2017 Fiat Ducato SWB review

The base Fiat Ducato SWB is a lot of van for $38,990 plus on-road costs, though our test model gave us a small spot of grief...

The Fiat Ducato diesel has long been a heavy hitter in the medium-to-large van sales race, both here in Australia and in its European heartland. Commercial buyers and motorhome converters alike have helped this Italian offering sell by the thousands.

The model you see here is the entry level Series 6 Ducato short-wheelbase (SWB) entry variant that kicks off at $38,990 plus on-road costs. Why do we have it? It's been a long time since we've been at the wheel, and thought it time for a refresher.

The Ducato is a massively important car for Fiat in Australia. It accounted for 80 per cent of Fiat Professional's commercial sales in 2016, and outsold even the Fiat 500 passenger car to be the Italian marque's local top-seller.

While you can get versions with longer wheelbases and higher roofs, the 4963mm long Ducato SWB is closer in footprint to mid-sized vans such as the Hyundai iLoad, Renault Trafic and the ubiquitous cabover Toyota HiAce than the large vans (Renault Master, Mercedes-Benz Sprinter) it's classified against.

The Ducato SWB is about 180mm shorter than a Hyundai iLoad and 200mm shorter in the wheelbase. It's also shorter than even a SWB Trafic.

However, its 2254mm height is much closer to the bigger Master (2310mm) than the Trafic (1971mm), and its 1422mm of width between the arches beats all price-point rivals, giving the Italian a decidedly squarer shape.

This gives the Fiat a loading capacity advantage over rivals, a claimed 8000L or eight cubic-metres that matches the Master. By comparison, the HiAce houses 6000L, the Trafic 5200L (or 6000L in LWB guise), and the iLoad 4426L.

Accessing the cargo area is done via barn doors that open 270-degrees in one swift action, making access forklift-friendly. There are eight floor-mounted tie downs. Our car had twin sliding side doors, which adds $990 to the price (the base car has one side door). You can add glazed windows for $220 per door.

Price-wise, the $38,990 Ducato bisects the Renault Trafic SWB ($37,990) and LWB ($39,490) but beats both for space, and only costs $200 more than an equivalent diesel manual iLoad. The top-selling HiAce LWB diesel that has the longest but narrowest storage area is $37,530.

The real rival at the moment is the base SWB Renault Master, which has a MSRP of $43,990 but is currently being sold at $39,990 drive-away for ABN holders. That's a bargain, considering it matches the Fiat's cargo space and is eerily similar mechanically.

Let's get down to brass tacks. Under the snub bonnet is a Euro 6 compliant '150 MultiJet' 2.3-litre turbo-diesel engine with 110kW (at 3600 rpm) and 380Nm of torque (from 1500rpm). Longer and taller versions of the Ducato get an up-tuned version of the same donk with 130kW/400Nm.

Owners of earlier iterations of the Ducato may be aware that versions up to MY16 used a larger capacity 3.0-litre with 130kW/400Nm. FCA had to downsize to meet European emissions regulations.

It remains a strong engine with sufficient bottom-end torque to take-off in second gear with a load or pull away even in sixth, while it's very quiet and refined for the class from inside the cabin. You can also tow 2500kg with trailer brakes, which is 1100kg more than the 100kW/300Nm HiAce can.

Claimed fuel economy on the combined cycle is 6.1L/100km, though our combined 300km city and urban route returned 9.1L/100km. The tank is 90L, though you can fork out $490 for a 125L extended-range tank.

Our tester had a six-speed manual gearbox fitted, though operators after an auto can pay $2900 for a 'Comfortmatic' automated manual (clutch-less) box that shifts the gears for you.

The manual tested has an occasionally sloppy action, but once you acclimate it's simple enough to operate, and we liked the clutch feel. On the downside, the odd ergonomics mean several testers including this one kept bashing their left shins on the lower dash when depressing the clutch.

The Ducato is a front-wheel drive like the Trafic and Master, which puts it at odds with the more traditional RWD HiAce and Trafic (and Sprinter), where the driven wheels are below the load weight. Some operators would rather push than pull a load.

The suspension setup comprises MacPherson struts up front and a rigid tubular axle at the back with longitudinal parabolic leaf springs, telescopic shocks and flexible side buffers. The Ducato's distinctive rear axle stands out if you sit in traffic behind one.

The ride, even unladen, is pretty impressive. The body recovers and rarely pogoes after sharp hits, while the cabin is well isolated from rutted B-roads and ungraded gravel. There's a ton of roll in corners compared to the Trafic, but that's because of the higher roof.

Highways stability is good, which pairs with the commanding road view to make the Ducato a consummated tourer. Our CEO Andrew also borrowed it for a night and drove home in a torrential downpour, and reported good stability.

Noise suppression is another strong point. Just like the Trafic and Transit, and unlike the Hyundai and Toyota top-sellers, it comes with a protecting steel bulkhead to separate the cabin from the cargo area, with a sliding glass window.

The driving position is typically high and the nose easy to point thanks to the very light steering (11.4m turning circle), snub bonnet and massive side windows. The side mirrors are two-piece, with a lower section to stop you kerb-ing the steel wheels.

The cabin presents relatively well on first impression. There'a a 5.0-inch touchscreen, large ventilation dials, two USB points and typically numerous storage options (though we'd like roof-mounted cubbies).

Standard features include ESC, rear parking sensors, steering wheel controls, manual air conditioning, cruise control (the trip computer doesn't show the speed it's set to, though), three seats and excellent Bluetooth connectivity that repairs rapidly and has good sound quality. There are only driver and passenger airbags.

On the downside, some of the plastics are pretty cheap and patchy (the novel integrated clipboards feel shocking), and the ergonomics are flawed. You hit you left knee when clutching in, the seats are flat and have limited adjustment, and the speedo is less legible than we'd desire.

Options include 16-inch alloy wheels ($990), rear-view camera ($890, and very necessary in our opinion), satellite navigation ($890), LED daytime running lights ($490), a Traction package with hill-descent control and all-season tyres), and a Vision package (lane-departure warning, plus auto headlight and wipers) for $890. Metallic paint costs $950 and comes in grey, blue, red, a kind of golden colour and black.

Furthermore, we need to flag an issue we had on our test car, which had about 1800km on the odometer.

A door-close contact moved out of alignment, meaning the 'door open' warning was fixed on, which also precluded us from electrically centrally locking the car (we had to clamber in and lock the doors manually). This was a simple fix, but still...

On the plus-side, you get a three-year/200,000km warranty, roadside assist and servicing/oil change intervals of 12 months or 40,000km, whichever comes first, reducing likely downtime. Fiat Professional's dealer network is comparatively small, however it's currently offering free servicing for three years as an incentive.

When all is said and done, the Fiat Ducato SWB remains a solid option in the class, for those who are happy with FWD and want a comfortable and very commodious European van.

We can't really say much on reliability, but will point to the Fiat's massive global sales as a positive, and our test car's gremlin as a negative.

But we can attest to the new(ish) engine's torque, the cabin's refinement and the amount of room you get for the money. It's worth cross-shopping against a base Renault Master if you need something well-priced with a high roof and short footprint.

Click the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser

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