Put your preconceptions to one side and prepare to be impressed by the Fiat Qubo. Jonathan Crouch reports
Small MPVs aren't usually big on excitement and some people could easily fall into stupor at the prospect of a van-based one but Fiat's Qubo deserves a moment of your time. It offers the space and practicality you'd expect from an ex-commercial vehicle but Fiat's stylists have done a grand job of enlivening the exterior. The 1.3-litre diesel engine is somewhat sluggish at the top end but it's punchy at low speeds with top class economy and comfort levels are surprisingly good too.
The back story to the Fiat Qubo is one that might put interested parties off. It used to be a Fiat Fiorino, the company's sub-compact light commercial vehicle. Yes, a van. There will be prospective buyers who won't consider it for that reason alone but those who can overcome their internal snobbery and give the diminutive Fiat a chance on a level playing field are likely to come away surprised. Vans aren't what they used to be and with the 1.3-litre Multijet diesel installed, Fiat's little package of practicality could be just the thing.
One of the major challenges for designers asked to conjure up MPV people carriers is to cram as much space and utility as possible within the confines of the vehicle's dimensions. The smaller the vehicle, the tougher it is to accommodate everything and everyone that its owner might ultimately need to. Down the years, a huge amount of pondering must have been done in trendy design studios as to how best to achieve these goals and invariably, the train of thought has hit the buffers at something roughly equivalent in shape to a van. The Fiat Qubo cuts out the middle men, making the step from small commercial vehicle to small MPV courtesy of some added windows, seats and styling enhancements.
You really can't go far wrong with Fiat's 1.3-litre Multijet diesel engine. It's used across the manufacturer's small car range, in its compact vans and in quite a few Vauxhall-badged products as well. Diesel engines don't come much smaller but the 1,368cc four-cylinder unit can still pack a punch, developing 80bhp and 190Nm or torque from 1,750rpm. If straight-line speed is your thing, the Qubo will disappoint as it claws its way up to 62mph in just over 16s and eventually reaches a 97mph top speed but that healthy torque output makes it pleasantly zesty in stop/start scenarios. If that's not enough, there's also a 95bhp version of this unit.
On the road, the Qubo is a much more composed proposition than its commercial vehicle origins might suggest to some. The suspension is on the soft side and this, along with the tall shape of the Qubo, does lead to some body roll when it's cornered with vigour but it's not too bad. The plus side of the softly sprung set-up is a comfy ride on all but the lousiest road surfaces. Together with the Qubo's responsive steering and tight turning circle, this makes it a very amenable companion in urban settings. Longer journeys are far from out of the question if you can live with having to work the engine quite hard on occasion. Noise levels in the cabin are pleasantly low and the car will scoot along without drama at motorway speeds.
The Qubo has all the key design elements of a roomy small car nailed down. The wheels are pushed right out to each corner of the vehicle, the bonnet is stubby and the roof is tall. The commercial origins of the Qubo don't lead you to expect too much from a design standpoint but Fiat's stylists have done some neat work in jazzing-up the exterior. The oversized bumpers and wheelarches are carried over from the Fiorino van and work well but the Qubo includes roof rails which add to its chunky, almost 4x4-style appearance. Then there's the dramatic rear side windows, the bottom edges of which slope steeply upwards towards the rear of the car, and the large Fiat badge which nestles in a deep circular depression in the centre of the tailgate.
This revised Qubo gets a smarter front grille and a chunkier front bumper. The tailgate is also revised, with the large circular recess giving way to a straight, flat panel with a more elegant location for the FIAT badge. Inside, there's a new steering wheel design, smarter instruments, nicer seat upholstery and fresh infotainment options. Otherwise, things are much as before. You wouldn't be embarrassed to drop the kids off in one of these, though your offspring might be irritated to find that they can't fully open the rear windows.
At under four meters from nose to tail, the Qubo is certainly small but there's lots of space inside. There's more headroom than you could possibly find a use for and legroom all round is ample for adult-sized passengers. Access to the rear is helped by the wide-opening side doors and in contrast to many of today's compact car offerings, the boot is very generous at 330-litres. The rear seats fold down but if you want to get maximum cargo on board, you'll need to remove them completely. This procedure converts the Qubo back into something approaching van form with a huge 2,500-litre capacity. Under the bonnet, there's a choice of 1.4-litre petrol or 1.3-litre diesel power.
As with the outside, the interior doesn't instantly scream 'van' at you. The layout is simple and functional with a stubby dash-mounted gear lever and large, uncomplicated controls for the audio and ventilation systems. Storage options include an extremely big glovebox and a number of other smaller receptacles, better than you'd expect in a car of the Qubo's size. Anyone familiar with the inside of Fiat's Panda city car will spot similarities in the switchgear and layout.
The 1.3-litre Multijet engine is undoubtedly the Qubo's best but should you choose it? It bumps the price of a Qubo up to nearly 15,000. Even the plushest petrol version costs from under £13,000. that's quite a premium given the car's £12,000-£16,000 price bracket. Much will depend on the amount of mileage individual buyers will cover and whether it's enough to make the diesel's lower running costs pay. Given the choice, we'd probably take the diesel regardless.
There are plenty of alternatives to the Qubo out in the marketplace. Chief among them will be the current crop of supermini-based MPVs - cars like Ctroen's C3 Picasso and Vauxhall Meriva. On practicality and price, the Fiat can hold its own against any of them.
A pair of mainstream trim levels are offered: they're known as Pop and Lounge. There's also a Trekking version with 4x4 styling cues. All models get a trip computer, power steering, remote central locking, a 60:40 split rear seat a CD stereo and the Uconnect communications system which combines Bluetooth connectivity and voice command functions. Gone are the days when van-based MPV buyers were happy if their purchase had a heater and a glovebox.
Running costs are a major consideration for all car buyers but particularly at this cost conscious end of the market. The Qubo doesn't disappoint with 68.9mpg economy from its base 1.3 Multijet diesel and 107g/km emissions. The 1.4-litre petrol option is less outstanding thanks to economy of 40.9mpg and hefty 161g/km emissions. Finally, a word about warranties. You get two years of manufacturer cover with this car, plus a further year from the dealer. Plus there's no mileage limitation, which makes this Fiat deal better than the restricted three year/60,000 mile package you get with rival models. There's also a year of roadside assistance cover, a reasonable three year paintwork warranty and an eight-year anti-perforation guarantee.
When you consider the Fiat Qubo's funky looks, comfortable road-going performance and well-built interior, it's strange to think that this car started life as a van. Fiat has done a thorough job of the conversion and has a very competitive product on its hands as a result. In 1.3 Multijet diesel guise, it adds 69mpg economy to its arsenal and will be even more difficult for customers to turn down.
The Qubo's van origins bring advantages in the form of its roomy interior and practical sliding side doors. You also don't get the impression that the interior trim is poised to disintegrate under sustained use. The car doesn't handle as slickly as the crop of rivals that are based on passenger cars and performance isn't stellar but comfort and economy tend to matter more to the target market and here the Qubo is hard to fault.