REVIEW DATE: 2007-10-01 12:04:00.0
The Fiat Multipla JTD represents a clever combination of novel design and advanced engineering. Andy Enright reports on the improved line-up
It's often claimed we live in a meritocracy, that the cream naturally rises to the top and that the American Dream where anybody can become anything is gradually being imported and imparted in this country. Rubbish. There are two reasons why this argument doesn't hold water. The first is the enduring existence of the British class system. The second is the sales curve of the Fiat Multipla.
If motoring industry accolades and awards were worth anything, the Multipla would be the standout winner in Fiat's line up. The press can't get enough of it, Top Gear magazine having in the past named it their Car of The Year. This critical acclaim has not translated into sales. The wacky styling has been enough to blind people to its multifarious charms and divert them into blander fare from Citroen, Renault and Vauxhall. Hence the facelifted version on test here. The JTD model we examine is an even better fit for a country with crippling fuel prices and yet it still stays resolutely glued to dealership floors.
The 1.9-litre JTD turbo diesel engine generates a full 120bhp, more than enough to propel the relatively compact Multipla along at a reasonable lick. It's just as fast as the alternative 1.6-litre petrol unit (0-60mph in 12.2s on the way to 111mph) yet much torquier and considerably more frugal (45.6mpg on the combined cycle). There's not too much of a price premium either. Nice touches include split door mirrors that enable you to watch the kerb at the same time as oncoming traffic and storage compartments everywhere, including neat bins that fold out of the roof above the sunvisors. Drawbacks include a slightly high level of wind noise at speed and a steering wheel that adjusts for rake but not for reach.
"As an engine and packaging concept the Multipla JTD is touched by genius."
Although in profile the latest car could be nothing but a Multipla - same low waistline and huge, airy glasshouse - from the front end it adopts the look of the Idea supermini-MPV. The designers at Fiat Centro Stile have fitted a corporate-style Fiat grille and lamps with the bonnet rising up a little awkwardly to meet the windscreen. The rear lights have been replaced by more conventional square items and the wraparound bumpers are a good deal cleaner than before.
It all makes a lot of sense, apart, that is, from Fiat's description of the rear end treatment. "A large central logo has also been added to the generous tailgate where metal and steel strike an excellent balance." Metal and steel? Serious stuff. As a result of the changes, one can't help but feel the Multipla has become that tad more anonymous. Still, Fiat will gladly trade a little of the old car's big personality for a healthier bottom line and this model is no less competent than its excellent predecessor.
Prices remain on the cheap side of reasonable, the entry-level diesel model retailing at just under £15,000 and the range-topping Eleganza asking a little extra at just under £17,500. The Eleganza value proposition includes a lumbar control on the driver's seat, a tailgate with electronic lock release, tinted glass, side airbags and some funky alloys. These are just the trimmings though. What makes the Multipla so special is that it offers a workable compromise between unwieldy full-sized MPVs and compact mini-MPVs that simply aren't big enough. If you're in the market for a car like this, that's an attractive proposition.
Let's face it: the average family doesn't need something the size of a glorified van. But nor does it really want a family hatchback with an inflated roof. The current crop of mini-MPVs either offer no more passenger capacity than an ordinary saloon or they try and cram seven people in like sardines. Neither approach is ideal. Hence the need for an alternative. A car that's compact enough to fit in the tightest supermarket space. Yet a car than can carry six in comfort. A car that can double as a removal van if required. Yet a car that drives and handles like the most responsive family hatchback.
The Multipla manages most of this thanks to a unique three-abreast seating layout front and rear. Since six people can therefore be accommodated in only two rows of seats, the overall length of the car can be kept short - four metres to be exact, half a foot less than a VW Golf. Yet try to picture three full-sized adults sitting alongside each other and you'll find yourself picturing a very wide car indeed. Sure enough, the only car you can buy that's wider than this little Fiat is a Rolls Royce Silver Seraph. That three-abreast design approach meant that whichever way the designers cut it, they were going to have to produce a very unusual-looking car indeed.
It all works though. Getting in and out is easy, courtesy of high, wide doors and seats that are comfortably but not excessively high. All six seats are identical and equally comfortable, all have three-point seatbelts and all are light (16kg) and easily removable. The middle seat up front can be folded flat (to give three extra cupholders) or replaced completely by a console including an 18-litre cooled or heated box. It's the same in the rear, where the middle seat can be either folded or removed to accommodate a small fridge. Rear seat leg and headroom is outstanding for such a small car - almost limousine-like in the rearmost of the two mounting positions on offer. Even with the seats set this far back, there's still as much luggage space (430 litres) behind them as you'd find in a Mercedes C-class, or 540 litres if you click them forward a notch (sacrificing little in terms of ride comfort). This is, in other words, the only mini-MPV you can buy with a decent amount of luggage space - as much as 1300 litres if you treat the Multipla as a three-seater.
The great shame about this facelifted Multipla is that its sales look set to continue to punish Fiat for offering something a little bit adventurous. You just know the next generation Multipla is going to be a watered down blandmobile that will sell in greater, if still modest, numbers. As an engine and packaging concept the Multipla JTD is still touched by genius. Can you imagine what the world would be like if we all made an effort to be less boring? If everything we did was ruled by that credo? Be Less Boring. It would be colourful, magnificent, vibrant, stimulating. And you might well drive a Fiat Multipla.
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