Can it really be 30 years since the Fiat Ducato first appeared in Europe?
Indeed it can, for it was back in 1981 that a rather boxed-shaped panel van was first produced by the Italian manufacturer.
Since then, the Ducato, along with its twin brothers the Citroën Relay and Peugeot Boxer, have been treated to various relaunches and facelifts.
And while the Fiat version has never been the biggest panel van seller on the market, it has managed to grab the lion’s share of the camper van sector, to the extent that two out of every three campers sold in Europe are now on a Ducato chassis. Some 2.2 million Ducatos has been sold worldwide.
This latest incarnation – the sixth in all – features the same sassy looks as the old model, but with a new range of engines that set the Ducato apart from the Relay and Boxer and several other tweaks and twiddles.
Orders are already being taken and first examples will be in UK showrooms in September. Prices are yet to be announced.
The interior of the new Ducato has been revamped with new colour combinations for the plastic parts of the dashboard, which are now more uniform and darker, and for the more colour-contrast seat fabrics.
The central console has been totally redesigned. The upper central part of the dash now leaves space for an optional TomTom unit.
The introduction of different trim levels is also a new feature: the basic trim is still an upgrade on the previous dashboard because of chrome-plated symbols and images (climate controls, gearstick, air vent controls), the Techno trim adds chrome-effect plastic parts and there is also a Wood trim, which uses DipPrint technology to simulate walnut wood, and was designed mainly for camper vans, although it may also prove popular on the more upmarket people-carrier, shuttle bus and mobile-office versions.
But it is under the bonnet that the main upgrades have taken place.
Fiat is now offering Euro V diesel powerplants at 2.3-litres of 3.0-litres with extra power and better fuel economy than the old engines.
There is also a 2.0-litre powerplant and a CNG version, neither of which will make it to the UK. The engines are labelled MultiJet II.
The fuel system is different from the first-generation MultiJet engines as it contains faster injectors that can carry out multiple injections close together.
It can manage eight injections per cycle thanks to the new servo valve with balanced shutter, which offers more speed, flexibility and precision in the various stages of operation.
Everything is more economical owing to a simpler construction with 40% fewer components.
The 1,600-bar fuel injection pressure from the first-generation MultiJet system increases to 1,800 bar in MultiJet II.
In 2.3-litre guise there are three power options – 115bhp (exclusive to the UK), 130bhp and 150bhp.
The lowest powered model offers a power upgrade of 15% over the old entry-level 100bhp model and torque up 12%, while fuel consumption lowers by 13%.
The 130bhp unit offers 8% more power and 9% lower fuel consumption, while the 150bhp unit has similar power to the old 157bhp unit but with 19% better fuel economy.
Meanwhile there is also a blistering 3.0-litre unit on offer with 180bhp and 295lb-ft of torque, but this model is not expected to be a big fleet seller.
On the technology front things have improved too.
A stop-start system will be available that can save up to 15% in fuel on urban runs and there is also a gearshift indicator to advise drivers when to change up and down for maximum fuel efficiency.
There is also a Traction+ system on offer which works as a cheaper alternative to four-wheel drive and works in conjunction with the ESC stability control system – which unfortunately remains as an options for all models rather than a standard fitting as with Ford Transit, Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, Volkswagen Crafter and Iveco Daily.
The control unit uses specific brake system control and management algorithms to simulate the behaviour of a self-locking differential electronically.
When a drive wheel is in poor grip conditions, the control unit of the system detects where the slipping has occurred and instructs the hydraulic system to perform a braking action on that wheel.
It simultaneously transfers the engine torque to the wheel on the surface with better grip.
This makes it easy to drive, maintains directional stability and ensures the best possible traction even over the roughest and most slippery surfaces.
The system is operated by a button on the dashboard and can operate at speeds of up to 25mph.
Also on the options list is the TomTom Blue & Me system.
This device allows the driver to manage – through a colour touch-screen – phone calls, satellite navigation, media and other driving information, which it downloads directly from the on-board computer systems.
The new version has a next-generation capacitive touch-screen and TomTom LIVE services such as HD Traffic. This combines traffic information with a dynamic route calculation, providing real-time updates of congestion, traffic jams and road closures.
Customers get free use of the services for a year.
There is also an Eco:Drive system that makes it possible for fleet operators to analyse vehicle trip data such as average fuel consumption, total mileage and the impact of load on the efficiency index, suggesting more appropriate behaviour for an economic and sustainable driving style.
Behind the wheel
I’ve always been a great fan of the Ducato and its twin brothers – they have superb, stylish looks with lots of plastic all round to protect them, they have quiet smooth diesel engines, they offer lovely comfortable seats and have excellent road manners – you can’t ask for much more in a van really, can you?
Our test drives took place at the Balocco test track near Milan in blazing spring sunshine, which set these vans off a treat in their home country.
The only one not available for driving was the entry-level 115bhp version. As it was for UK purposes only, they apparently hadn’t built any at the time!
It’s a shame as it’s likely to be the biggest fleet seller and in my view, certain vans at present are offering far too many horses than are good for the average driver.
Our first test drive was in the 130bhp model and what a lovely smooth quiet motor this turned out to be.
Both myself and my co-pilot immediately remarked on the refinement of this new powerplant and even on the slopes and with 800kg of water in the back, there was no shortage of power.
There wasn’t a huge amount of difference between the 130 and 150 in my book and I reflected that if I was buying a fleet of Ducatos, I’d opt for the lower-powered models, which will be cheaper to buy in the first place.
Our final drive was in the 180bhp version equipped with Fiat’s ComfortMatic automated manual box.
I’m not a huge fan of these gearboxes as none of them give a seamless change but this one was probably about the best of the bunch and boy, does this van fly!
Unless you have a particular need for indecent amounts of power, leave this one to the camper van buyers.
And talking of camper vans, this vehicle was decked out with Fiat’s wood-effect dash which to our eyes looked a little tacky and 1970s-ish.
The dash minus wood looked smart and modern and – joy of joys – features a chilled compartment for drinks bottles on the top, although this will undoubtedly be a paid-for extra.
And talking of paid-for extras, I’d have to take Fiat to task for not offering ESC as standard.
It will be standard in Germany but according to Fiat’s top brass, British buyers don’t want it.
Sorry Fiat, but I just don’t buy that. All cars have ESC as standard now so why shouldn’t vans follow suit?
In my book, as a safety campaigner, fleet managers shouldn’t have the option to decide on such an important issue as this. It’s the best safety device since the seatbelt and EVERY van should have it.
Fleet operators will take great delight in the huge running cost advantages that this new Ducato offers.
It still drives just as well but now comes with a some serious money-saving kit on board as standard.