As the first major new entrant to the leisure-bakkie segment since the Amarok, does the Fullback have the chops to defeat our Top 12 Best Buys champ?
It’s a big year for bakkies. We’ve experienced the new – and very good – Toyota Hilux; Volkswagen has shown its revised Amarok, replete with segment-leading V6 turbodiesel power; Nissan looks set to introduce the all-new Navara sooner rather than later … and now an unlikely player has joined the market. Based on our impressions of the new Fiat Professional Fullback from the international launch in Italy, the newcomer possesses the raw talent to ask tough questions about the established participants. And it needs to assert itself; hot on the Italian bakkie’s heels are the Renault Alaskan and Mercedes-Benz GLT, both based on the Navara that’s been garnering rave reviews overseas. Bakkie buyers have never had it this good.
Of course, one of those established contenders is also the formidable Ford Ranger. A smash hit ever since its market introduction five years ago, the big bakkie from Silverton has perennially challenged the Hilux’s status as sales leader in the segment. Regular CAR readers will know it’s also been our Top 12 Best Buys choice as the best leisure double-cab for five consecutive years. We haven’t exactly made it easy for the Italian bakkie by staging this comparative test…
Tested here is the Fullback’s flagship LX derivative, which tops a simple three-model range that also features a cheaper, less-powerful double-cab, as well as a petrol-powered single-cab workhorse. Under the LX’s bonnet beats the venerable Mitsubishi 2,5-litre turbodiesel, introduced a few years ago in the Pajero Sport and Triton ranges. Ah, the Triton… Those in the know will be aware the Fullback is a nuts-and-bolts copy of the latest-generation Triton that isn’t yet available in South Africa.
Fiat can only win with this arrangement: it’s saved valuable money and time versus what it would have spent on a bespoke vehicle; and because the brand isn’t associated with this segment that draws some of the most doggedly brand-loyal buyers of any sector, the fact that it’s a well-respected Triton underneath and is built on the same production line should allay concerns about ruggedness and resale.
“Handsome” was the most commonly used adjective when the CAR testers were asked to comment on the Fullback’s appearance. Chrome-bejewelled front- and rear-ends are complemented with neat matte-silver trim along the fore and aft bumpers, stylish 17-inch wheels wrapped in generous rubber with an intricate tread pattern, and standard-fitment xenon headlamps that provide an excellent spread of light. A range of accessories is available from the Mopar catalogue, including a roof box, tonneau cover and side skirts. Ground clearance of 205 mm is sufficient, although hardly class-leading.
In mid-range XLS spec, the Ford Ranger appears somewhat bland by comparison. Dull grey accents in the grille do little to lift the frontal aspect, and the 16-inch alloys wheels look malnourished in the massive wheelarches. However, compared with the Fullback’s fussy Triton-signature upsweep in the rear doors and generous use of silver accents, the Ranger’s simpler appliqués should see it age better. It also has more generous ground clearance.
Owners of newer bakkies such as the Ranger, Hilux and Amarok are in for a slight jolt when jumping aboard the Fullback. Feeling distinctly old school in its use of material textures and the shallowness of the dashboard, Fiat’s bakkie also has small instruments and a hardy supplementary shift lever for the low-range transfer case. That said, the interior feels rock-solid and the leather-trimmed seating is comfortable in the front. The driver’s seat is electrically adjustable and the steering column has rake-and-reach adjustment. Hop into the back and the amount of space is surprising. Boasting more leg- and headroom than the already-accommodating Ranger, the Fullback’s rear bench is slightly less upright and should prove more comfortable on those long drives to your holiday destination.
It’s better specified than the Ford, too. The LX has a comprehensive (though fussy) infotainment system with USB and Bluetooth, cruise and climate control, and a reverse-view camera, the lens of which sits proud of the tailgate where it could be knocked when loading/offloading the vehicle (the Ranger’s optional item is integrated into the Ford badge). The quality of the camera’s feed is also poor.
We had mixed feelings about the interior of this Ranger. It lacks the more expensive versions’ full infotainment system, instead employing a small screen with mediocre graphics quality. More concerning is the quality issues we detected on this vehicle. There were uneven gaps between the surrounds for the central air vents and the dash top, and the interior rattled. Granted, its mileage was higher than the Fullback’s, and we didn’t have a record of its use before arriving at the CAR office, but a rugged bakkie should feel better screwed together after just 10 000 km.
