One of the most successful long-term partnerships in the light commercial business has to be that between Fiat and PSA Group, Peugeot and Citroën's parent company. Among the products it has spawned are Fiat's Ducato, Peugeot's Boxer and Citroën's Relay, all of which share the same basic, distinctive, design and are churned out of the same van factory in Italy in vast numbers.
There is one significant difference between Ducato and its two stablemates, however, and that's its mid-range diesel engine. The 120hp MultiJet 2.3-litre is unique to the Fiat and is not deployed in either Boxer or Relay. Fiat is of course a major manufacturer of diesel engines and has seldom if ever produced one that's unimpressive. But just how good is the 2.3-litre? We decided to find out.
Fitted with a fixed geometry turbocharger, an intercooler, common rail fuel injection and exhaust gas recirculation, the four-cylinder 16-valve in-line lump generates its maximum power output at 3,600rpm. Peak torque of 320Nm kicks in at 2,000rpm and the engine is married to a six-speed manual gearbox.
McPherson-type independent suspension is fitted at the front while a tubular rigid axle and longitudinal parabolic leaf springs help to support the rear. Anti-roll bars are installed front and back.
Our medium-wheelbase high-roof 3.3-tonner's 15in wheels were shod with 215/70 R15C Continental Vanco tyres. Rack and pinion power-assisted steering comes as standard offering a 12.5m turning circle kerb-to-kerb. Disc brakes are fitted all round. ABS and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution are included in the deal, but it's a pity Electronic Stability Programme (ESP) isn't.
Gross payload is 1,375kg — if that's sufficient for your needs, then why go for a, more expensive, 3.5-tonner? — and our test van could tow a braked trailer grossing at 2,500kg.
Access to the 11.5m3 load area is by means of a sliding nearside door or by twin rear doors. The latter can be swung through 90°, or through 180° if you release the stays. All you have to do is press a button, so there's no risk of getting your fingers trapped or covered in grease. All of the cargo doors on our demonstrator were unglazed.
You get plenty of load tie-down points for your money, included six set into the floor and two more at the base of the full-height steel bulkhead; a ?150 option (all prices quoted here exclude VAT) and well worth specifying on safety, security and noise-reduction grounds. A shelf above the cab that's accessible solely from the cargo bay looks like a handy place to stow cargo restraint straps.
Our demonstrator had been timbered out at a cost of £360. That's a wise precaution, although we felt it was a pity that the vulnerable wheel boxes hadn't been included. Maximum load length is 3,120mm. Maximum width is 1,870mm, narrowing to 1,422mm between the wheel boxes, while maximum height is 1,932mm.
Front-wheel drive means that the rear loading height is a modest 540mm. The deep back bumper does duty as a step and has an anti-slip surface. The rear door aperture is 1,790mm high and 1,562mm wide. Dimensions for the side door aperture are 1,755mm and 1,250mm respectively.
From the driver's viewpoint one of the key advantages of using a Ducato is the remarkable amount of in-cab oddment stowage space. There's a big bin at the bottom of each door with a moulding that can hold a large bottle of water, plus another bin above it. You'll find a large lidded and lockable compartment in the middle of the dashboard, a glovebox on the passenger side of the cab with two shelves above it, and a lidded shelf on top of the facia that sits next-door to a pop-up map holder. Various other trays and shelves are provided in addition. It's a pity, however, that the glovebox lid wasn't a better fit.
The dual passenger seat is an option at £130 and both occupants are held in place by lap and diagonal belts. Pull down the centre section of the inboard seat's back and you'll find you've just created a desk that can be used to complete paperwork. It boasts a clip to hold invoices in place, a pen tray and a pair of cup-holders.
We'd no quarrel to pick with the driving position. Offering plenty of support in all the right places, and with an inboard arm-rest, the seat is height-adjustable, as is the steering column. Mounting the gearstick on the dashboard makes it easy to slide across the cab and emerge safely on the pavement-side of the vehicle.
An MP3-compatible radio/CD player is a standard feature as are electric windows and mirrors — the housings incorporate indicators and the mirrors are heated — a driver's airbag, a 12v power point and three-button remote central locking.
We're not sure how well the grey and orangey/brown upholstery will last in service without starting to look grimy, and we're not really happy about the handbrake lever. The good news is that although it's mounted between the driver's door and his seat, it doesn't get in the way when you enter or exit the cab. The bad news is that it usually took two goes to release it fully.
There's no denying that the 2.3-litre is a lively, willing engine, packing plenty of punch right the way across the rev range. It's easily the equal of the 2.2-litre deployed in Boxer and Relay, if not its superior in terms of driving enjoyment. That enjoyment is enhanced by responsive steering that offers plenty of feedback and aids the vehicle's handling.
On the downside the gearchange isn't as crisp as it should be and both wind and engine noise could stand to be better suppressed. The unladen ride can be a touch choppy at times, but matters soon improve with a bit of weight in the back.
As far as fuel consumption is concerned we averaged 33.0mpg during the test period.
Parking was aided by reversing sensors — essential in our view if your van's back doors are windowless — for an extra £215. Good to see that deep side rubbing strips protect the van from minor damage.
Ducato is covered by a three year/100,000 mile warranty, with no mileage limit in the first two years. For your money you also get a year's breakdown cover, a three-year paintwork warranty and an eight-year anti-perforation corrosion warranty. Service intervals are set at a generous 28,000 miles.
One final thought. What Van? wouldn't be too surprised if 3.5-tonners were eventually subject to the Drivers' Hours and Operator's Licence regime that already governs heavier vehicles. If that happens, 3.3-tonners could become far more popular than they are today. Our experience with this particular Ducato suggests that many operators running 3.5-tonners could avoid tougher regulations and switch to a lighter vehicle without suffering too much; if at all.
With an impressive engine under its bonnet that offers ample performance, responsive steering and a well laid-out and well equipped cab, Fiat's Ducato is a package worthy of serious consideration. The roomy cargo bay is readily accessible and our demonstrator boasted a decent payload capacity, even though it was a 3.3- rather than a 3.5-tonner. On the downside noise levels could be better controlled and the gearchange isn't as crisp as it should be, but we could learn to live with both drawbacks. While the quality of Fiat's van dealer network was a cause for concern in the past, extending the franchise to a number of truck dealers has helped improve the aftersales support provided. That's vitally important. Even the best van in the world is useless if you can't get it serviced at the time and place of your choosing.