16 May 2014

First Drive: New Fiat Ducato van

Some years ago, Fiat designed in a clipboard on the dashboard of a Ducato van, an idea which reflected the paperwork ethos of most of its customers, writes Brian Byrne.

Now, in the sixth generation of Fiat's large van, the clipboard has become more techie — it's a clamp to hold all sizes of digital devices, from a smartphone to any tablet up to an iPad size.

Times have changed, the company said at its international launch of the latest Ducato this week. People have changed and needs have changed. And Ducato has changed too.

OK, it's true that not much can be done about the shape and capacity of the box behind the cabin. There are international standard measurements that must be adhered to. But everything involved in trundling that box along the highway can be improved. With this sixth-generation van, they have. Again.

Like being lighter and stronger throughout. Like offering greater fuel economy. Like making the driver's workplace more comfortable so that he or she works better and more safely.

So Fiat Professional is now claiming a number of 'best in class' elements. The lowest emission levels in the segment, reflected in a fuel consumption capability of up to 5.8L/100km and 158g/km. Best GVW in the single wheels category with up to 4.4 tonnes. Best rear axle load, up to 2.5 tonnes. Best payload, up to 2.1 tonnes in the vans. Best seller, (the outgoing model) in its category across Europe so far this year.

The figures are good since Ducato was first launched in 1981. More than 2.6m units. More than 80 countries, including Russia, the Middle East, Latin America and Australia. The model will be sold in the US this year under the RAM brand, making it a truly global van.

All radio systems will include Bluetooth connectivity. The standard ESC system includes rollover mitigation as well as a load and centre of gravity detector and hill holder function.

Fiat is big in offering a range of engine options in this segment, on the basis that there's a proper power unit for each 'mission' the owner requires the vehicle for. Sizes are 2.0, 2.3 and 3.0, with power outputs ranging from 115-180hp.

The choices are mind-boggling. More than 10,000 variations can be devised between the commercial, people-carrying, and conversions on the chassis-cab versions. There are eight different capacities from 8-17 cu m. There will be four lengths and three heights for vans, and chassis cabs come in six lengths.

There are seven rear suspension offerings, including a high-tech composite plastic based system where lower vehicle weight is important. The clutch life has been substantially improved.

After a lengthy and rigorous testing regime, Fiat Professional say they have improved the endurance factor of the Ducato by 50 percent. Detail attention to small items like the door hinges, and more sophisticated such as suspension and brakes, are important underpinnings to this improvement. Another figure, half a million door closing cycles reflect up to ten years of use.

Engines are rated at Euro 5+, and Euro 6 units are on the way. On the launch event I drove the Comfort Matic automatic 6-speed, and I'd wonder why anyone would bother not to have it, especially in city use. Manuals are 5- or 6-speed, depending on engine.

The 2.3 130hp is another claim for best in class from Fiat Professional, offering what the company says is the best balance between power and fuel consumption. With low-viscosity oil and low-friction piston rings, and aided by such externals as low rolling resistance tyres, it represents a 10 percent improvement over the economy of the current equivalent Ducato. A special 'Eco' variant has a 90km/h top speed and returns the best economy across the Ducato range. And optional Start/Stop system can save up to 15 percent of fuel in urban traffic conditions.

There has been a significant improvement in the cabin design, and in certain grades there are new seats and other comfort elements. The gearshifter has been moved on the dashboard to offer improved use and leave more room for a centre-seat passenger.

The latest Ducato comes to Ireland in mid-summer. No prices or specification yet, but expect a more focused range than up to now.