By Andy Enright
With well over two million examples built across a production run that stretches back over four generations to 1981, Fiat's Ducato is the large van that a huge number of European business buyers turn to when size really matters. The keys to its success are many but flexibility is surely one, the Italian designers having been able to create this LCV in over 2,000 different forms. Fiat's Professional van network in the UK certainly wouldn't be without this model, representing as it does an enormous part of their annual British sales. That's in contrast to the Peugeot and Citroen models that share this Ducato's basic design, vans sold and marketed by brands whose real experience and expertise lies with much smaller LCVs. Fiat, on the other hand, claims to understand the needs of large panel van buyers much better - as it has had to for this van to compete successfully not only against Ford ubiquitous Transit but also against other competitors of the quality of the VW Crafter/Mercedes Sprinter package and the more recent Renault Master/Vauxhall Movano design. In other words, this Italian contender needed to be good. Here's what to look for when shopping for a used example.
5dr medium/large van (2.2, 2.3, 3.0 diesel [Tecnico])
Whereas in the UK we have long been wedded to the idea of a ford Transit as the default large panel van, move to more southerly climes in Europe and it's wall to wall Fiat Ducatos. It's been that way since the first generation model was launched way back in 1981. The second generation van was launched in 1994 and saw service right through to 2006, being also rebadged as the Peugeot Boxer and the Citroen Relay. Even when it was finally replaced, the second generation Ducato accounted for fully two-thirds of all Fiat's LCV sales in the UK. The model we concern ourselves with here hit the UK market in October 2006 and has been steadily updated and developed since. When it first arrived, customers got the choice of three diesel engines, one trim level, four body lengths, eight load volumes and three roof heights. The version we're looking at here is the updated version, introduced in 2011, which got a much plusher more car-like interior. In February 2012, Fiat launched the Tecnico trim, which featured air conditioning, front fog lights, Blue&Me with steering wheel controls, TomTom predisposition on the dashboard, B&M TomTom Live navigator plus cradle, Start&Stop, special wheel trims, reverse parking sensors and eco:Drive Professional software. It wasn't offered on many variants tough, with just the 30 L1H1 and the 35 L3H2 versions getting the extra kit. ESP stability control was added to all models as standard in June 2013. These versions of the Ducato continued to be sold until its replacement with a facelifted version in 2014.
What You Get
As you'd expect, there's a wide range of body sizes available with four lengths, three different wheelbases and three roof heights. These allow a range of load volumes that extend from 8 m3 up to a truly sizeable 17 m3. The Ducato can manage some seriously hefty cargos as well, with gross vehicle weight platforms of 3.0, 3.3, 3.5 and 4.0-tonnes. Gross payload varies between 1115 and 1850kgs. Plus there's a wide range of body styles on offer which include the Combinato 9-seater MPV, single or double cab options and 17-seat minibuses as well as the usual factory-built conversions that create chassis cab, crewcab, tipper, dropside and Luton derivatives. The motorhome market is also especially important for Fiat, who are multi-time winners of Which Motor Caravan's base vehicle award. Perhaps that's why two out of every three camper vans sold in the UK are based on Ducato chassis cab bases. Standard equipment features across the range include remote central locking with deadlocks that allows you to lock and unlock the cab and load area separately and activates once the vehicle is moving, an MP3-compatible CD stereo, electrically adjustable and heated door mirrors, power windows and 12v power sockets in both the cab and the loadbay. You also get useful interior lights just above the door openings. Optioned-up models will feature things like a fixed full width steel bulkhead, a second sliding side door, self-levelling suspension, the ceiling-mounted cab storage shelf, 270-degree rear door opening, larger door mirrors, a larger fuel tank, a heat-resistant windscreen, parking sensors, supplementary heaters, a shock-absorbing driver's seat and Fiat's clever Microsoft-developed Blue&Me telematics system that includes Bluetooth 'phone connectivity. Safetywise, you only get a driver's airbag in the basic tally, but original buyers could specify passenger, side and curtain 'bags from the options list.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
The Ducato has earned a decent reliability record, helped in no small part by its rugged diesel engines. Check for damage to locks, tired rear suspension, slipping clutches and brakes and make sure that the load bay tie-downs aren't bent or broken. Check that the glow plugs work well by starting the van from cold and checking the lights go out on the dash after a few seconds. Front brakes can be worn through in 10,000 miles on vans that are routinely heavily loaded and there have been a few complaints about handbrake cables. Otherwise just look for one that has been serviced on the button and which appears to have led as easy a life as possible.
