By Andy Enright
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. Van-based MPVs are built tough so kids can't do too much damage, there's acres of space inside yet they're easy to see out of and park. Here's what to look for when shopping for a used one.
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.
What You Get
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.
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.
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.
What to Look For
Along with its sister vehicle, Citroen's Nemo Multispace, the Fiat Qubo hasn't experienced any significant reported problems to date. The only controversial aspect is a Which? Report, specifically featuring the Renault, which highlights a rollover risk if the vehicle is subjected to an aggressive lane change manoeuvre, or 'elk test'. Given that most high-sided vehicles without electronic stability control would fare about as well as the Qubo or Nemo Multispace when given this sort of treatment, it's not a vehicle specific issue. The Nemo's reliability record is very good with some owners complaining of a weak heater that struggles to clear the large windscreen in winter.
(approx based on a 2009 Qubo 1.4) Spares for the Fiat Qubo might come as a bit of a rude awakening if you were bedding in nicely with the discount motoring vibe. A replacement alternator will be around £170 while a new headlamp bulb is £13. Tyres are £140 a corner and a 20,000 mile service will weigh in at around £200.
On the Road
You don't tend to approach a drive in any MPV, let alone one related to a van, with much enthusiasm and on paper, such pessimism seems justified here. Hopes of even moderately nippy performance from the Qubo will be immediately dashed as soon as you learn that neither the 75bhp 1.3-litre diesel or the other option, a 73bhp 1.4-litre petrol, can break the 16-second barrier for the 'sprint' from 0-60mph. Get out on the road however, and the story is a little different - at least if you opt for the diesel we tried. With 190Nm of torque, there's plenty of pulling power to waft you about without having to row the car along with the gearlever on the kind of urban trips you're likely to want this Fiat to perform. Quite simply, it's as fast as it needs to be.
True, there's a distinctly van-like driving position - but that also means you sit quite high and get a good view of the road. You feel comfortable too thanks to a wheel that adjusts in and out as well as up and down, plus a height-adjustable seat on this plush version. On the move, the unyielding van suspension has been softened for passenger use, though not enough to exacerbate the kind of bodyroll that all high-ish sided cars suffer from to some extent. This one compensates with mild, relaxing road manners, plenty of grip and reasonable refinement. All round visibility is brilliant, so it's easy to park with a tight turning circle and accurate steering.
The Fiat Qubo makes a great used buy if you can track down a car that hasn't been too badly ravaged in the supermarket car park and which has been serviced on the nose. With a small stock of used cars to choose from, you might well have to travel or compromise when choosing. Cool by van-based MPV standards and sensibly practical by everyone else's, Fiat's Qubo may not be the car you always dreamed of owning but it may be the one your family actually needs.