that incorporates AM/FM radio and Bluetooth audio streaming, and this was where the optional reverse camera was fitted. Also as an option is a navigation system for an additional $890, which would seem to make sense, particularly for courier operations delivering goods across the city.
The Ducato is a front-wheel-drive arrangement, but, due to the lack of payload in the rear of the van, it was impossible to test how it handled starting off on a hill under maximum payload. The turning circle at 14.4 metres seemed very good for such a big van, and the standard-fit power steering made the task less onerous on the driver.
Ride and handling of the van is exceptionally good, and, as mentioned, the van was empty, so one would expect the ride to improve when payload is placed into the cargo area. The van is fitted with ESP as standard to improve driver safety, along with dual airbags for driver and passenger, and a hill-hold function, which is a great feature particularly for the vehicles fitted with the AMT transmission.
The 2.3-litre engine has plenty of poke about it, and, despite not having any payload in the back, it was surprisingly swift, particularly off the mark. The engine feels smooth and refined and in-cabin noise level, even upon acceleration, were first rate.
The only downside of the Fiat was the Comfort-matic transmission, which suffers the same flaws as most AMT transmissions, including slow and clunky gearshifts, and they make creeping forward or back into tight areas or into a loading bay difficult as the vehicle electronics are controlling the clutch, rather than a torque converter doing the work required. The transmission became quite annoying, particularly in city driving when constant upshifting and downshifting of gears was required as the shifts are cumbersome and somewhat jerky. Also experienced in lower gears around 20-30 km/h was a surging feeling of the van when the throttle was held in a constant position.
The Fiat faces tough competition in the large-van segment, with strong offerings from the benchmark Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, along with the Ford Transit, Iveco Daily, and the Renault Master. These brands, particularly the Sprinter and Transit, have forged strong customer followings over many decades. Fiat will have to work hard through its dealer network to present the Ducato to buyers and demonstrate its ability as a comfortable, yet efficient and reliable workhorse for owner/drivers and fleet operators alike.
The Ducato is a great van to drive, its powerful, rides well, is well equipped and has plenty of safety features. It’s only let down by the Comfort-matic transmission, so much so that a manual would be preferred. If Fiat could fit the ZF torque converter automatic, like sister brand Iveco does, it would certainly bring it up into the best of the vans available for purchase.