Italian sports cars dominate executive wish lists, can Fiat achieve the same excitement with the Ducato? Chris Mullett reports.
Fiat is part of a huge Italian conglomerate that comprises Ferrari, Maserati, Alfa Romeo, Lancia and truck maker IVECO. Founded in 1889, the company has manufactured a wide range of vehicles, from railway engines and carriages, military vehicles, farm tractors and aircraft, and by 2011 had become the fourth largest European automaker by production behind Volkswagen Group, PSA and Renault, and the eleventh largest automaker in the world.
In 2011, Fiat group acquired the majority shareholding of Chrysler, and, consequently, the Dodge and Jeep brands. At the same time the agricultural and construction equipment manufacturer Case New Holland, truck maker IVECO and the industrial and marine division of Fiat Powertrain technologies were spun off into a new group.
Distribution of the Fiat brand through the Australian market was originally handled by the ATECO group, but these days has been consolidated into the Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Chrysler and Jeep company-owned distribution network based in Melbourne.
It‘s been some considerable time since Delivery Magazine got behind the wheel of a Ducato, and it was a pleasant surprise to re-examine the advantages provided by a range that includes medium, long and extra-long-wheelbase options with low or medium roof heights. There’s also the cab/chassis version that has established its popularity with motorhome builders.
Dimensionally, the Ducato offers a variety of overall lengths from 5,413 mm through to 6,363 mm. That translates to an interior cargo space length of 3,120 mm through to 4,070 mm. Interior height is either 1,662 mm or 1,932 mm, and the width is standardised at 1,870 mm. In volume terms this translates to 10 cubic metres for the low-roof van, 11.5 for the mid-roof van and 13 for the largest model.
Unlike some of the competition, the Ducato range is all rated under the light truck licence requirement with GVMs of 3,510 kg through to 4,005 kg, which translates to payloads of 1,612 kg through to around the 2,000 kg area. If more capacity is needed it is capable of towing a braked trailer with a laden weight of up to 2,500 kg.
To gain market share, the Ducato has to win the hearts and minds of the drivers. This is of course a highly competitive market segment, inhabited by Mercedes-Benz with the Sprinter, Volkswagen with the Crafter, Renault with the Master, Iveco with the Daily and newcomer LDV from China.
The Ducato van comes with a full width and full height internal bulkhead behind the driver and passenger seating that seals off the cargo area. This makes the cabin an extremely quiet environment, and with comfortable seating and good ergonomics there is very little with which to find fault.
The dashboard layout is logical and all dials and gauges are easy to read. Cruise control, wipers, lights and indicators all come off steering column stalks. The Bluetooth telephone link involves a voice recognition system, and, provided the driver can become accustomed to speaking to the van, it all works very well. Pairing a mobile phone is quick and easy and the system recognises the link when the driver enters or leaves the cabin.
Fiat PowerTrain Technologies provides the engines, and in the Ducato it’s a MultiJet II four-cylinder, turbocharged diesel of 2.3 litres. The overhead camshaft design with an all-alloy cylinder head and cast iron block uses exhaust gas recycling to achieve Euro V emissions compliance.
There’s a choice of two power and torque outputs, with the 130 MultiJet II producing maximum power of 96 kW at 3,600 rpm and peak torque of 320 Nm is rated at 1,800 rpm. The 150 MultiJet II, available only in the extra-long-wheelbase version and the cab/chassis, is also a 2.3-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged unit, but provides maximum power of 109 kW produced at 3,600 rpm, but with a higher torque rating of 350 Nm at 1,500 rpm.
According to the manufacturer’s stated fuel consumption figures, there’s not much difference between each engine, with an expected combined fuel economy figure of 7.1 l/100 km and an emissions rating of 186 g/km of CO2.
The reasons for buying any van come down to just who makes the final purchase decision. Price and versatility obviously plays a major part in any purchase decision, and any prospective buyer should be able to easily check on whether the access into and out of the cargo area is going to suit the task ahead.
One of the big pluses for a Ducato buyer, and incidentally that of Renault as well, is that because the driveline uses a front-wheel-drive layout there’s no need to have a high floor level necessary to clear a centre drive shaft to the rear axle. That means floor height in the cargo area can be lower than normal, and this reduces the step heights into and out of the van. For the Ducato, the floor levels vary from 534 mm to 565 mm.
Delivery tested the long-wheelbase, medium-roof van with the 2.3-litre diesel matched to a six-speed manual gearbox. There is a six-speed automated manual available, but we have not had the opportunity to drive the latest AMT version that Fiat calls an MTA (Manual Transmission Automated), just to be Italian and different.
The gearshift is a remote, cable operated unit that locates the gear lever on the edge of the dashboard. It’s particularly well located for the driver and the gearshift quality is very good.
Visibility is also very good, thanks to large main mirrors and wide vision convex mirrors set under the main mirrors. All of the four mirrors are power adjusted, and when set-up properly they provide excellent all-round vision. The cabin’s rear bulkhead also has a glass panel insert, and the conventional rear-vision mirror gives a view of the road to the rear through the large glass area of the barn-type doors.
The dashboard design incorporates a huge amount of cleverly organised storage space, with a full-width shelf over the windscreen, double pockets in the doors and sensible storage in dashboard lockers.
The seats are particularly comfortable, and perhaps it’s the Fiat/Ferrari link that results in them being covered in bright red fabric. This not only looks really inviting, it also lifts the appearance of the cabin interior from the usual grey/black that seems to be the normal trim.
We don’t have an ANCAP crash safety rating available at this stage but the standard safety inclusions offer a driver and passenger airbag, electronic stability control with anti-slip regulation, a hill-hold function for start-offs and a load adaptive control.
The Ducato on test featured an integral TomTom SAT/Nav unit that fits in a holder on the top of the dashboard and is easy to see in the driver’s field of vision. Air conditioning is standard, as are powered windows and remote central locking.
Usual seating arrangements are to have single seats for both the driver and passenger, but a dual passenger seat is available optionally, together with a second side sliding door if required. Warranty is listed as being three years/ 200,000 km.
We found the Ducato really pleasant to drive and well able to keep up with traffic flow both around the city and out on the freeway. I liked the gearshift, and the performance is well matched to all requirements and payload situations.
Drivers will have to get used to finding the park brake on the right hand side of the driver’s seat, rather than on the more usual left-hand-side, but, once acclimatised, again it’s easy to use. Having a hill-start probably reduces its use slightly for those that have the annoying habit of sitting in stationary traffic with their foot on the brake.
It’s reasonable to expect a few knocks and dents to the van for anyone operating in the centre of the city, and the use of large replaceable plastic panels all around the front and rear ends should minimise the cost of body repairs.
All in all, Ducato offers a lot in terms of driver appeal. The question hanging over the brand is one of product support and easy availability of service outlets. If you are comfortable with being able to find a local Fiat dealer whenever you need one, then it seals the deal.