Nobody will ever buy Fiat's Doblo Cargo XL for its appearance. Launched last year and the most capacious model in the Doblo Cargo range, its tall, awkwardly-executed, roof extension makes it look ungainly to say the least.
That is not to damn it as a cargo carrier however: far from it. In fact there is a strong case for saying that it is one of the most practical and usable vans of its size that we have ever come across.
With its 5.0cu m cargo area the long-wheelbase high-roof XL tops off a line-up that includes 3.4cu m, 4.0cu m and 4.2cu m models plus the niche-market Work Up dropside. Combi and Crew Van models are available too.
You can order your XL as a 105hp 1.6-litre - specify the Comfort-Matic automated manual box and power output drops to 90hp - or a 135hp 2.0-litre.
Both engines are Multijet diesels - petrol power is offered solely in the short-wheelbase standard roof variant - and the XL we sampled came with the 105hp version married to a six-speed manual gearbox and in SX trim. The more downmarket Standard trim is the alternative: top-of-the-range Tecnico trim is not offered on this model.
For a van of its size XL offers a reasonably-generous level of in-cab storage space including a full-width shelf above the windscreen, bins in the doors and a lidded and lockable glove box.
On top of that there are shelves in front of the passenger and the gear lever, a small shelf to the right of the steering column and a tray on top of the dashboard split into three. You will find a pair of cup-holders between the seats.
The steering wheel and driver's seat are both height-adjustable - there is no lack of headroom - with the latter boasting a lumbar support and fold-down nearside armrest. Pull up the passenger seat's cushion and you will find a shallow compartment that looks just the place to hide your tablet computer from prying eyes.
Though not quite up to Volkswagen standards, the quality of the materials used and the standard of fit and finish is all good: certainly better than what was typically encountered in Fiats in the past.
Access to the cargo bay is by means of a sliding side door on each side plus twin, near-full-height, asymmetric rear doors - as usual on right-hand-drive vehicles the narrower of the two is positioned on the offside - that can be swung through 90 degrees. The easy-to-release stays allow them to be pushed through 180 degrees if required.
Wayward cargo can be secured to six floor-mounted tie-down points. If anything breaks loose then the standard full-height steel bulkhead should hopefully stop it in its tracks.
Our test vehicle's soundproofed bulkhead was fitted with a window for an extra £25: all prices quoted exclude VAT.
A tailored plastic cover protects the cargo bed against scratches and scrapes. The back doors and side doors are defended by plastic panels to one-third and one-half of their height respectively and various odd bits of panelling are dotted around the sides, but the wheel boxes receive no protection at all and could really do with it.
Our advice? Ply-line the entire load bay.
Other cargo compartment features include a pair of small shelves above the nearside wheel box, a 12v power point close to the back doors and a removable torch for an additional £40 which recharges itself from the vehicle. While the torch looks a great idea on paper, we suspect that it will not be too long before it is mislaid or broken.
Above the cab you will find a stowage compartment accessible solely from the cargo box. It is reasonably easy to get at if you are short and do not have to crouch down too much when you clamber into the load area, but not quite so easy if you are tall.
A low loading height of just 545mm thanks to front-wheel-drive makes manoeuvring heavy items in and out less of a chore.
Maximum load length is 2170mm. Maximum width is 1714mm narrowing to 1230mm between the wheel boxes while maximum height is 1550mm.
Rear door aperture width is 1231mm with a height of 1455mm. Side door dimensions are 700mm and 1175mm respectively.
All the doors are fitted with big handles that can be used even if you are wearing thick working gloves but the rear door handle could perhaps stand to be a bit more robust.
Grossing at 2460kg, Doblo Cargo XL can handle a 1000kg payload and is capable of hauling a braked trailer grossing at 1300kg.
Our XL's 1.6-litre four-cylinder in-line intercooled 16-valve turbo diesel comes with common rail fuel injection plus a particulate filter. Top power makes its presence felt at 4000rpm while maximum torque of 290Nm bites at 1500rpm.
A £225 extra and well worth the money, Start&Stop kills the engine at the lights or in a traffic jam in order to cut fuel usage and CO2 emissions if the driver allows it to idle wastefully. You re-start it by dipping the clutch pedal.
Chassis and steering
Independent suspension with MacPherson-type struts is fitted at the front while the rear features a sophisticated and rather unusual bi-link independent set-up that has the virtues of being compact and light-in-weight. Steel 16ins wheels are fitted shod in our case with Goodyear Cargo Marathon 195/60 R16C tyres, and embellished with plastic trims.
Rack-and-pinion steering is installed and is hydraulically-assisted.
Even with a 625kg test load on board Doblo Cargo XL did not lack performance. It pulled strongly up some of Shropshire's more demanding hills and made short work of dual-carriageways, with a smooth gear change and easy clutch pedal action making it easy to nip from one cog to the next.
Its suspension system enabled it to cope with all but the worst of pot-holes with aplomb and its handling was far better than we expected it to be.
