My good friend Justin who runs SA Motoring News needed a quasi-journalist to fly down to Cape Town to drive the latest Fiat. I was that quasi-journalist. In the spirit of self promotion here is my review:
The last twelve months have been pretty great for Fiat in South Africa. As with international trends, operations merged with Chrysler and sales are up 17% in 2012. As part of the merged operations there are now eighty dealers countrywide meaning that the brands previous servicing related problems are a thing of the past. Speaking of services there is now a standard 3 year, 100000 KM warranty on all Fiat vehicles.
We’re here to talk about the newly launched Qubo (pronounced “Cube-oh”) MPV, a vehicle aimed squarely at young family buyers looking for a vehicle for a low cost mom’s taxi or dad’s weekend DIY endeavors. Built on a similar platform to the Fiat Punto, the Qubo is aimed directly at competitors such as the Toyota Avanza, the Nissan Livina X-Gear and to some extent a second hand Honda Jazz. All marketing material speaks heavily about the car being “simple, practical and durable”. So far not so sexy but that’s hardly what the potential buyers of this car are looking at. Qubo buyers want something their kids can mess all over but still has space for a bike and suitcases when going on holiday. The Qubo does, on paper, fit these criteria.
Powered by either a 1.4l petrol engine (54kw) or a 1.3l diesel (55kw) engine options are fairly limited. Mated with a five-speed gearbox the car is reasonably frugal although you’ll be changing gears often due to power constraints. The consumption figures of 8.2l/100km for the petrol and an impressive 4.9l/100km for the diesel belie the fact that the engine is under-powered for the car. The diesel has enough low down torque to get the car moving but it’s unrefined and loud. The petrol engine requires you to take the revs to within an inch of the cars life and any car at over 5000rpm is going to be heavy on fuel. The diesel should theoretically get around 1000KM on the 45 litre tank although you’ll want to drive very slowly.
The car is very well spec’d with the great Fiat “Blue&Me” media interface that works with any of the latest mobile phones and music players. I plugged my iPhone in and it worked without any issue, showing track names on the radio display. It’s a great system and it’s a shame Fiat doesn’t spend more time punting it. There’s a really excellent multifunction steering wheel, which we will touch on later. Other niceties such as a trip computer are standard and there’s cruise control for when you take the Qubo on a long distance drive.
The car requires services only every 30000 kilometers. Driver and passenger airbag as well as ABS and EBD are also standard features.
Bearing in mind that design is a fairly subjective concept I actually really like the look of the Qubo. It’s not instantly striking or immediately jaw dropping but compared to competitors from Toyota or Nissan it’s got an appealing design language. The front bumper has some interesting curves giving the car some character an while the back of the car initially looks like a massive slab of metal but the subtle Qubo and Fiat logo’s give it some subtle quirks that make you look twice. Roof racks give the Qubo a muscular stance while the rear sliding doors add convenience and practicality. The Qubo comes in some, to say the least interesting colours and while white is the standard it’s worth the extra money to get either the bright red or pastel blue colour. As a whole if you want to stand out as something less than anonymous on the road then you’ve come to the right place.
I remarked to fellow journalists at the launch that Fiat must have some amazing photographers as they’ve managed to make the interior look extremely upmarket in the brochure. Reality is akin to a model not being allowed to use Photoshop. It’s not ugly inside but the hard plastic gives the Qubo an air of cheapness. Seats are firm and generally comfortable but won’t support you around fast corners (not that you’d be going fast in this car). Families will appreciate the durability of the cloth seats. The steering wheel is the highlight of the cabin; it’s heavy and covered in what feels like leather or a very good approximation.
The rear seats fold flat, although this is hardly a defensible position as all the Qubo’s competitors have this feature. You can however remove the rear seats completely, which is useful when transporting something big and messy. The Qubo accommodates a class average beating 2500 cubic liters and the loading bay is up to 1.7 meters, higher than any competitors.
For me the best part of the interior was how roomy and bright the cabin is. You find yourself in a space that is filled with light and even the largest occupant won’t get anywhere near touching the roof. Space in the back isn’t huge although I managed to fit comfortably in the back after pushing the drivers seat into a comfortable position for my millimeters short of six-foot frame. The driving position is great with the ability to height adjust the seat as well as the steering wheel.
The most divisive design decision of the Qubo is a lack of fully opening rear windows. There is a clip that pivots open the back of the window slightly however for a car aimed kids you’re going to be cleaning the inside of the Qubo when they can’t spew chunks out of the window.
It’s the ride of the car where things get a little hairy. I drove the car in Cape Town and I can’t imagine what these engines would be like up in Gauteng. The 55KW of power simply isn’t enough to compensate for the weight of the car. I drove with one passenger and the petrol especially struggled. Add in kids and luggage and you’re in for a less than fun experience. There was some serious body roll going around corners and the infamous Cape Town crosswinds led to some shudder on the road. In town driving was perfect as long as you don’t need to go anywhere quickly. I’d pick the diesel over the petrol every time.
At R177, 990 for the petrol and R199, 990 for the diesel the Qubo isn’t expensive but it certainly isn’t cheap. The car is well spec’d and a comfortable with a great interior however the underpowered engines let it down. If you consider the vastly duller Toyota Avanza has over 70KW you’re looking at a 50% improvement in power at the expense of driving one of the most visually unappealing cars ever produced. There’s something strangely endearing about the Qubo although it’s a tough sell compared to a second hand Honda Jazz that has a better interior, a powerful enough engine and even an automatic option. I think Fiat is missing a trick trying to appeal to families when small business owners or adventure junkies looking to cart around bikes and surfboards would take to a cheap, functional car such as the Qubo without a second thought.