Land Rover's Defender had better look to its laurels. Working with Spanish manufacturer and one-time Land Rover assembler Santana, Iveco has come up with an impressive competitor that's set to give executives at Solihull a few sleepless nights.
On display at last year's Amsterdam commercial vehicle show, and due to go on sale here early next year, the chassis-based Massif 4x4 is probably the closest rival to Defender the motor industry has ever seen.
It's up for grabs as a two-seater two-door pick-up and chassis cab, a long-wheelbase (2,768mm) five-door five- or seven-seater station wagon and as a short-wheelbase (2,452mm) three-door four-seater station wagon. The station wagons will initially appear in Britain built to N1 light commercial specifications, with versions built to M1 passenger car spec in the pipeline.
Power comes courtesy of two 3.0-litre diesels; the HPI producing 146hp across a 3,000rpm to 3,500rpm plateau and the HPT offering 176hp at from 3,200rpm to 3,500rpm.
Peak torque figures are 350Nm at 1,400rpm to 2,800rpm and 400Nm at 1,250rpm to 3,000rpm respectively. The HPT comes with a variable geometry turbocharger and both engines are married to a ZF 6S400 six-speed overdrive gearbox.
Four-wheel drive is selectable — Massif employs rear-wheel drive when running as a 4x2 — with a choice of high- or low-ratio gears, with a rear diff lock and automatic free-wheeling front hubs up for grabs as options. Not having permanent four-wheel drive cuts fuel consumption by 10 per cent, says Iveco.
With parabolic leaf springs, anti-roll bars and beam axles deployed front and back, the suspension system is basic, but probably none the worse for that given the terrain Massif is likely to be deployed in. Disc brakes — ventilated at the front — are fitted all round and ABS is likely to be standard on UK models.
The standard version gets 16in wheels shod with 235/85 R16 all-terrain tyres, with alloys and specialist off-road tyres available for an extra charge.
Fording capability is 500mm while under-axle ground clearance is 200mm with standard wheels and tyres.
Grossing at up to 3,050kg, Massif can handle a 1,000kg payload and the pick-up will accommodate a euro pallet.
The specification is basic, or at least it was on the vehicles we examined. Neither the driver's seat nor the steering wheel is height-adjustable and airbags aren't at present available even as options; a real anomaly in today's safety-conscious world.
All the seats in the Massifs we saw were trimmed in a synthetic material of some description. Both fabric and leather upholstery are also available.
The dashboard looks utilitarian, with a pocket projecting from the front on the passenger side the only oddment space of any significance. A grab-handle sits just above it.
Other storage facilities for odds and sods include pockets in each of the front doors and a lidded tray between the front seats.
Nice to see chunky heating and ventilation controls; the package includes air recirculation, with air conditioning available as an option, but we're not so keen on the miserable little switch for the hazard warning lights, sitting like a pimple on top of the steering column. The 12v power point could be useful though and it's good to see that there's ample room in the driver's foot-well, with a rest for the clutch foot. People who drive this type of vehicle often wear big boots.
You get plenty of head-, leg-, and shoulder-room too, although leg-room in the back of the five-door we took a look at is restricted. Drivers familiar with Defender will be relieved to hear that they won't be jammed up against the door in a Massif and won't bang their right elbow every time they turn the wheel.
Electric front windows were fitted to our five-door demonstrator, but the rear windows had to be cranked up and down manually. A radio/CD player and satellite navigation are among the options.
When they started developing Massif, Iveco and Santana clearly decided to raid the motor industry's global parts bin. The door locks — and key — look awfully similar to those that used to be fitted to Ford's Sierra; likewise the stalks for the windscreen wipers, lights and indicators.
If you want to turn the five-door, five-seater into a two-seater window van, then undo the wing nuts — yes, we did say wing nuts — that help keep the back seat in place and fold it all the way forwards. By doing so you create an impressively roomy cargo area with a floor and sides protected with chequer-plate.
The bad news so far as the back seat is concerned is that there is no three-point seat belt for the middle passenger and the seat backs aren't high enough to prevent whiplash injury if the driver has to brake suddenly and heavily.