With such a high roof we expected to be top-heavy and wallow through bends but it did no such thing. Instead it remained composed, with no evidence of body roll and offering plenty of feedback through the steering.
A touch too much engine, wind and tyre noise accompanied by intermittent vibration from the driver's foot-well were the only things that marred our progress apart from one further problem: a leaking windscreen on the passenger side of the cab.
Four rivulets of water tricking down the inside of the screen from top to bottom are not really what you want to see on a brand-new van.
Our demonstrator was festooned with in-cab extras. The line-up included automatic climate control for £795, a Blue&Me Bluetooth pack for £445, anti-whiplash head restraints for £105, cruise control for £135 and a leather-trimmed steering wheel and gear knob for £95.
All that is over and above the standard specification which embraces electric windows and mirrors - the latter feature a wide-angle lower section - a radio/CD player with MP3 compatibility and remote controls on the steering wheel with its retro-style Fiat badge. A 12v power point is positioned between the seats.
Buying and running
For such a tall van Doblo Cargo XL is surprisingly frugal with the fuel gauge barely registering a flicker for mile after mile.
Fiat quotes an urban diesel consumption figure of 44.1mpg, an extra-urban figure of 53.3mpg and a combined figure of 49.6mpg, all reflecting the fact that our demonstrator was fitted with Start&Stop. Most of our route was extra-urban and we were certainly achieving the official figure: indeed we were probably getting more like 55mpg.
That is without doubt impressive bearing in mind that we were heavily-laden, and carrying a passenger for most of our test run too.
Fiat also gets a thumbs-up for supporting its vehicle with a three-year/unlimited mileage warranty. What is more, roadside assistance is provided for the entire duration.
Service intervals are set at a generous 21,000 miles. No matter who the manufacturer is however and no matter what the maintenance schedule says we would always advise interim safety checks: vans can take quite a hammering.
Good to see that side rubbing strips are fitted to protect XL against minor scrapes. Good too to see that a conventional spare wheel is provided rather than a tyre inflator/sealer.
For your money you get ABS and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution but you are forced to pay an extra £375 for Electronic Stability Programme, and that is disgraceful. It should be fitted as standard.
At least you get a driver's airbag but you pay an extra £175 for a passenger airbag. Side airbags set you back a further £295 and our test van was equipped with reversing sensors for £185.
Front fog lights are included in the price though as is remote central locking. Hit a button on the driver's door and you can lock and unlock the cargo bay doors.
A history dating back to the start of the noughties
Making its debut back in 2000, the original Doblo Cargo was without doubt distinctively-styled, with an egg-box-type front grille that you either loved or hated. Six years later it had gone in the wake of a redesign that created a vehicle that was longer, wider and lower than its predecessor with more power and payload capacity.
It was a foretaste of a more radical reworking in 2010 which saw the arrival of the bi-link rear suspension that is still fitted today. Replacing a conventional rigid beam axle with longitudinal leaf springs, it was introduced with an eye to improving the van's ride and make it more car-like.
Critics feared that it would not be robust enough to stand up to the battering van suspensions received in service and would soon break, but it did not: and the promises of an enhanced ride have held good.
The current Doblo Cargo is also marketed by Vauxhall as the Combo thanks to a joint venture agreement between Fiat and General Motors, Vauxhall's parent. However a XL version of Vauxhall's offering had yet to debut at the time of writing.
Fiat Doblo Cargo XL SX 1.6 Multijet 16v 105 hp diesel
Price (ex VAT) – £16,465
Price range (ex VAT) – £12,565-£19,295
Gross payload – 1000kg
Load length – 2170mm
Load width – (min/max) 1230mm/1714mm
Load bay height – 1550mm
Load volume – 5.0cu/m
Loading height – 545mm
Rear door aperture – 1231mm x 1455mm
Side door aperture – 700mm x 1175mm
Gross vehicle weight – 2460kg
Braked trailer towing weight – 1300kg
Residual value – TBA
Cost per mile – TBA
Engine size/power –1598cc, 105hp @ 4000rpm
Torque – 290Nm @ 1500rpm
Gearbox – 6sp
Fuel economy – 49.6mpg (combined)
Fuel tank – 60 litres
CO2 – 150g/km
Warranty – 3yrs/unlimited miles
Service intervals – 21,000 miles
Insurance group – TBA
Price as tested – £19,640
Automatic climate control - £795
Steel bulkhead with window - £25
Metallic paint - £245
Leather-trimmed steering wheel and gear knob - £95
Electronic Stability Programme - £375
Cruise control - £135
Anti-whiplash head restraints - £105
Passenger airbag - £175
Side airbags - £295
Reverse parking sensors - £185
Detachable torch in load area - £40
External temperature sensor - £35
Start&Stop - £225
Blue&Me pack - £445
Fiat Doblo Cargo is a classic case of an ugly duckling that is at heart a handsome swan