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2013 Fiat Strada

Posted Sep 20th 2012 11:58AM

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Should Fiat Sell This Tiny Truck In North America?

2013 Fiat Strada

"Niche" is the word of the day. No, this funky, spot-on little pickup from Fiat do Brasil was never designed or destined to put up huge sales numbers in North America, but we think it might fit in perfectly with the niche-loving image of this Italian brand in the U.S. and Canada. And why not? Executives have spoken of bringing over their range of Fiat Professional models in the next couple of years, and we remain foolishly hopeful something like the Strada might be on that boat.

Regular Autoblog readers know of our almost knee-jerk love of hot hatchbacks, station wagons, diesels and other less-than-popular automotive subsets. We too are aware of this quiverful of weaknesses – hell, we embrace them. And perhaps more than any other underserved niche, we cheer for the return of truly small pickups to North America en masse, preferably with quirky solutions and deliberately fun chassis and body combos as on this Strada.

Built primarily at Fiat's huge Betim factory in Brazil, and contracted out to other South American countries, as well as to Russia, these wee Strada pickups can be seen everywhere in the sub-Caribbean western hemisphere. For my day of driving and actually delivering stuff, I was handed a finished prototype of the 2013 Fiat Strada Adventure double-cab. If I use the unprofessional term "fun" too much in this review, cut me some slack. This journalist is just old enough to remember driving new Pennsylvania-built Volkswagen Rabbit pickups that lived their love-hate existence from the late-1970s into the early 1980s. And who can forget the sassy Subaru Brat with those two rear-facing seats in the bed that were immediate darlings over at NHTSA? And I speak from personal experience, having driven a Mitsubishi turbodiesel pickup that taught me how to kick broken-down cars in anger.

2013 Fiat Strada side view2013 Fiat Strada front view2013 Fiat Strada rear view

But the trouble was never with these pickups' configurations, which were utterly loveable (provided one was given to love such things). The trouble was with their powertrains, which had to be some of the very worst in history. This is decidedly not the case anymore.

European trucker culture is very separate from
North American trucker culture.

My privileged drive of this little Brazilian Fiat utility happened on the streets and highways of northeastern Italy on a truly amazing day. There were lots of friendly salutations exchanged between this Strada and all other camionisti on the road. I was a trucker. C'mon, don't laugh and point – European trucker culture is very separate from North American trucker culture.

In most of Europe, pickup trucks have a choice to be registered as either personal cars or as light commercial vehicles. If the former, you pay all taxes you would on any passenger vehicle, which can get expensive. If the latter, you can write-off the added taxes intended on your annual tax return. But if you choose that latter route, you can only drive the Strada during specific hours of the day, and only on weekends if you've acquired a special permit. This policy varies widely in Europe, but oddly in Italy – the lifeblood of Fiat together with South America – the Strada can only be registered as a commercial vehicle in the N1 class. This is ironic ridiculousness in its clearest form. Welcome to Italy!

2013 Fiat Strada interior2013 Fiat Strada seats2013 Fiat Strada auxiliary gauges2013 Fiat Strada shifter

If it came to North America, Fiat could probably throw
a more powerful lump under the hood.

It was daylight on a weekday, though, so all was well. This Adventure trim with its E-Locker virtual differential is such a softroader star, though, that this whole "N1" permit situation had me shaking my head and whining a bit. I would definitely consider putting one of these sporty lifestyle trucklets in my Milan garage – if only I could freely drive the thing whenever I like.

In Brazil, practically all Strada models run on compressed natural gas, but my Fiat tester carried the hallmark 1.3-litre JTD turbodiesel engine with direct injection, a winning engine engineered partly during the ill-fated General Motors-Fiat tieup. Its modest 94 horsepower is all there between 3,500 and 4,500 rpm, but the engine's true peak is at 4,000 revs. Torque sits at 148 pound-feet between 1,500 and 3,000 rpm, and that's plenty of heat for this 2,833-pound (1,285 kg) utility pup. Acceleration from 0 to 60 mph (96 km/h) will not peel your eyelids back at 13.0 seconds, nor will the top speed of 99 mph (160 km/h). On the other hand, as anyone who owns a Strada or is a fan will tell you, speed dominance is not at all what this pickup is about – and besides, if it came to North America, Fiat could probably throw a more powerful lump under the hood. As it is, I was averaging close to 4.7L/100km (50 mpg) without even trying much.

2013 Fiat Strada engine

The model you see here would come in around $17,500 and bare-bones single cab models would start at around $13,000.

Of all the Strada variations that are available, this double cab with Adventure trim is exactly the one to get. The longstanding essential design of the Strada by Giorgetto Giugiaro is pretty classic for its genre. Inside, the high-end contoured seating for four adults is new in this generation and tremendously comfortable, and the essential controls and switchgear make sense and are easy to use. The trick added instrumentation for this Adventure of side-to-side and fore-aft inclinometers along with compass is fun and useful, too. You can get as Spartan and bargain basement as you like with a Strada, but the higher trims are worth it. Were they to be sold in North America, I'd estimate the model you see here would come in around $17,500 and bare-bones single cab models could start at around $13,000.

Given the numbers put up by the 1.3-litre four-cylinder and the typical streets on which the Strada is currently destined to roll, the five-speed manual transmission is sufficient. No, this gearbox is not the pinnacle of sophistication, but officials assure us that a six-speed manual would be an easy switch should other continents want the Strada. The sharp 15-inch wheelset for the Adventure trim with its mild off-road tires is, of course, more than up to the task.

2013 Fiat Strada2013 Fiat Strada grille2013 Fiat Strada wheel2013 Fiat Strada bed

Towing loads can reach 2,200 pounds (1,000 kg).

Total load allowed for this double-cab with its truncated bed is set at 1,400 pounds (635 kg), and that number takes into account the humans aboard, so this configuration is a compromise. Hauling 1,400 pounds (635 kg) with this small bed, though, would probably never happen anyway, so it's sort of a non-critical limit, if you will. And as loaded as I got the Strada with two people up, tall plants aboard, and equipment, the dynamics and ride were as astute as I had hoped they'd be. Towing loads can reach 2,200 pounds (1,000 kg), as well.

At present, there is no confirmation or denial regarding a future Strada offering for North America. But anyone needing to do daily busy work, independent contractors who don't require a full- or mid-size pickup, or even active athletic outdoorsy folk living in places with little parking, should write Fiat a note urging them to get this humble hauler into Canadian showrooms ASAP... even if it ends up with a Ram badge on its nose!

Image Credit: Federico Oddone, Copyright 2012 AOL

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