Didn’t notice the new-look 2017 Fiat Doblo has hit showrooms? You aren’t alone.
The facelifted version of the Italian brand’s smallest van went on sale in Australia late in 2015, but it hasn’t been on many shopping lists for small van buyers since then. Or ever, in Australia.
That’s a real shame, because while it may not be a technological benchmark, or the smartest small van out there, the Fiat Doblo is an honest little workhorse that genuinely deserves more buyer attention than it gets.
The model we have here is the entry-level petrol version, a cheap-as-chips short-wheelbase manual variant that kicks off from just $22,000 plus on-road costs. That’s the list price, but we know that if you shop around you can find 2016 plate models for as little as $19,000 drive-away. You can get a long-wheelbase model if that's what you need, and there's a diesel drivetrain in that stretched version, too.
For that kind of money you’re getting quite a lot of compact van. It is one of the most spacious vans in the segment: bigger in the back than the bulk-selling Volkswagen Caddy and Citroen Berlingo, like-for-like. It has the longest cargo bay, the tallest cargo area, and the largest door apertures in the class.
Let’s talk dimensions for a second. The Fiat Doblo short-wheelbase is one of the widest and tallest vehicles you can buy in the segment, measuring 4406mm long (on a 2755mm wheelbase), 1832mm wide and 1845mm tall.
The cargo zone is handy all around – the height of the cargo hold is 1305mm, the width of the cabin is 1518mm (1230mm between the wheel-arches – easily big enough for an Aussie pallet) and 1820mm long. All up there are 3.4 cubic metres of load capacity, but the payload is a little low, at 659 kilograms.
There are dual side sliding doors and barn doors at the back. The door openings are big too, with apertures of 700mm wide and 1175mm tall at both sides, and 1231mm wide by 1250mm tall at the rear. The load-in opening at the rear is nice and level, too, meaning no snags if you have to forklift loads in – which we did as part of our comparison test, thanks to our mates at Crown Lift Trucks.
We secured our 350-kilogram ballast pallet in the cargo area, noting that the lashings to hook up to were a bit too far in-board to be easy to attach to. There are six hooks to choose from, though, and the fact the Doblo comes with a standard paint-protecting floor liner is a bonus – you don’t get that in a VW Caddy.
It coped well with the weight, too: the suspension settled down at the rear a little bit, and while progress wasn’t what you’d describe as effortless in all situations, the 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine proved up to the task – provided you were willing to rev it. And rev it you must.
At highway speeds it will sit up near 4000rpm to maintain pace, but given that its peak power of 70kW hits at 6000rpm and its torque maximum of (just!) 127Nm comes at 4500rpm, there’s good reason you have to wring its neck a bit.
That’s not to say that it struggles at city speeds – if you keep the revs up to it, and you’re prepared to work the five-speed manual gearbox pretty hard, you’ll have no hassles. We’d like more grunt, undoubtedly, and while you’ll spend quite a bit of time up high in the rev range, the engine has a note that’s not annoying or harsh.
The Doblo is indeed pretty quiet on most surfaces, with the floor lining in the rear undoubtedly helping. But one little issue I had with was that it has such a wide cabin that you can’t rest your right arm on the windowsill when you’re on the road for longer periods of time. The armrest on the door is quite low, too, but at least it has an in-board rest for the driver’s left arm.
The gearbox has a decent shift action, and while the clutch took some getting used to (our test car hadn’t been run in before we picked it up), it was fine after a little bit of personal adjustment.
It’s no tow vehicle: the engine isn’t really up to it, if we’re honest, and the rating is pretty low, at 500kg for a regular trailer and just 1000kg with a braked trailer.
The Doblo’s steering is quick and feels zippy when you start to turn the wheel, but the actual steering wheel itself isn’t good to grip: the material it is made of is coarse and has a strange thumb contour, too. There are some vans – like that Caddy – which have a leather-lined wheel from the base model up, and while they may not necessary wear as well as a poly tiller like this one, if I were to buy a Doblo I’d stop off at Supercheap Auto on the way home from the dealer to get a steering wheel cover.
Like most small vans the Doblo has a remarkably good turning circle, making it a good option for city-based drivers, and if that’s you, the split side mirrors will allow you to keep an eye on the gutters as well as what’s behind you. That said, if it had a rear-view camera it’d make matters even easier and safer for urbanites.
It is a little more sharply set up in terms of it suspension, feeling more rigid and assured of itself over bumps than, say, a Berlingo. But over speed humps the Fiat clunked at the nose in both empty and full configurations, but it didn’t feel too clumsy in those situations. When laden it was notably more resolved at higher speeds too. It still isn’t soft over surface changes, but nor is it ever uncomfortable.
Its interior is both excellent and average at the same time. The lack of a touchscreen media system is something that could really get on your nerves.
You might only connect your phone to the car once – so this likely won’t be a deal-breaker – but there’s a certain lack of intuition that the Italians nail when it comes to Bluetooth connectivity. The lack of a phone button on the media interface is confusing to begin with, and the phone icon on the steering wheel isn’t how you do it, either. You have to use menus on the driver information screen: it’s cinch once you know how.
The Fiat lacks logical USB placement, too, with its port down between the seats behind the handbrake, and the media system is a bit perplexing, but the steering column controls are easy to get used to.
As you’d expect, in-cabin storage on offer is quite smart. There is a large overhead folder holder, ideal for storing your laptop or clipboard, not to mention big door pockets and dashboard storage, with a dash-top bin and a shelf in front of the passenger.
The Fiat doesn't have covered centre storage between the seats, which is a pain, but it has a lift up section on the passenger seat to hide valuables like wallets, tablets and the like.
Seat comfort and adjustment is good, and forward vision is excellent. The split rear doors make rearward vision a bit more difficult, and the lack of a side window or any parking aids makes this a van for confident reversers only.
While it may not have the safety of a rear-view camera or sensors, it does have airbag coverage sorted for both the driver and passenger, with dual front and front-side airbags fitted as standard.
Fiat is offering free servicing for three years as part of a deal on its Doblo and Ducato van models. Maintenance is due every 12 months or 30,000km – so long distance drivers won’t need to lose sleep over having their van in the shop a couple of times a year.
Fiat says average cost per service over three years or 90,000km is $466 – so that promotional deal is handy. Fiat offers a three-year/150,000km roadside assist plan as part of a new-car purchase. The brand’s new-car warranty for the Doblo is three years/90,000km.
A good budget van; that’s how I’d describe the 2017 Fiat Doblo. You can get deals on them, and if you get the added servicing thrown in, there’s every chance you’ll be driving away with three years’ peace of mind for about $20,000. That’s hard to beat for the bucks.
That said, it isn’t the most effortless van to live with: a Caddy, with its turbo engine, offers better performance, and that could matter to you on a day-to-day basis. And it can’t match newer rivals for in-car tech and connectivity.
But as a tool for the trade, a small van with a small price tag, it is a solid option worthy of more sales than it currently gets.