Fleet News

Fiat Multipla

Fiat

Review

THERE'S no doubt that the clever, unique Fiat Multipla's looks still polarise opinion more than anything else on the road.

For myself, having wasted considerable time and energy over the years in unsuccessful attempts to persuade my wife to buy into the late Francis Bacon's supposition that 'There is no beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion', I am, understandably, a huge fan of the current car's somewhat porpoiseful stance.

There is, however, only one thing worse than being talked about and that's not being talked about, as Oscar Wilde once famously mused.

So, in the context of a facelift which yanks the 2004 Multipla smartly back into line with Fiat's markedly less obtrusive corporate couture, it's interesting to speculate not only as to whether a goose has now been slain, but also, in light of this brazen MPV's halo effect on the brand as a whole, a clutch of golden eggs trampled underfoot.

What seems clear, following the new car's unveiling in Italy this week, is that the good burghers at Fiat HQ are themselves unclear on this issue. On the one hand, the company reckons that low sales volumes totalling just 200,000 units to date are of secondary importance to a mould-breaking, strikingly unconventional vehicle which, through its very existence, has made an admirable fist of raising the profile of the entire marque.

Yet, on the other, Fiat readily admits to having dragged the Multipla, kicking and screaming, to a clinic packed with lower-medium car buyers in an effort to establish the extent of pressed-metal surgery necessary to loosen the purse strings of this notoriously conservative target market.

Moreover, while those of us who bemoan the demise of the original 2000 Multipla's appearance are clearly of insufficient number to suit a resurgent Fiat's sales aspirations, it is worth noting that the Multipla's steel space frame platform construction was not conceived with high volume production in mind at the outset … the words 'eat it' and 'cake' spring to mind.

Such contradictions aside, Fiat UK sees the revised Multipla as an ideal vehicle with which to re-approach a British fleet market less than smitten, particularly at user-chooser level, with the original car's appearance. Recent sales policy aspires to reduce the Multipla's dependence on rental business and, allied to the outgoing model's remarkably strong image in the used car market, focus on slower, sustainable growth both in the corporate market (including burgeoning taxi sales) and among user-choosers.

All of which, in the context of both this facelift and a 2001 high of 4,280 units, still makes projected UK sales figures of just 2,000 cars this year, increasing to 2,700 in 2005, with fleet sales accounting for some 20-25%, seem surprisingly modest.

Though the new Multipla is 2cm wider at the front wheel arches and 4cm longer astern with a revised bumper to smooth airflow beneath the body, obvious changes are restricted to the front. Here, the car not only gains the Fiat corporate conk, but also the extra 6cm in length necessary to elicit an improvement on the current, three-star Euro NCAP occupant protection.

Three new trim levels replace the previous SX and ELX models; Dynamic, Dynamic Plus and Eleganza. Though final specification has yet to be confirmed for the UK, standard equipment levels are expected to be wholesome and, even at entry level, include ABS with EBD, driver and double front passenger airbags, a CD player, and electric windows, door mirrors and driver's seat height adjustment. New optional extras include Bluetooth connectivity, 17-inch alloys, DVD installation and, in 2005, CONNECT Nav satellite navigation.

The current engine choice –a 1.6 litre 16v petrol unit or a 1.9 115bhp JTD turbodiesel- remains unchanged, an estimated 80% of fleet sales anticipated for the 170g/km CO2 diesel unit.

Prices for the revised six-model Multipla have yet to be announced, but Fiat suggests they will remain on a par with the existing range of £13,008 to £16,237, with each rise in specification level incurring a £1,000 price hike.

Ultimately, Fiat's intentions for the new Multipla appear confusing. With that unconventional nose consigned to the circular filing tray, the company has clearly rejected all notions of a loss leader in favour of volume aspirations within the lower-medium sector. Whether they will be able to fulfil them, with a vehicle both inappropriate for high-volume production and, as yet, lacking the latest generation of Fiat's class-leading turbodiesels, remains to be seen.

Behind the wheel

On board, the car is unchanged. This is a good thing. Ground breaking when it first appeared, and artfully putting the marketing lie of three headrests atop the rear seat of a standard width car to the sword, the Multipla's 2x3 or 3x3 seating layout remains the only comfortable way of transporting six adults a respectable distance without lots of shoulder bickering, while still affording appropriate luggage space astern.

MPV flexibility is assured with the facility to double fold, and remove, all three rear seats, while both front passenger seats can be folded flat to ensure easy digestion of those all-important sheets of 8x4. And those of a luxury bent may even replace the centre front seat with a refrigeration unit.

Sadly, the demise of that dolphinesque snout renders some of the more outrageous aspects of the Multipla's interior design equally redundant. The asymmetrical assortment of functions that is the quirky centre console now look as out of place as a tutu on a rhinoceros.

That aside, an ingenious, spacious and stylish cabin layout gives cause for only a handful of minor gripes: the windscreen head feels too low for the high seating position and, allied to a very low waistline, gives the impression that the glazing, as with a passenger jet, is geared towards looking straight down.

The instrument binnacle suffers from overt glare at the hands of the plastics from which it sprouts. Despite a dash mounted gear lever, the middle front seat will not slide far enough forwards to give proper adult legroom behind. And the switchgear location is somewhat haphazard; you'll find the door mirror switches at the windscreen head.

The driving position remains less than perfect; in order to get properly to grips with the top of the steering wheel, the seat back must be set rather more upright than I prefer. But the seat itself is comfortable, lacking only in the area of lateral support.

On the road, the Multipla displays largely impeccable manners. The ride is surprisingly smooth and pliant and the car's bulk belies tidy handling with minimal body roll at the sort of velocities appropriate for a six-seater family vehicle.

The engine range, however, is disappointing. Through noise levels and the occasional, unsolicited lurch in the drivetrain, the 1.9-litre 115bhp JTD turbodiesel is beginning to show its age, particularly in the context of a company now achieving remarkable results with diesel technology.

And, though smoother in operation than its diesel sibling, the 1.6-litre petrol unit lacks the power for anything other than purposeful pottering. All of which leaves the new Multipla crying out for both a more powerful 1.8-litre petrol engine and the latest iteration of Fiat's excellent 1.9-litre MultiJet turbodiesel.

Driving verdict

Remarkably assured, at the sort of speeds enforced by an engine range now in need of revision. The comfortable and classy interior remains unique in any segment. With or without the striking couture, it's hard to understand why the Multipla hasn't yet sold up a storm.

Fact file
Model 1.6 1.9JTD
Engine (cc): 1,596 1,910
Max power (bhp/rpm): 103/5,750 115/4,000
Max torque (lb-ft): 106/4,000 151/2,000
Max speed (mph): 106 110
0-62mph (secs): 12.6 12.2
Fuel consumption (mpg): 32.8 44.1
CO2 emissions (g/km): 205 170
Fuel tank capacity (l/gal): 63/13.9
Service intervals: 12,000
Tranmission: 5-sp man
On sale: August
Prices (estimated): £13,000 - £17,000

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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