For an industry to shift and adopt a new foundation, things have to start in the background, away from the public eye.
We didn’t get to cross continents with jet engines until wartime pilots tried them out first. Today’s supercars had to wait for carbon fibre to first prove itself on the Grand Prix circuit before reaching the showroom. And as another example, perhaps the electric vehicle hype started in the wrong place - instead of proposing the technology to consumers, electric propulsion might still be best suited to commercial uses.
It was Tesla’s arrival in the Middle East with a Dubai location opening in 2017 that heralded the trend, as electric vehicles suddenly became new status symbols, proclaiming a sassy attitude with a mix of environmental concern. It helps that driving a Tesla, or most other electric vehicles on the market, also shouts, “I have money.”
In short, electric cars aren’t cheap. The technology is in its early phase despite the concept being as old as the automobile (some of the earliest cars were powered b electricity), and manufacturers have to recoup massive investments in new production lines and methods, or in increasing cases, entirely new factories.
So this makes perfect sense if you bear with us here. In Turin, for the reveal of a brand new electric vehicle, Sharp was treated to the unveiling of a massive white box that said Fiat on it. Since batteries lend themselves quite nicely to being laid flat on the floor, electric propulsion is perfectly suited to something such as this Fiat Ducato van, because the drivetrain frees up room for passengers and cargo, and the Italians say that when the van goes on sale next year it won’t compromise on space and performance compared to the regular fossil-fuel burning versions.
It’s just that, should you need to deliver something far away, let’s hope it’s not in a hurry because you’ll need to stop and recharge the batteries after 220km. Fiat will be offering versions with a range of up to 330km, developing a maximum of 120 horsepower and 280Nm, which is about equal to a small hatchback.
However in Turin we weren’t given a chance to drive the zero-emissions van, since Fiat is focusing on the petrol-engined Ducato at launch as it’s the model coming to our Middle Eastern shores early next year. The electric van will only be available at the end of 2020.
The big deal in the new Ducato is a range of the latest engines, plus a start stop function that saves fuel in heavy traffic or at red lights, a new omes with a nine-speed automatic transmission in an attempt to make the van decidedly easier and more comfortable to drive.
The top of the range engine delivers 180 horsepower and 450Nm of torque, but a further two variants are available lower down the range, all based on a 2.3-litre four-cylinder. In the middle of the pack you can have 140 horsepower, while the line-up kicks off with a 120 horsepower model. Certainly, in the most powerful Ducato the smoothness and the ride quality stands out on the go, and the ample torque from the engine makes uphill climbs a doddle since. Gear shifts are hardly noticeable and the mid-range power means the transmission is never fishing for gears all the time since you can pick it up in any ratio.
Since vans spend so much time in crowded environments during peak driving times, the new Ducato also comes with loads of driver assistance kit, such as blind spot monitoring, and radar sensors to identify other cars coming from the side when you’re reversing. Try backing out anywhere once in a van as big as this and you’ll be grateful for the feature. On the move you also get a lane departure warning system, traffic sign recognition, high beam recognition, a rain and dusk sensor, and a tyre pressure monitoring system.
Fiat put emphasis on making this 2020 Ducato as car-like to drive as possible, and the driving position takes the most getting used to, however when you’ve got so much visibility it’s naturally effective and you wish all cars had this cab-forward layout. It’s easy to place the big Fiat anywhere without any fear of knocking over stuff on the side of the road, because the light and precise steering also instills some confidence in the driver.
The seats too go a long way in establishing the Fiat as a nicer passenger experience, featuring a new ergonomic design and offering plenty of comfort for long journeys. You can have up to 16 seats available in a long-wheelbase specification, but a nine-seater like the one we tested can even be termed as luxurious travel.
If the electric van is anything as easy to drive as the combustion-engined version, and it should be even better, Fiat might have a winner on its hands with the 2020 Ducato particularly in the commercial sector. Fitted out in a passenger configuration with some actual windows and seats, it could serve as part of a shorter-range bus network or airport/hotel shuttle, with a zero-emissions boast to boot, and not just a delivery van bringing your compost to your door. Sure, someone has to do the dirty work, right up until it’s our turn to start driving electric vehicles.