The Fullback is priced between R232 900 and R468 900.
The Fullback is priced between R232 900 and R468 900.

By: Jesse Adams

Johannesburg - They say that if you want respect in prison, you must pick a fight with the biggest dude on your first day in. You don’t have to win, you just have to show you’re brave (or crazy) enough to put your dukes up. A plausible theory, although I hope to never have to try it.

Fiat, the Italian brand most well known for its cute little city cars, has just walked into the South African bakkie market and picked a fight with its two biggest players – Toyota and Ford. Now, as much as we all love a good underdog story, it’s fairly safe to say this new Fullback pickup launched in South Africa this week won’t really challenge the segment’s main contenders in sales terms.

Of course, Fiat’s not foolish enough to believe it can either. It’s just hoping to score a small piece of the new-vehicle market’s biggest pie. After all, the two best-selling vehicles in our country at the moment are, you guessed it, Toyota’s Hilux and Ford’s Ranger.

So, how seriously should we take this new entry? While it’ll be difficult for burly Hilux and Ranger fans to resist a smirk when the Fiat name’s brought into braai-side banter, there are two important details to remember here.

Mitsubishi genes

One, Fiat is actually no stranger to the commercial market. Its Professional range of cargo vans and chassis cabs is well respected in working class circles. There’s already a giant Ducato with a bakkie bin conversion available.

And two, the Fiat Fullback was developed in conjunction with Mitsubishi’s new Triton. You thought it looked familiar, didn’t you?

Yes, this is a Triton with a slightly different face. It’s built in the same Thai factory, on the same ladder chassis with the same engines and drivetrains as the Mitsubishi. But, because Mitsubishi has postponed introduction of the latest Triton locally (see separate article), the Fullback is our first taste of the new product.

Three model options

For now the Fullback comes in three flavours. A singlecab workhorse model gets a 97kW/202Nm 2.4-litre petrol engine driving the rear wheels only through a five-speed manual gearbox. Standard fare here includes 16” steel wheels, cloth seats, a basic radio, a rubberised load bin, aircon, electric windows, central locking and ABS with EBD brakes. Load capacity is just over one ton, and it’ll tow a braked trailer up to three tons (1400kg unbraked).

Two more leisure-oriented doublecab models include a two-wheel drive LX derivative with a 2.5-litre turbodiesel making 110kW and 324Nm, and a 4x4 SX with the same 2.5 but with 131kW and 400Nm outputs.

Both come with five-speed manuals, with four-wheel drive and low-range engagement in the SX happening the old-fashioned way - with a second transfer case lever. No electronic selector knobs here.

Middle LX spec adds adds 17” alloys, leather seats, diff lock, cruise control, two airbags, steering controls and a touchscreen entertainment system. Range-topping SX variants are similarly specced but with reverse cameras, Bluetooth and USB inputs, and bi-xenon lights.

How does it match up?

So how does the Fullback fare against the two pickup chieftains, the Toyota Hilux and Ford Ranger? And its many other one-ton rivals for that matter? Well, just like a prison newb against a hardened inmate, it’s not a fair fight – especially as the Fullback doesn’t have as big a price advantage as it might need in certain sectors. It offers no saving in workhorse form, although the 4x2 double cab does undercut its key rivals by at least R30 000 and the 4x4 will save you R70 000 or more.

Yet the big thing is that its competitors also have much larger range selections to choose from, and with only three models the Fullback, especially in doublecab guises, will cater only to niche buyers. The basic workhorse is Fiat’s best proposition, and will fit in nicely with Fiat’s existing commercial fleets.

Read: The bakkie showdown: Ranger vs Hilux

I drove the Fullback LX doublecab on a short test route, and, while it’s specced with enough extras to compete in the bakkie big leagues, it’s hard not to notice it’s a little rougher around the edges. Build quality is miles better than a previous generation Triton, but there’s still loads of hard plastic where segment leaders get soft-touch materials. Basically, if the segment’s best sellers have moved the game forward, the Fullback is still a bit last season.

The LX’s less powerful 2.5-litre motor offers good midrange punch, but is a little laggy on pulloff and requires a hint of clutch slippage to get off the line smoothly. It also runs out of steam at higher rpm, meaning it’s one of those engines that works best with plenty of gear lever stirring to keep the tacho needle in its sweet spot.

Perhaps the SX’s gutsier version is better, but I didn’t get a chance to try it. A five-speed automatic transmission is available overseas, and Fiat SA says it’s considering its inclusion in the range for next year’s models.

On smooth roads the Fullback’s ride quality is satisfactory, and road noise in the cabin is kept well suppressed. But, on rough surfaces its leaf spring rear suspension struggles to keep composure.

Part of our test route included the notoriously bumpy Hennops Road near Hartbeespoort, and along this stretch our car’s three passengers all agreed the ride was a bit too choppy. Unlike its rivals, which are often credited with car-like handling, the Fullback is definitely still a bakkie.

PRICES:

Fullback 2.4 SC - R232 900

Fullback 2.5 DC 4x2 - R402 900

Fullback 2.5 DC 4x4 - R468 900

All models come with three-year/100 000km warranties and five-year/100 000km service plans.

FULLBACK VS RIVALS:

Single Cab Workhorse:

Fiat Fullback 2.4 SC - 97kW/202Nm - R232 900

Ford Ranger 2.5 SC - 122kW/226Nm - R216 900

Toyota Hilux 2.0 SC - 102kW/183Nm - R233 700

Double Cab 4x2:

Fiat Fullback 2.5 Di-D LX - 100kW/324Nm - R402 900

Ford Ranger 2.2 XLS - 118kW/385Nm - R432 900

Isuzu KB250 D-Teq LE - 100kW/320Nm - R435 200

VW Amarok 2.0 TDI Trendline - 103kW/340Nm - R468 700

Double Cab 4x4:

Fiat Fullback 2.5 Di-D SX - 131kW/400Nm - R468 900 

Isuzu KB300 D-Teq 4x4 LX - 130kW/380Nm - R549 800

Toyota Hilux 2.8 GD-6 4x4 Raider - 130kW/420Nm - R541 000

VW Amarok 2.0 BiTDI 4Motion Highline - 132kW/400Nm - R552 700

Motoring.co.za

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