Fiat Ducato 3.0JTD LWB H/R Comfort-Matic

Date: Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Driving in Britain’s traffic-clogged city centres day after day is an exhausting business. You’re constantly changing gear as you inch your way through the automotive bedlam and feel both mentally and physically drained when you reach the end of your shift. All that cog-swapping shortens the life of your clutch and leads to other components suffering premature wear.

 

Specifying an automatic gearbox is one way of dealing with the problem, but auto ’boxes don’t come cheap and operators may fear that they’ll suffer a fuel consumption penalty if they choose this option. The alternative is a semi-automatic ’box; one that can be employed in either manual or automatic mode, allowing the driver to switch between the two with ease.

A number of van makers now offer these ’boxes as options, but their reception has been mixed. In one or two cases they’ve been introduced and subsequently withdrawn as a consequence of adverse marketplace reaction. Fiat is one manufacturer that’s persevering with semi-automatics and is offering one on the front-wheel drive Ducato under the Comfort-Matic banner. We decided to check it out.

Technical

The six-speed Comfort-Matic is available solely on the most powerful model in the Ducato range; the 157hp 3.0-litre four-cylinder common rail MultiJet Power diesel. Fitted with a fixed geometry turbocharger and an intercooler, the engine produces its maximum power output at 3,500rpm. Peak torque of 400Nm — a pretty generous dollop — bites at 1,700rpm.

Independent suspension with MacPherson-type struts is fitted at the front while a tubular rigid axle and longitudinal parabolic leaf springs help support the rear. Anti-roll bars are fitted front and back.

That at least is the standard package, but our long-wheelbase high roof Ducato 35 3.5-tonner was equipped with rear air suspension for an extra £1,325; all prices listed here exclude VAT. It allows the rear loading height to be raised or lowered by 70mm.

Our deonstrator sat on 15in steel wheels shod with the optional, larger, Pirelli Chrono 225/70 R15 C tyres. They add £305 to the bill. Discs brakes — ventilated at the front — with a 280mm diameter are fitted all round and ABS and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution are standard features. The big Fiat gets rack and pinion steering with variable power assistance offering a 14.3m kerb-to-kerb turning circle.

Our test van could handle a 1,475kg payload and tow a braked trailer with an all-up weight of 2,500kg.

Load Area

Rear access to the 13.0m 3 cargo bay is by means of twin, unglazed, doors that can be swung through 90°, or through 180° if you release the stays. A nearside sliding door is provided too.

As well as a full-height steel bulkhead for £160 our van boasted a comprehensive selection of load tie-down rings. If you intend to employ them then you’ll be pleased to see that there’s a shelf above the cab that’s accessible solely from the cargo area. It’s a handy place to store load restraint straps.

Maximum length is 3,705mm. Maximum height is 1,932mm, while maximum width is 1,870mm narrowing to 1,422mm between the wheel boxes. Rear loading height is 545mm. Rear door aperture height is 1,790mm with a width of 1,562mm. Dimensions for the side door are 1,755mm and 1,250mm respectively.

Cab Comfort

Ducato’s roomy and unusually-styled cab interior doesn’t lack storage space. For your money you get a large, lockable bin in the middle of the dashboard, a couple of shelves above the glovebox, two-tier bins in each of the doors and a handy pop-up map-holder mounted on top of the facia. A lidded shelf is to be found on top of the facia too, on the passenger side, and you’ll find a storage tray if you look under the driver’s seat.

Flip down the back of the three-man cab’s middle seat and it turns into a handy desk complete with a clip to keep paperwork in place and a couple of cup-holders; one big, and one small. All three perches boast lap and diagonal belts and the middle passenger has a ceiling-mounted grab handle to hang on to if required.

Protected by an airbag, the driver enjoys plenty of head and shoulder room and the use of an MP3-compatible stereo radio/CD Player; remote controls are fitted to the steering wheel for an additional £80. Featuring an inboard-mounted armrest, the seat is height-adjustable and the angle of the seat cushion can be altered too.

