Fiat's Strada is yet another bakkie on the South African market that is attacking the gap between half and one-tonners and is doing so with a choice of 1.2 or 1.6-litre petrol engines or a 1.7-litre turbodiesel.

The units are being assembled locally (at Nissan SA's plant in Rosslyn, Pretoria) and have been in showrooms since July 2005. The bakkie is the market leader in Brazil and, Fiat says, its attractions are its price, light weight and it being lighter and more manoeuvrable than a one-tonner yet still able to haul more than 700kg.

The version tested here, the petrol 1.6 EL, will carry 715kg of garden rubbish or weekend toys - I'm thinking quads and jet skis). This out-hauls rival "half-tonners" such as VW's Caddy (630kg), Ford's Bantam (630kg) and Nissan's 1400 (590kg) - though it falls way shy of the impressive 840kg capacity of Opel's Corsa Utility 1.8.

However it's not only the carrying capacity but also the size and shape of the Strada's load box that makes it such a practical workhorse. The box measures 1685mm in length and 1350mm in width with 1090mm between the wheel arches.

A rugged plastic liner protects the box and sturdy fastening hooks are located around the edges of the box and on the floor, where they won't get in the way of loading and unloading.

Access to the bay is easy; the tailgate opens by tugging one central latch instead of the traditional two levers on each end and is coated with a non-slip surface and can support 300kg.

The rear axle has been designed to give the Strada higher-than-usual ground clearance and each model has a 20 000km service intervals - though the diesel needs fresh oil every 10 000km.

Engine-wise, the pick of the Strada range is the petrol 1.6 tested here. The 1.7 turbodiesel cruises well once on the move but feels lifeless at low revs and demands concentration to keep it in its narrow power band. The 1.2-litre petrol, while surprisingly nippy for its limited cubic capacity when unladen, is not going to cope too well with heavy loads.

However, the 1.6 feels peppy and revs freely. It feels more spirited than the average 1600 car because it's pretty light at just over a ton. It's quite brisk from a standing start and makes an easy cruiser with a top speed of 170km/h.

The Strada's compact size makes it easier to park and dart through heavy traffic; it's more user-friendly than a one-tonner bakkie with light controls, power-assisted steering and a five-speed manual transmission that shifts cleanly and smoothly.

The front suspension is independent with an anti-roll bar; there's a live axle and leaf springs at the rear. Unladen, the Strada has the typically choppy ride of a pick-up, but drives a lot smoother with some cargo aboard. Braking is decent thanks to ventilated front discs with drums at the rear, though there's no ABS.

Rivals more modern

The bakkie feels reasonably robustly built, though the cabin materials look cheap. The fascia has a hard, shiny surface and the ventilation system old-fashioned sliding levers but, for many people, these are probably not big issues in a workhorse.

If it is, then the Corsa Utility or Bantam offer better appeal with their classier and more modern cabins.

There's plenty of cabin space in the Strada and the driver's seat moves back far enough to accommodate tall folk; the passenger seat has less travel because the spare wheel is behind it but moving either is a real mission because the adjusters are stiff and it takes real muscle to move them.

Not for dainty hands… back to the drawing board, Luigi...

You're not exactly bombarded with spec in the R93 900 Strada 1.6 EL, which is clearly intended as more of a workhorse than a leisure vehicle.

Broken locking

The windows are operated the old-fashioned way and there's no air-con but it does have tinted glass, a digital clock and rear foul-weather lights.

The 1.6 EL also comes with key-operated central locking but the system on our test vehicle didn't work.

You'll have to pay R115 900 for the flagship Strada 1.6 ELX derivative to get features such as alloy rims, front fog lights, body-colour bumpers and door mirrors, a radio/CD, power windows and air-con. The ELX also offers a driver's crash bag and seat-belt pre-tensioners.

TEST SUMMARY

The Fiat Strada's lack of a local track record might put off some prospective buyers but its three-year warranty and one-year AA Fleetcare roadside assistance should help assuage their concerns.

The Italian bakkie makes sense to somebody seeking a well-priced, compact workhorse with decent carrying capacity.