Fiat Ulysse (2003 - 2006) review

BY ANDY ENRIGHT

Introduction

2003 marked a watershed in the history of the MPV people carrier. Until that date, the market had been carved up first by the Renault Espace and, when the Espace had become a rather boutique product, the combined might of the Ford Galaxy, the Volkswagen Sharan and the SEAT Alhambra. This trio of cars (often dubbed the Sharalaxy or the Galshambra) dominated the sales charts until another trio of MPVs built around a common platform showed the way forward. Fiat's Ulysse was one constituent of this triple-pronged assault, the others being the Citroen C8 and the Peugeot 807. Of the three cars, the Ulysse probably got the smallest share of the action but it just might be the smartest of the lot when it comes to used buys.

Models

Models Covered: (2.0 petrol 2.0, 2.2 turbodiesel [Dynamic, Eleganza, Prestigio])

History

Whilst the old Ulysse was an honest but unspectacular vehicle largely committed to dull utility, the second generation Ulysse offered all of the essentials and a big dose of style thrown in as well. Design flair was something we hadn't always been accustomed to when it came to people carriers and if the public were a little suspicious to begin with, sales soon picked up with a healthy order book reported by the tail end of 2003. Where the Ulysse suffered in the partnership was being the overlooked middle child. Citroen dealers managed to undercut the Fiat with aggressive promotion and insurance deals whereas the Peugeot was clearly positioned as the aspirational choice. The Fiat was 'The Other One' and suffered by comparison. Commissioned to graft a little of Fiat's corporate flavour onto the car, the designers didn't do a bad job and the Ulysse has a little more character than either of its stablemates. The award of a 5-star Euro NCAP rating and Fleet World's Best MPV award followed soon after its February 2003 launch. The Ulysse quietly slipped from the range in early 2006.

What You Get

Fiat have probably done the best job of the three co-operating manufacturers in grafting their own visual identity onto their third of the deal. The Ulysse's styling, especially at the front end, is certainly distinctive, those twin deck headlamp units giving it a very individual look that buyers will either love or hate. The flanks are a little more generic, but the neatly styled rear is as good as anything Renault could come up with. Moreover, the interior is something to behold, with a dashboard that features a beautifully executed 'flying wing' that arcs across the top of the dashboard and houses the major instruments. Even the entry-level model gets an eight speaker CD stereo, automatic dual zone air conditioning with pollen filters, deadlocks, power steering and an immobiliser. There's also heated and electrically adjustable door mirrors, sliding side doors, and wheel-mounted controls for the stereo system. On top of the customary twin front airbags, the Ulysse gets side bags and curtain airbags for all three rows of seats. Anti lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution and brake assist are fitted on every model, whilst a stability control system is fitted to upspec models. An electric child safety lock is included, as are height adjustable head restraints, seatbelts with pretensioners and load limiters on the front and outer rear seats and Isofix child seat attachments on the rear seats. Every berth gets proper three-point inertia reel seat belts. The standard car seats seven and all three rows of seats are mounted on runners, which means that adjusting for optimal legroom is simplicity itself. There are the usual zillion and one different combinations as to how you can arrange the seats and the front seats even capable of swivelling to create a mobile boardroom or card school. The Ulysse certainly isn't short of shoulder room but others offer more total legroom. As with any MPV, the rear seats are removable, but they are very heavy and even a minor error in aligning the feet with the runners to re-engage them will cause the seats to jam, requiring a hefty shoulder to free them again. The sophisticated air conditioning helps combat the effect of all that glass, whilst multiplex wiring allows for such electronic niceties as light sensitive headlamps, automatic windscreen wipers and speed indexing of the stereo volume, as well as rear parking sensors, guide-me-home headlights. The party piece of the Ulysse has to be the electric sliding side doors (where fitted). These can be operated remotely with the key fob, making loading the car when approaching with an armful of shopping simplicity itself.

What You Pay

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What to Look For

Not much goes wrong. As with all MPVs, you'll need to watch for damage to the interior trim - scratches, cracks and so on. Many Ulysses will have had hard use. Watch out too for parking bumps and scrapes from drivers unused to the car's size. Check for uneven front tyre wear. Look for worn or sticking runners on the sliding doors.

Replacement Parts

(based on a 2004 Ulysse 2.0 ex Vat) Prices are slightly more expensive for presumably identical parts on a Ulysse than on its Peugeot 807 and Citroen C8 counterparts. A clutch assembly is around £215, front brake pads £55, rear pads £50, a starter motor £250 and an alternator around £285.

On the Road

Three engines are available; one petrol unit and a pair of diesels. The petrol engine is familiar to many Fiat-watchers, being the familiar 2.0-litre 16v unit seen in the previous model, and it's a pretty good powerplant. The 2.0-litre JTD diesel will probably prove more popular with UK buyers and for those who really want to go to town, there's a range-topping 2.2-litre JTD diesel. All three of the engines have something to be said for them. The gearchange isn't the last word in sweet shifting slickness, but an automatic is available with the 2.0-litre petrol versions. Bear in mind that the high centre of gravity means you can't throw the thing around too much; if you want to do that in an MPV, buy a Ford Galaxy/VW Sharan/SEAT Alhambra. Nevertheless, despite the slab sides, handling is agreeably mannered. The JTD diesel engines are among the best in class in terms of refinement and torque.

Overall

The Ulysse makes a very sweet deal if you're good at managing compromise. There are bigger MPVs and there are people carriers that are better to drive, but few make carrying as much capacity seem as effortless as the big Fiat. Likewise, it offers a very good value alternative to the more frequently found Citroen C8 and Peugeot 807 models. In short, the Ulysse makes a better used buy than many would give it credit for. The 2.2-litre turbodiesel is the pick of the bunch but it's hard to finger a genuinely weak link. It's one of those cars that comes into its own as a used buy and if you can track down a well looked-after example, you should wind up with an MPV that's still broadly conversant with the current state of the art with a huge chunk of its new price lopped off. That has to be good news in anyone's language.