Beyond reproach, however, are the front seats, which are very comfortable, the quality of the cloth trim and the ease with which the various cabin functions can be controlled. At speed, the Ranger’s interior is also better insulated. Wind noise is low, road noise even less of a bugbear and the engine fades into the background. In the Fiat, the 2,5-litre is always audible and wind noise is higher. In terms of load bays, the Ranger’s is slightly wider, longer and deeper. Both have six sturdy hooks, while the Fullback has a protective moulding as standard.
Under the bonnets
Despite being a rowdy powerplant, the Fullback’s 2,5-litre impressed all who piloted the vehicle. Developing 131 kW at 4 000 r/min and a class-competitive 400 N.m at 2 000 r/min, it’s a free-revving unit that propels the relatively light bakkie with real gusto. Overtaking punch is a match for the 2,8-litre unit in the Hilux and shades the Ranger. A sixth gear, however, would have been welcome in order to drop engine revs at a cruising speed and stack the ratios closer together. On an excursion to the Atlantis sand dunes north of Cape Town (watch the video here), the Fullback’s comparatively high first gear saw testers having to use more revs than desirable to get the vehicle off the line and prevent it bogging down.
The Ranger, meanwhile, elicited no such concerns. Its close-ratio transmission and availability of torque from 1 500 through to 2 500 r/min meant few revs were needed to get it moving. That’s just as well, however, as it’s a heavy bakkie that needs all the help it can get to tread lightly on soft sand. That weight penalty is immediately evident on-road, too, where performance is merely average compared with the Fullback and positively pedestrian above 100 km/h. Overtaking manoeuvres require more careful planning and longer stretches of clear road to execute.
On the open road
Here the Ranger starts cementing an advantage. From the light shifts of its slick six-speed gearbox, to the moderately weighted steering and comfortable ride, it firmly favours leisure pursuits. Except perhaps for the Amarok, no other bakkie is this refined and untaxing to drive. As long as you don’t push it… Up the pace and body control deteriorates, the steering kicks back if bumps are encountered mid-corner and the heavy body heaves to and fro. A big concern in a bakkie, though? Not really.
Jump into the Fullback straight after the Ranger and it feels like a hot hatch by comparison (A hot double-cab? Now there’s a novel idea). The steering is weightier and more direct, as is the transmission’s action, and the bakkie feels more eager to change direction. Conversely, that means the ride errs towards the firmer, more fidgety side of the spectrum. It never quite settles and there’s a slight but constant vertical disturbance at cruising speeds. That said, it’s no worse than the new Hilux and an improvement on the previous-generation Triton that’s still on sale in South Africa.
Bakkies tend to disappoint in our 10-stop emergency-braking test, but that wasn’t the case here. Both vehicles stopped in commendably short distances and times. On our standardised 100 km fuel route, the Fullback recorded an excellent 8,9 L/100 km and the Ranger an even more parsimonious 8,0 L/100 km.
As mentioned, in terms of luxury and convenience features, the Fullback knocks the Ranger into touch. However, it’s the Ford that’s more generous in its offering of safety features, boasting six airbags to the Fiat’s disappointing two (though the Italian has Isofix thrown in). Both vehicles use ABS with EBD and EBA, as well as ESC (switchable in the Ranger), while the Ford offers the convenience of shifting between drive modes with a knob on the facia versus the Fiat’s stiff second gear lever. The Italian bakkie offers 10 000 km extra on its five-year service plan, while the Ranger counters with a more generous warranty and longer service intervals (every 20 000 km).
Test SummaryFour members of the 10-person CAR test team preferred the Fullback to the Ranger. It really was that close. The testers praised the Fiat's strong engine, solid feel and spacious cabin. What's more, it's excellent value at R468 900. The Fullback deserves to succeed in our market because it's a great product, full stop. Fiat's mammoth marketing task, of course, is persuading bakkie buyers to visit its showrooms. Once there, we have every reason to believe they'll be impressed. But, ultimately, CAR is a consumer title and that means we must recommend the vehicle we think will be better to own and easier to sell when it comes time to upgrade your wheels. The Ranger, therefore, remains our choice – it has a smoother ride, superior refinement and is easier to drive in a wider variety of scenarios. But, what ultimately swung it in the Ford's favour is its proven track record and the expansive Ford dealer network. The Top 12 Best Buys champ takes it here, but Fiat should feel immensely gratified that it did so by a mere point. *From the August 2016 issue of CAR magazine
Road test score