Has the van-based MPV become trendy? Fiat thinks its Qubo is the car to revolutionise this utilitarian market niche. Jonathan Crouch reports on the improved 1.4-litre petrol version.
Despite the barely bridled success of van-based MPVs over the last decade or so, many doting parents would still wilt at the prospect of bundling their treasured offspring into the back of a van. That's the kind of attitude which the Fiat Qubo is battling to overcome. Based on the Fiat Fiorino van but sporting exotic passenger car niceties like side windows, rear seats and carpets, the Qubo sets out to fill the small family car role at a low cost but also with a bit of style.
Ten Second Review
Van based MPVs have never been cool but Fiat claimed to have changed all that with its Qubo. Based on the Fiorino sub compact van, it's attractively styled, nimble around town, economical, spacious and impressively practical. Is it cool? No it isn't, but most buyers of small family cars will happily live with that in exchange for the other stuff.
Fiat's previous entry into the van-based MPV sector was the Doblo and very commendable it was too, for a van-based MPV. The Qubo slots in below the Doblo size-wise being based on the Fiorino van which operates in the sub-compact sector of the light commercial vehicle market beneath the Doblo Cargo's compact van sector. Despite its size, the Qubo pulls off the van-based MPV party piece which involves cramming lots of interior space into a small package. It's this and the practicality that the space offers to families which is likely to determine the Qubo's success or otherwise but as is the fashion for small car manufacturers today, Fiat is also attempting to position the Qubo as a trendy option for switched on city dwellers. Is the van-based MPV ready to become cool? Here, we'll try and find out at the wheel of the 1.4-litre petrol model.
Hopes of even moderately nippy performance from the Qubo will be immediately dashed as soon as you learn that neither the 80bhp 1.3-litre diesel or the other option, the 77bhp 1.4-litre petrol unit on test here, can break the 16-second barrier for the 'sprint' from 0-62mph. Still, family buyers probably won't be unduly concerned.
The commercial vehicle underpinnings of the Qubo might give some prospective buyers cause for concern from a handling and comfort perspective but they needn't worry. The Qubo's Fiorino donor van drives very neatly with decent ride quality. It's particularly good at negotiating congested streets and tight manoeuvres where the good visibility and compact turning circle are of particular benefit.
Design and Build
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. 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 on all for seats 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.
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.
Market and Model
Fiat has a pair of trim levels for Qubo buyers to mull over. They're called Pop and Lounge. All models get a trip computer, power steering, remote central locking, a 60:40 split rear seat a CD stereo and the option of a 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. Lounge trim is a little more generous with a wider range of adjustments for the driver's seat, climate control, roof bars, alloy wheels and aluminium interior detailing.
Out in the rough, tough marketplace, the Qubo goes up against a gaggle of small MPV rivals. Chief among them will be the current crop of supermini-based MPVs. That means cars like the Citroen C3 Picasso and Vauxhall Meriva.
Cost of Ownership
Running costs are a major consideration for all car buyers but particularly at this cost conscious end of the market. The 1.4-litre petrol option is less outstanding than its diesel stablemate of course in this respect but you do get economy of 40.9mpg and 161g/km emissions. Nothing to write home about but there is a significant price premium between the petrol and diesel engines. 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.
We're constantly being told by manufacturers that their latest small car is the coolest thing since the iPod and will become the next must-have accessory for those painfully fashionable urban trendsetters that exist almost exclusively in the imaginations of advertising executives. Sometimes you can just about swallow it but when Fiat tried the same trick with the Qubo, a small MPV based on a van, the doubts were stronger than usual. Surprisingly, the Qubo turns out to be an attractive proposition that keeps its workmanlike origins effectively concealed. It's never going to be the conveyance of choice for coolest cats but your kids shouldn't be too ashamed when you drop them off at school and that's often as much as the modern parent can hope for.
The Qubo makes good use of its commercial vehicle design with a spacious and practical interior. Despite what the marketing department might have us believe, it's this feature that will do most to attract customers in the real world. The large boot and good access through the sliding side doors combined with the overall space might even make some question the need for a larger MPV product.