Even with the back seat in place, there's a decent amount of space available for tool boxes, wet weather gear and so on. The single rear door is hinged to the right, with the spare wheel mounted on the outside, and a slightly awkward-to-fold-down-step aids rear access.
A run around some rural roads in northern Italy in the HPT five-door quickly showed that Massif offers ample performance. Although it's not designed as an inter-city cruiser, we suspect that it could fulfil that role if it had to without causing the driver too much grief.
It's when you venture off-road Massif really comes into its own though. With huge dollops of torque on tap in all the right places and providing plenty of braking effort where it counts — on steep descents — the engine is ideally configured for arduous mud-plugging.
Engaging four-wheel drive and using the low-ratio gears, we happily steamed up a series of steep, rocky ascents in second and third that we would usually only have attempted in first. For much of what we tackled four-wheel drive plus the high set of gears would probably have been perfectly adequate.
Massif's generous suspension articulation helped. Boulders and deep ruts held few if any terrors for it and the off-road ride was surprisingly good given the uneven, gravel-strewn terrain. The same could be said of the ride offered on ordinary surfaces.
Massif's steering in the rough is a lot better than it is on metalled roads. When you're on conventional highways it has a curiously vague feeling to it, especially in the straight-ahead position.
Nor were we that enamoured of the heavy clutch pedal, although the gearchange turned out to be a lot more precise than we expected it to be.
Switching to four-wheel drive could be problematic on occasions, however. You use a lever close to the gearstick — it's also used to select the low-ratio range of gears — and on our vehicle its gaiter kept catching against the surrounding plastic, obliging the driver to make two or three attempts before it slotted into place.
This defect, along with exposed Phillips screw heads, trim that's of indifferent quality and poorly finished in places, and messy welding around the window frames all suggest that Iveco and Santana still have a lot of work to do in the quality department.
Having sampled the station wagon, we decided to try the pick-up. It's just as good a performer as its passenger-carrying companion, and even better off-road. Access to the chequer-plate-clad cargo area is by means of a single — and very heavy — tailgate.
It can be locked horizontally if you're carrying over-length items or dropped down flat if you release the substantial support chains. The catches at each end are a bit awkward to undo, however, and we'd prefer to see them replaced by a centre-mounted release handle.
The spare wheel is mounted on the nearside of the hefty frame positioned behind the cab.
Giugiaro is responsible for the styling and while Massif bears some resemblance to Defender, it also looks rather like one of the early Toyota Land Cruisers; not a bad association to have come to think of it given the latter's reputation for rugged reliability.
As if to underline Massif's own solid construction, one of them — not driven by this magazine, we hasten to add — ended up on its side on an off-road track during the press event in Italy. It stayed intact and everybody emerged safe from harm.
Iveco's latest offering has in fact passed what is known as the Swedish elk test — the violent manoeuvres that may have to be made on a road in Sweden if an elk wanders out in front of you — which suggests a good level of stability for a 4x4 with a high centre of gravity.
Minor damage is deflected by scuff-resistant body parts around the wheelarches, lower door panels and rear light units and they can be sprayed the same colour as the rest of the vehicle. They provide useful protection.
Massif's success will depend heavily on the price-tag it carries, of course. In Italy they'll start at €21,900 excluding VAT — approximately £16,600 in real money. UK prices have yet to be revealed, but it's certain to be competitive with Solihull's offering.
Another deciding factor is how well it will hold its value in the second-hand market. If prospective customers — fleet customers especially — believe that residuals will be poor, then that alone may prompt them to opt for Defender instead.
Then there's the dealer network to consider. Land Rover dealers have a much higher retail profile than Iveco dealers do. While that may not be too much of a problem when it comes to shifting Massif pick-ups and chassis cabs, it's likely to work to Iveco's disadvantage when it tries to sell the station wagons.
While Massif has a few quality issues that need to be addressed, all in all it's a remarkably impressive piece of kit. It's a hugely competent off-roader, doesn't disgrace itself on conventional roads, and is clearly capable of taking on and probably beating Land Rover's Defender in most situations any day of the week. We're not daydreaming. So go and try it out when it comes to the UK at the beginning of 2009. We'll be surprised if you don't agree.