The Multipla is a purpose-designed vehicle that features a novel seating arrangement - two rows of three seats - and a flat floor throughout the vehicle. While it appears to be a large car, the Multipla is actually four centimetres shorter than a Bravo and half a metre less than a Marea Weekend, which makes it an easy car to manoeuvre in town. The size comes from its width (it is wider than a Mercedes-Benz S-class) and height which allows for a large glass area to be used to create a very light cabin.
The clever packaging allows up to six adults and their luggage to be transported around, but extra space can be created be removing the rear seats to increase load space from 430 litres to 1,900 litres. The two centre seats can be folded down to create picnic tables with built-in cup holders and buyers also have the option of changing the front central seat into a built-in box which can cool or heat the contents.
The range starts at £13,380 and rises to £16,080 on-the-road, which pitches it directly in competition with Citroen's forthcoming Xsara-based Picasso (c. £13,500 to £16,000), Renault's Scenic (£13,100 to £16,500 on-the-road) and the seven-seat Vauxhall Zafira (£14,320 to £17,820 on-the-road). A 1.6-litre petrol engine offering 103bhp is available alongside a 1.9-litre common rail turbodiesel unit producing 105bhp and 147lb-ft of torque from 1,500rpm.
Despite their different nature, both engines provide very similar performance with the only real difference being the diesel's extra grunt low down in the rev range. On the open road both engines provide more than enough performance with motorway speed cruising a relaxed affair. Acceleration on both models is lively but the diesel version is the better bet for overtaking and mid-gear acceleration.
Buyers have the choice of two trim levels - SX and ELX - and standard equipment on both models includes ABS brakes, driver and double front passenger airbags, electric front windows and electrically adjustable door mirrors with twin lenses to aid parking. ELX models add a double electric sunroof, alloy wheels, climate control, electric rear windows and remote control central locking with alarm.
The cabin is well designed, although it takes a while to get used to having the gearchange mounted on the dashboard and the handbrake on the wrong side. Aside from this, the Multipla is very car-like to drive and because you sit high up, visibility all round is excellent. Fiat's problem will be getting people into the car in the first place to experience all of this, instead of dismissing the Multipla as an oddity because of its looks.
Fiat is expecting to sell about 3,000 Multiplas in the UK this year, although it does not have 'huge aspirations' for it in the fleet market. The company is being conservative in its sales estimates in the UK, despite 60,000 models being sold in mainland Europe last year, and will be concentrating its UK activities this year on establishing the new Punto model in showrooms.
While families will be the main sales target, Fiat is also looking to get Multiplas into taxi and minibus hire firms as well as local health authorities, airport shuttle fleets and Social Services departments that need a versatile vehicle. A Fiat spokesman said: 'The Multipla is not for everyone but it is going to do a job for us by being an image driver in the same way the Coupe did a few years ago.'