On the Road
There's something reassuringly commanding about driving this class of large van. Compared to a supposedly high-set SUV, your perch feels like something akin to the umpire's chair at Wimbledon, from where you control a vehicle of the kind of size that brooks no argument when it comes to fighting over space in slow-moving traffic. The multi-adjustable driving position would benefit from reach as well as rake adjustability of the steering wheel and the handbrake's a little strangely situated between the seat and the door: in practice, that's no problem but it is easy to leave it slightly up. Beneath your right foot, you've a choice of two very different Fiat Multijet common rail four cylinder 16-valve diesel engines. The entry-level 2.2-litre 100bhp unit and the flagship 3.0-litre 157bhp powerplants are shared with this model's Citroen Relay and Peugeot Boxer rivals, but the mid-range 120bhp 2.3-litre unit is all Fiat's own, aiming to offer a little more pulling power, with 320Nm of torque on offer. Enough indeed to extend this LCV's potential braked trailer towing weight from 2000kgs in the entry-level model to 2500kgs. While the two most powerful units are mated to a 6-speed manual gearbox, the entry-level 100bhp powerplant must make do with a 5-speed transmission. New model buyers also had the option of a 6-speed Comfort-matic auto option available on the 3.0-litre variant. That 100bhp model also does without variable assistance for the power steering to keep it light in town and heavier on the highway. Even with this feature in place, some drivers may find the helm a little light on the open road but there's certainly no issue around town where this van can make light work of tricky urban situations with a tight 12.5m turning circle between kerbs. Fiat has worked hard to improve refinement on this generation Ducato with more soundproofing plus a slippery 0.31Cd drag co-efficient and sure enough, noise levels are down by several decibels on older versions. That doesn't mean it'll be a quiet travelling companion though, if you choose to do without a model featuring the optional full-width bulkhead that most owners had fitted behind the driver's seat. If you're going to be carrying heavier loads, look for a Ducato model that's replaced the standard simple single leaf spring rear suspension set-up with a double-leaf layout - or even a pneumatic self-levelling system. Whichever you choose, it'll need some weight in the back to handle really neatly but once you have it, this Ducato boasts an admirable set of road manners for something this big, a legacy of a torsional rigidity improvement of 30% over the previous generation model, despite this version's greater length and larger load compartment. That means more composure in the corners and smoothness on the straights than you might expect, but if it ever should all get away from you, there's ABS as standard with Brake Assist to make it more effective, ASR to limit wheelslip when you're accelerating hard and MSR which modulates braking torque when you change down so you don't get those huge jerks if you change down too quickly. It's a pity that ESP stability control costs extra in some versions but if you do get it, then you also get Fiat's Load Adaptive Control, so it adjusts to the weight you're carrying, plus hydraulic brake assistance and a hill-holder clutch to stop you drifting backwards on uphill junctions.
The Fiat Ducato might not be the smartest looking or the most refined van in its class. Since it was launched in 2006, a lot has changed and the 2011 update only partially addressed this. Nevertheless, the used market is a good leveller and prices of Ducatos now look very reasonable indeed. There's never been a great deal of criticism about the Fiat's reliability or sheer utility, so if you're looking for a solid workhorse with a few creature comforts, the Ducato has a lot to be said for it.