Dave Whyte checks out how the current Ducato stacks up in advance of a new model release early next year.
Years ago, when I first took to this writing job, a Fiat Ducato was the first light van I had to review. After a couple of days driving it around town, I decided that maybe light vans weren’t all noisy, smoke belching things with appalling road manners. Since then I have driven many similar vans from various manufacturers, and broadened my horizons. When I was recently offered a drive in the current model, I was very keen to see how the Ducato stacked up against the rest, now that I have a bit more experience of the market.
The Fiat Ducato comes in four variants, including three different wheelbases in van form and a long-wheelbase cab/chassis. All are powered by the 3.0-litre MultiJet turbo diesel, which features common-rail fuel injection and delivers 130 kW of pulling power. Available with either the standard six-speed manual or a six-speed AMT option, the Ducato is driven through the front wheels, though the fitment of ABS and traction control means you can be assured of good grip when you need it.
For this test I had the MWB low-roof van, fitted with the AMT option. While it may have a similar external appearance to other vans, the interior is undoubtedly Italian. Bright red seat coverings and gloss black dash trim suggest there is some fashion sense among the designers, even if it’s not necessarily aligned to that of most white van drivers. That’s not to say I didn’t like it, in fact it made for a feeling of driving a more luxurious car, but I fear it may be lost on some prospective purchasers.
The 3.0-litre engine is a very smooth piece of gear. Engine noise is only noticeable above 2300 rpm, and at cruising speed is virtually non-existent. The six-speed transmission does a great job of keeping the revs below that mark unless under hard acceleration. Wind noise is also low, with the road noise being the most notable sound intrusion. Even at highway speed, however, it is very quiet in the cab, meaning frequent speedo checks were needed to ensure compliance with the speed limit. Performance was excellent, whether loaded or empty, with just a slight change in the gear shift points to compensate for the change in weight.
Having a full bulkhead between the driving compartment and load area not only aids in sound insulation, but makes life more comfortable for the driver. The heater and air-con work well to maintain the temperature, and, with only the cab to manage, don’t have to work so hard. There is also the safety benefit of not having your load come forward into the cab under harsh braking. The central locking works separately for the two compartments, allowing the driver to open the driving compartment or load area individually, ensuring load security.
Driving the Ducato is very easy. The driving environment is very comfortable, making even long drives easy. The seating is firm, but not so hard as to be uncomfortable, and is adjustable to find the right position for most drivers. At such a steep angle, the short bonnet is invisible from the driver’s seat, and the large mirrors (which are heated, as tested by a -2.0 degree Kyneton morning) provide clear vision down each side. I did notice that the windscreen-mounted centre mirror suffered from the reflection on the glass in the bulkhead. Even in the daylight, I found myself seeing the same picture in the mirror as I did through the windscreen, though it was worse at night. The dash layout is clear and easy to read, with the trip computer assisting in the finer details. While the radio and the heating controls take up the centre of the console, there are controls for the radio and phone functions mounted on the steering wheel.
There are storage compartments inside the doors, and a small glove compartment below the dash on the passenger side, but I found there was a lack of other usable storage. The cup holders under the dash were not suitable for my standard coffee cup, but that was accommodated by folding the back rest of the centre seat down. Here there was a small area suitable for completing paperwork, and included a pair of cup holders. The fit and finish meant I didn’t find this fold down panel until day-three of driving the Ducato – I’m not sure if that reflects positively on the van or negatively on the driver!
Being the top-spec model, this van also had the Tom Blue and Me sat-nav and Bluetooth unit fitted, but without the head unit I couldn’t even connect my phone for hands-free operation. Still, if you were to purchase a van like this I’m sure they would supply the complete unit, and you could call me to report on its performance.
Anyway, down to the business end, and the Ducato certainly has a big business focus. With full-width and height barn doors on the rear and a sliding door on the left-hand side, access to the load area is ample and easy. Even on the shortest model, it would be easy to slide a pallet in the side door, while the space between the wheelarches means another would fit snugly through the rear doors. One would have to question why there is no door on the right-hand (driver’s) side to improve access, though the Ducato is not alone in this shortfall.
There are plenty of anchorage points mounted in the floor for load security that don’t interfere with loading, even when sliding freight along the floor. The floor in the load area is flat, except where the arches rise, but even they seem relatively low compared to some other vans. In all, it’s a perfectly practical space for most types of loads you would expect a van of this size to encounter.
So how does the Ducato stack up against the competition? Pretty well, actually. There is a definite Euro van feel to the Fiat, but that is not a bad thing. With all the mod cons, driver comfort and the ability to carry a 1400 kg payload, the Ducato ticks most of the boxes on a working-man’s list. Add to that the ability to carry three adults, and a list of safety features including dual front airbags, and you have a van that is suitable for carrying the family after hours.
The Europeans are experts at the light van platform, and Fiat is right up there with the best. What is particularly interesting is that with a high standard currently available, just what else can the company incorporate in its next generation products coming onto our market in early 2015, rivalling the new Iveco Daily and the Ford Transit Cargo?