Car reviews - Fiat - Doblo - range
Space, value, practicality, ease, vision, design inside and out, car-like suspension and ride
Room for improvement
Base 1.4’s lack of auto, cruise control and seat-height adjuster, LHD-biased barn-door arrangement, already superseded elsewhere
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3 Dec 2014
By TUNG NGUYEN
FIAT PROFESSIONAL’S foray into the light-van market reflects the same infectious confidence that has helped propel the Italian firm’s 500 to prominence (if not outright leadership) in the sub-B city-car segment over the past 15 months or so.
Priced from $22,000 plus on-road costs, the 263-series Doblo front-driver comes with five distinct advantages that ought to frighten the Volkswagen Caddy, which currently rules the class virtually unchallenged with almost 60 per cent penetration.
Kicking things off, the Fiat in entry-level form (that might be the most popular, though the brand won’t say) is $690 cheaper.
Secondly there’s class-leading payload capacity – not in the standard, 750kg-rated, short-wheelbase (SWB) model, but in the 1000kg-rated, long-wheelbase (Maxi) version, which shades the German equivalent’s 850kg effort. That boxy rear also makes for a more practical load carrier.
Thirdly, the Doblo features side thorax/head airbags and right-hand as well as left-hand sliding side doors as standard, while VW asks nearly $900 and $700 extra for the privileges respectively.
Fourthly, the Fiat employs a semi-independent coil-spring rear end rather than the live axle and leaf springs found in the Caddy’s posterior, bringing ride and dynamic benefits across the driving and comfort spectrum.
And lastly, the Doblo has a design character and offbeat charm that is a far cry for the neat but utilitarian look of the VW.
But the latter hits back with standard cruise control, a driver’s seat height adjuster and steering wheel rake settings – three crucial items that the standard 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol-engined base Doblo van overlooks.
The 24kg-heavier Caddy’s 1.2-litre turbo four-pot’s output is 63kW/160Nm, while the 1266kg base Doblo manages 70kW/127Nm. Torque is tops with the tradespeople who are likely to need it lugging things around.
Fiat's offering can't quite match the fuel efficiency of the VW, with the base Doblo's official figure of 7.3 litres per 100 kilometres, compared with the Caddy's 6.9L/100km.
And – very importantly for buyers who want the latest and greatest in everything – this Doblo will only probably last less than a year on the Aussie scene, as a substantially facelifted model was unveiled in September for a March/April European debut, before heading over here as an 2016 model about months later.
So it’s a seesawing situation as to what looks best on paper in the increasingly more competitive light-van war, but Fiat is hoping to lure buyers in once they spend some time in its Turkish-built workhorse.
For starters, the Doblo certainly stands out, with proud van styling, a bold visage and boxy rear that literally mean business in terms of both practicality and versatility.
Note, however, that the twin barn rear doors are designed for left-hand drive use as the main one opens back on to the footpath, requiring users to walk out and behind the vehicle to access the load area. That’s a small but important detail if you’re constantly using just one of the doors.
Conversely, the Fiat’s handles are ambidextrously engineered for one-finger operation. Plus, the sheer vastness and width of the cargo area is impressive.
As long as you don’t mind the lack of seat and steering wheel height adjusters, the Doblo’s interior is as car-like as its maker claims, from the Fiat parts-bin raided instruments, wheel, heater/vents and audio controls, to the comfy front seats.
For bins, trays and cubbies, you won’t need to look far, the driving position itself is sufficiently accommodating, forward vision ranks highly despite the low seats, there’s room galore for taller folk and – aforementioned items aside – there seems to be nothing lacking in terms of creature comforts.
But that 70kW/127Nm 1.4-litre petrol engine – while smooth and quite peppy off the line – needs to be revved hard if you need to hustle along, with the long-throw but quite light five-speed manual shifter getting a thorough workout constantly. At least it all gels together pretty smoothly and quietly.
None of the turbo-diesel alternatives were available for us to sample on the launch day around Melbourne’s inner city suburbs, but they certainly look more promising in the performance (and economy) department than the old four-cylinder petrol unit.
Along with two tunes of SWB 1.6-litre Multijet (77kW/290Nm six-speed manual and 66kW/200Nm five-speed automated manual dubbed Comfort-Matic with idle stop fuel-saving tech), there’s a LWB 99kW/320Nm 2.0-litre Multijet Maxi flagship with 4.2 cubic metres of load volume – up from the others’ 3.4m3.
Not that the base engine combo is without merit. The 1.4’s eager, if muted steering is backed up by tidy handling, excellent road-holding (from special Continental tyres on our test van), and an unexpected suppleness from underneath.
The Fiat definitely turns, grips and rides more like a car than anything this side of Renault’s Kangoo – the number two player in this class, and one that’s doubled its market share year-on-year.
The sense we’re left with is that there’s a whole lot of van on offer for the money, underscoring the Doblo’s value, versatility and comfort. Fiat has been engineering this sort of vehicle for decades (though the Doblo as a series is barely 15 years old), and it shows in the Italian vehicle’s competence and confidence.
So there you are. AWOL cruise control aside, the Doblo feels like the real deal, with a roundedness that ought to give the Caddy’s keepers sleepless nights. Even in the Fiat's existing and soon-to-be-superseded five-year old guise.
It will be interested to see if Australians wake up to Fiat Professional’s latest offering.
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