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Off-road test: Fiat Fullback 2.5D 4×4 Professional

1 August 2016

Bellissima bakkie? The Fiat Fullback has landed in South Africa. A prime example of badge engineering, the Italian bakkie is really a Japanese Mitsubishi Triton with a Fiat badge. So is it any good? And does it have any chance to take the fight to the heavyweights in the popular double cab segment? We put the Fullback 4×4 through its paces.

The year was 1978. Fiat South Africa introduced the 128 Pick-up to the local market, and the 44kW half-tonner sold for the princely sum of R2 998. Amazingly, factory-fitted air-conditioning was an option, too. Thousands of these little bakkies were sold here, and a few of them still run around today.

In 2005, Fiat returned to the SA bakkie market with the Strada bakkie, which was rated to carry 715kg. Developed in Brazil for typical Third World applications, the Strada was up against the Nissan 1400 Champ, the Ford Bantam and the Opel Corsa half-tonners – formidable competition in the SA market. And so, despite competitive pricing, the Strada never gave the market leaders sleepless nights, and was eventually put out to pasture in 2012. Now Fiat is back with another bakkie, the ‘one-ton’ Fullback. So, will this bakkie – which really is a next generation Mitsubishi Triton with a Fiat badge – sink or swim in SA?

Italian by name, Japanese by trade
In one of those motoring soap opera twists, the Fullback really is the next-generation Mitsubishi Triton. And the Fiat arrives here ahead of that new Triton, which must surely annoy Mitsubishi fans who had been looking forward to the next generation Triton for ages. In its Fullback jacket, the bakkie looks good. The lines are modern and new, and thankfully that controversial, weird styling for the ‘bak’, that so polarised views for the current Triton, have been smoothed over. The bakkie also features some cool 17-inch rims and side steps, further adding some fashion to the deal. As far as visual appeal goes, we reckon the Fiat ticks quite a few ‘cool’ boxes.

The Fullback is manufactured in a Mitsubishi and Fiat joint venture factory in Thailand, so there are Japanese engineers looking after the manufacturing. This is great news, as Japanese engineers are renowned for their strict quality control, and that everything has to be done by the book. And that’s the first thing that you notice about the Fullback: the quality. Perceived quality is on par with the higher-end double cabs on the market. But, to curb the asking price in a very price-sensitive and competitive marketplace, the cabin does not have all the bells and whistles you’d get in a new Hilux, Ranger or Amarok. And ultimately the cabin is not as modern, refined nor comfy as the mainstream lot.

Saving costs
To further put a lid on costs, the Fullback has no electronic traction aids like traction or stability control. It also gets the more basic Mitsubishi 4×4 system, and not the excellent Super Select II 4WD system that should be standard on the next-generation Triton when it eventually lands here.
In the Fullback, you can select between 2H and 4H on the move, and there’s also 4LOW for more challenging off-road situations. Sure, the Super Select II system, which features the extra advantage of selecting four-wheel drive with an open centre differential (you can drive it on tar like a permanent 4WD vehicle) would have been a bonus, but the Hilux, Ranger and Amarok feature the same 4WD options as the Fullback, so it’s not like it has lost out in that department compared to the main players. Unlike its European cousins, the SA-spec Fullback 4×4 double cab gets a rear differential lock, which adds plenty of off-road ability. But before we get down and dirty, let’s talk general driving.

Tar travel
The 2.5-litre four-cylinder common-rail engine, as employed in the current Mitsubishi Triton, produces 131kW and 400Nm of torque, the latter peaking at 2 000r/min. The 400 Newtons provide impressive thrust at 2 000r/min, but they do take a bit of right-foot encouragement to arrive on the scene. In fact, the turbocharger starts providing some thrust from about 1 200r/min, but it really gets on full song at that 2 000r/min mark. So yes, just like in the older-generation Triton, there is a fair whack of turbo lag from idle to about 1 200r/min-ish.

One quickly learns to adapt to this trait though, and adding a bit more revs to the equation and managing the five-speed gearbox better, keeping the engine ticking over around the 1 500r/min mark, solves the issue of turbo lag. At 120km/h, the turbocharged engine is revving at about 2 400r/min, and overtaking is as easy as adding some accelerator to the party. That said, at 120km/h the lack of a sixth gear does become a bit more apparent, as the engine revs notably higher than it would in, say, a new Hilux or Ranger or Amarok – these bakkies all have six-speed gearboxes.

Ultimately, the Fullback is not quite as refined as the bakkies mentioned above on the open road, but it is, at the very least, as comfy as a previous generation Toyota Hilux. There is more good news in the handling department. The Fullback’s leaf-spring rear set-up and independent wishbones at the front provide a good compromise between comfort, good handling and a 970kg payload capability. The rack and pinion steering provides better feedback and feel than that of most commercial-based bakkies, and the Fullback is actually quite a lot of fun in the corners.

No, it doesn’t have electronic safety nets to reel in an overzealous driver in the corners, but the inherently good handling of the Fiat inspires a lot of confidence. Even if you chuck it into a corner a bit too enthusiastically, the Fullback shrugs it off in its stride, and there are no melodramatics in the cabin. It’s all pretty solid, and fun. And if you add some weight to the ‘bak’, the ride obviously improves. In and around town, the Fiat is a comfortable, easy-to-live-with double cab. The cabin may not be overloaded with standard kit, but it still has plenty of standard amenities that should satisfy most customers.

