Fiat expands its line-up with a rebadged Dodge that presents a drivetrain dilemma.
The Fiat Freemont is the first step in a major model expansion of the Italian brand in Australia.
In more recent times if you wanted a Fiat, your choice was either the 500 city car or the Ducato commercial van.
The Fiat Freemont isn’t exactly Italian, however. FiatChrysler has been rebadging a number of Chryslers as Fiats or Lancias in Europe, and this SUV-style people-mover – or ‘crossover’ in manufacturer-speak – is essentially a rebadged Dodge Journey.
Journey is the last remaining Dodge available in this country and its bigger engine – a 3.6-litre V6 – is the only key reason to consider the US badge over the Italian one.
The Fiat Freemont starts from $25,990 to undercut its donor car by $6410, with the gap widened when you take a $27,000 driveaway offer for the Fiat into consideration.
An additional $1500 is needed for an optional third row to match the standard seven seats of the Journey but the Fiat remains the far stronger value proposition.
And that still makes the Freemont the most affordable seven-seater in Australia now that the Kia Rondo has become less affordable.
Take the base model – simply labelled Base – and there’s nothing basic about the standard equipment on offer.
Standard are dual-zone climate control, auto headlights, auto-dimming mirror, keyless entry and start, leather steering wheel, rear parking sensors, tyre pressure monitoring and a 4.3-inch touchscreen.
That infotainment screen expands to 8.4 inches in the $28,300 mid-range Urban that also brings a DVD player, leather shifter, and electrically adjustable driver’s seat.
For an extra $2000 the top-grade Fiat Freemont Lounge adds leather trim, heated front seats, chrome roof bars, satellite navigation and an Alpine audio system with subwoofer and 368-watt amplifier.
Only the Urban is available with an alternative engine to the standard 2.4-litre four-cylinder petrol – a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel for a $4300 premium that’s higher than average.
It brings a dilemma, however, as the petrol engine is flawed but the better diesel comes with a six-speed manual gearbox only.
The petrol engine comes with a six-speed auto but not enough torque to adequately move a vehicle mass that exceeds 1.8 tonnes.
While the petrol and diesel share a power output of 125kW, the former develops only 220Nm at 4000rpm.
Consquently, the petrol Fiat Freemont feels underpowered even with just a driver on board, and the auto’s kickdown is slow and unpleasant as it flares revs to a point where the vehicle can respond to more urgent pushes of the accelerator pedal.
Pick the diesel and its 350Nm of torque between 1750 and 2500rpm means you’ll comfortably have the necessary pulling power even with a possible maximum human cargo count of seven.
There’s still 300Nm available at 4000rpm, though the engine – while not excessively noisy at idle – starts to make a din from about 3500rpm that will encourage earlier upshifts as much as the tapering of momentum.
Gearchanging is a near-constant action during urban driving, though, so it’s not ideal that the shift quality is average.
Officially, the diesel will use 6.3 litres of fuel per 100km compared with 9.8L/100km for the petrol, though the trip computers of the two models we tested suggests the diesel will extend that advantage in the real world.
Fiat says its engineers have tweaked the steering and suspension during the Journey’s transition to a Freemont, aiming for a more dynamic and responsive drive.
It’s no Honda Odyssey when it comes to a people-mover that’s car-like in the way that it deals satisfyingly with corners, though the handling is assuring enough for the typical Freemont buyer and the steering is generally consistent except for a slightly vague area around the straight-ahead position.
The ride is less pleasing. The suspension feels well judged in terms of suppleness and control over wavy road surfaces, though it’s fidgety and allows typical urban and suburban bumps to intrude into the cabin. The Lounge grade on bigger, 19-inch wheels is particularly clumpy.
Judge the Fiat Freemont purely on the merits of a practical, roomy cabin and there are plenty of plusses.
The second row has acres of footspace and good legroom. The bench cushion could be a bit longer (to match the comfortable front seats) though the outer seats incorporate clever, Volvo-style child booster seats.
A range of levers then allow for a variety of operations, including fore-aft adjustment, backrest angles, seat folding, or just access to the third row if you’ve ticked the option box.
The third row is for kids only realistically, but that will be sufficient for most owners and there’s an entry/exit lever positioned so those in the rearmost seats can extricate themselves easily without help.
There are also air vents for every row, as well as cupholders that form part of a good line-up of storage options.
The boot is restricted (167 litres) when all seven seats are in place but there’s a small underfloor storage area and capacity expands to a handy 784 litres as a five-seater and a mountain-bike-friendly 1461L if all rear seats are folded flat.
A luggage net and multiple tie-down hooks are also included.
There’s little that’s Italian about the Freemont’s interior, though, except for the Fiat badge on the steering wheel.
This is the same cabin you’ll find in the Dodge Journey, including the Chrysler Group colour touchscreens you’ll find in the likes of the Chrysler 300 and Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Fit and finish isn’t perfect everywhere, but the general level of plastics quality is reasonable for a seven-seater priced from below $30,000.
And with driving manners and drivetrains that have their downsides, value along with a flexible interior are key to the appeal of the Fiat Freemont.