You’ll find the gearshift positioned on the dashboard and the handbrake lever mounted between the driver’s seat and the door. You won’t tumble over it unless you’re exceptionally clumsy, but make sure it’s fully released before you drive off.

While the charcoal grey and burnt orange seat trim may not be to everybody’s taste, we liked it. It makes a pleasant change from some of the blander seat patterns we’ve seen.

Our test van was kitted out with air-conditioning (£835) and Blue&Me Bluetooth (£265) as well as a 12v power point, electric windows and large electric exterior mirrors with a wide-angle lower section. Central locking is fitted and all the doors — including the ones that provide entry to the cargo bay — can be locked and unlocked remotely.

On the Road

Comfort-Matic is a remarkably easy ’box to use. You tap it to the left to engage manual, to the left again to engage auto, then to the right again to revert to manual. A display on the dashboard tells you which mode/gear you are in. When you’re in manual you push the stick away from you to go down the ’box and towards you to go back up the gears again. Even when you’re in manual mode the box will change down as you approach, say, a roundabout to ensure that you don’t inadvertently stall.

Like most semi-auto ’boxes, Comfort-Matic does not care to be rushed either in manual or automatic mode. Bear that in mind and you’ll find you’ll progress gently from one gear to the next. Explore the ’box a little and you’ll also find that it offers a useful kick-down facility at higher speeds; just what you require if you need to nip past slow-moving vehicles.

As for performance, the 3.0-litre diesel has it in abundance and delivers it smoothly. It’s a pleasure to sit behind. It turns Ducato into a remarkably-effective high-speed intercity cruiser that surges away from rest and is more than capable of storming up inclines even when heavily-laden. All that torque should ensure that it can haul a heavy trailer without breaking sweat too.

There are a few drawbacks, however. More attention needs to be paid to suppressing noise, vibration and harshness, the steering felt sloppy and vague at times which rather spoilt the handling and the ride could be choppy when the vehicle was lightly laden. The presence of rear air suspension didn’t seem to make any difference.

As for Comfort-Matic, there’s only one real drawback and that’s the price. It adds a hefty £1,155 to the cost of a manual Ducato; and that’s too much.

As far as fuel consumption is concerned we averaged 32mpg. That’s slightly better than we’ve achieved with manual 3.0-litres, but not enough to justify the extra cost of the ’box purely on fuel economy grounds.

Deep side rubbing strips provide the paintwork — metallic silver in our case for £340 — with some useful protection and reverse warning bleepers for an extra £225 should help prevent damage to the rear.

One of Ducato’s big plus points — especially if you’re on home delivery work around housing estates — is that its exterior styling is friendly and non-threatening. It does not have the aggressive, toddler-frightening, frontal styling of, for example, Volkswagen’s Crafter.

Ducato is protected by a three year/100,000 mile warranty with no mileage limit in the first two years. The AA provides a comprehensive emergency assistance package for the first 12 months. An eight year anti-perforation corrosion warranty and a three year paintwork warranty are in place too. Service intervals are set at an impressively-long 28,000 miles.

Verdict

With ample performance on tap, the 3.0-litre Fiat Ducato is a hard-charging motorway cruiser that simply gobbles up the miles. Steep hills hold no terrors for it – it surges up them without breaking sweat. Marry the engine to the easy-to-use Comfort-Matic semi-automatic gearbox and you’ve got a van that’s as at home on the mean streets of Britain’s big cities as it is on the lonelier stretches of the M6. Ultra-long service intervals should help owners save their pennies. On the downside, Comfort-Matic is expensive and Ducato itself is by no means perfect. While we like the van’s distinctively-different cab interior, its unusual external styling, its payload capacity and the capacious load areas offered by the bigger models in the range, more attention needs to be paid to reducing noise, vibration and harshness and to improving both the unladen ride and the handling. Address these areas, and Ducato could be transformed from a competent van into a great one.

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