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You might be forgiven for thinking that the original Fiat Multipla was a show car from the 1990s that made it into production. In fact, you would be 30 years adrift. The first Multipla was a six-seater version of the Fiat 600, launched in 1956. With a forward control layout and negligible luggage capacity, the Multipla’s seats were arranged in three rows inside an overall length of 3531mm and a width of 1448mm.

Fiat 600 Multipla.

The Mini, launched three years later, was only a little smaller at 3050mm x 1400mm. Most of the difference in length is accounted for by the Multipla’s front and rear overhangs. The Mini’s wheelbase, at 2040mm, is actually 40mm longer than the Fiat’s. Although the Multipla looks rather odd to the modern eye — it looks to us as though it’s going backwards — there is no mistaking the roots of the modern MPV.

Rear seats removed to create luggate space. Were people really so much smaller in the 1950s?

With all three rows of seats in place, the Multipla had little space for luggage. Whatever you could pile on top of the engine compartment was about the limit. But both the rear and centre rows of seats could be removed, and a roof-rack was easily fitted, so versatility was not so bad. The 600 Multipla was widely used as a taxi in Italian cities and even in export markets such as Switzerland.

Fiat 600 Multipla drivetrain. The fan blew forwards onto a radiator mounted close to the firewall.

The 600 had a liquid-cooled four-cylinder engine — unlike the later 500, which used an air-cooled twin. Early versions had 633cc and 21PS, while later cars had an expanded 767cc motor with 29PS. The coil-over-damper arrangement for the rear suspension looks quite modern, though the diagonal swing axle layout doesn’t.

Fiat 600 Multipla: diagonal swing axle rear suspension and drivetrain.

An early 633cc Multipla was tested by The Motor in 1956. It managed a maximum speed of 57mph (92km/h) and reached 50mph (80km/h) from rest in 43.0 seconds. Overall test fuel consumption was 38.4mpg (7.36l/100 km). The test car cost 799 including taxes on the UK market.

Fiat 600 Multipla (1956-’69)
Engines 633cc IL4 ohv 21PS
767cc IL4 ohv 29PS
Gearbox 4+R
Length 3531mm
Width 1448mm
Height 1581mm
Wheelbase 2000mm
Kerb mass 700kg

Thirty years later, Fiat’s late-nineties Multipla was also radical, in a modest sort of way. Its three-plus-three seating arrangement on the Brava platform made for a short, wide footprint. Its competitors used three rows of seats, demanding a longer floorpan to maintain acceptable legroom. Then again, the Multipla is wide: 11mm wider even than Renault’s Espace and 15mm wider than an S-class Mercedes.

Contemporary Fiat Multipla interior.

The latterday Multipla’s career so far has included a number of variants that ran on alternative fuels. The Bipower model ran on petrol and Compressed Natural Gas (methane); the Blupower model dispensed with the petrol, running entirely on CNG; and the G-Power was designed for Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG). There was also a petrol-electric hybrid version, which featured an asynchronous A.C. motor, kinetic energy capture and a nickel hydride battery pack. A series-parallel hybrid, it was powered by its electric motor, its petrol engine or both.

Fiat Multipla 1.9 Multijet (2006)
Engine 1910cc ohc
Power PS/rpm 120/4000
Torque Nm/rpm 279/1450
Gearbox 5+R
Length 4090mm
Width 1870mm
Height 1690mm
Wheelbase 2666mm
Kerb mass 1370kg
The Fiat Multipla hybrid from 2002 featured a nickel hydride battery pack and kinetic energy capture.
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