This includes an electrically adjustable driver’s seat, leather trim, a sporty three-spoke steering wheel with remote buttons for the sound system, Bluetooth connection and cruise control, and there’s also air-conditioning and an infotainment system with an LCD touchscreen (exactly the same unit as fitted in our long-term Mitsubishi Pajero 3.2Di-D, by the way).

It’s not like you really miss anything obvious, but you’re also not going to call your buddy to brag about all the amazing kit either. Space is sufficient up front and in the second row. Fuel consumption was a welcome surprise: we measured an outstanding 8.8litres/100km, which included some normal city and highway driving, as well as the low-range off-road session.

Rough and ready?
Off-road we go then. And the first good news is that, in low-range, the inherent turbo lag issue is virtually non-existent. With the transfer case in play, the much lower gear ratios and the 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine make for better driving partners. Crawling up steep, rutted inclines is straightforward: simply hook first gear and let the 400Nm torque, mechanical grip and good wheel articulation sort out the details. Although we didn’t attempt any Grade 5 obstacles in this brand-new, pre-launch Fullback, the obstacles we did tackle were very rough in places… yet we never needed to call the rear diff lock off the reserve bench. Interestingly, some testers preferred the Fullback over the new Toyota Hilux we recently tested on the same tracks at the Hobby Park 4×4 trail in Krugersdorp. They enjoyed the more compact dimensions and the tighter turning circle (11.8m) of the Italian lorry.

To put numbers to the dimensions statement: the Fullback is 5 280mm long and 1 815mm wide. Compare that to the Toyota Hilux’s 5 335mm/1 855mm and the Ford Ranger’s 5 354mm/1 849mm, and you get the picture. But that’s only part of the story… visibility out of the Triton is also better in an off-road environment because the bonnet slopes more than it does in the Hilux and Ranger. On a gravel road the ride, even in 2WD, is solid and comfortable, and it’s definitely not a case of the driver feeling he is going to perish at any instant because there is no stability or traction control. On the contrary, it is more stable than some other double cabs, including the previous generation Hilux. The ride on a bad dirt road is even more composed and stable when you select 4HIGH. Although we had our initial reservations about the omission of traction and stability control, the inherently solid and composed ride certainly impressed.

Other options?
Initially the Fiat Fullback range will consist of only three derivatives: a single cab 2.4-litre petrol, and the double cab 2.5-litre turbodiesel, in both 4×2 and 4×4 derivatives. Fiat says it is investigating introducing a five-speed automatic double cab to the market. But if that happens, it will be only later in the year.

Does the Italian stand a chance?
The Fiat Fullback has a number of things counting in its favour. It is based on a well-proven Mitsubishi Triton, so that’s a great arrow in its quiver from a reliability and longevity point of view. From a specification and market positioning perspective it effectively bridges the gap between the cheaper Oriental offerings (that are also not quite as well made) and the more established (and some more expensive) mainstream brands.

For someone who likes to swim upstream and buck the trend, it may be just the bakkie. And imagine it as a conversation piece at the next braai – a Japanese bakkie with an Italian jacket is quite the talking point. However, we reckon the Fullback faces some obvious stumbling blocks: firstly, there are the inevitable perceptions about the brand, and concerns about resale value and service back up. It has to be said that Fiat does not have the best reputation in these departments, but hopefully the Fullback will be the first model to start changing these perceptions, thanks to its Japanese roots. But to get potential customers into the driving seat of what many will see only as a ‘Fiat’ may be a challenge.

Then there is the asking price. We tested the Fullback a month ahead of its local introduction, so pricing was not finalised at the time of going to press. However, judging by its specification level, we suspect (and sincerely hope) the Fullback 4×4 double cab as tested here will enter the market under the R400 000 mark. That will at least give it a shot against Toyota’s Hilux 2.4GD double cab 4×4 SRX (R440 000) and Ford’s Ranger 2.2TDCi double cab 4×4 XL (R399 900). However, that Ranger XL may prove to be the Fullback’s nemesis – at R400 000, the popular and well established Ford provides excellent value for money.

Does the new Fiat Fullback stand a chance in a very competitive, price-sensitive market segment? Yes, from a capability point of view it certainly does. But we believe pricing will ultimately be the one big factor that will cause this bakkie to sink, or swim. Here’s holding thumbs  Fiat get it right.

Engine Four-cylinder turbocharged diesel
Power 131kW @ 3 400r/min Torque: 400Nm @ 2 000r/min
Gearbox Five-speed manual
4×4 Drivetrain Part-time (2H, 4H and 4LOW)
4×4 Driving aids Shift on the fly 4×4, rear-locking differential
Ground clearance (claimed) 205mm Wheels: 245/65 R17
Approach angle 30 degrees Departure angle: 28 degrees
Average consumption (actual) 8.8/100km
Fuel tank capacity 80 litres Range: 909km
Maximum payload 970kg Tare: 1 930kg