Fiat has long been known for its economical small cars, but it's been a long time since we had a Fiat bakkie in South Africa.
A lightweight pickup based on the little Fiat 128 is the last (the only) one I remember, and it was just that - a front-wheel drive modification to the Fiat 128 sedan, itself not a memorable car.
It did nothing to advance the case of either Fiat or Fiat bakkies in this country, and to be honest, it's best left remembered by only a few vecchi like me.
So let's start with a clean sheet with the Strada, and have a close look at what makes it tick.
Firstly, it was developed in Brazil, where roads are MUCH worse than ours and drivers no better, either.
It was designed tough, it was built to take a good-sized load, and it was built simple.
As a result, together with the General Motors Corsa-based pickup, it helped develop a new market segment in Brazil where formerly only "one-ton" rear-wheel drive pickups ruled the roost.
Here in South Africa the "1/2" ton bakkie segment is dominated by the Ford Bantam, with the Opel Corsa pickup a close second and Nissan's stalwart 1400 rear-drive model of great lineage still in the pecking order.
So the entrant of a new player is highly significant, especially since the Strada is based on three pillars, says Fiat SA MD Giorgio Gorelli - namely quality, reliability, and price.
In fact the Strada comes in with extremely keen pricing, and with a model mix that gives a spread which ranges from those who want top economy with great carrying capacity, but aren't concerned with frills, right through to high spec versions which include air conditioning as standard.
A big plus factor is that every model in the range has a full 715 kg carrying capacity, making all the Stradas in effect "3/4" ton bakkies.
Other core strengths are 20 000 km service intervals - even for the diesel - a tough plastic load box liner for all variants; location of the full-size spare wheel behind the passenger seat for security and convenience; key-operated central locking, power steering across the range; and a specially designed rear axle which enables the vehicle to negotiate rugged terrain.
There are three engines on offer - a 1.2 MPI petrol unit, a 1.6 MPI 16-valve or a 1.7 turbo-diesel.
The baseline version is 1.2-litres with a belt-driven single overhead camshaft, and it develops 54 kW at 6 000 r/min and has maximum torque of 102 Nm at 3 250 r/min.
Fiat claims a top speed of 150 km/h and average fuel consumption of 8.6 litres/100 km.
Next is a 1.6-litre version with twin-overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder; it produces 74 kW at 5 500 r/min, with 140 Nm of torque at 4 000 r/min. Fiat claims a top speed of 170 km/h and fuel average of 8.7 litres/100 km.
The SOHC turbo-diesel TD EL version has a 1.7-litre engine which gives out 51 kW at 4 500 r/min and maximum torque of 135 Nm at 2 500 r/min.
Claimed top speed is 152 km/h and combined fuel consumption 7.7 litres/100 km.
The Strada is based on the Palio sedan range in terms of its styling, and features that model's large rounded headlights with tapered wrap-around effect.
However, it has a completely different grille-bumper treatment enhanced by large air intakes, bolt-on wheelarch reinforcements, a black plastic load box liner and bumpers which are neatly integrated into the body.
These enhancements give it a nice rugged appearance, emphasising that the car was designed for rough roads and to easily negotiate such obstacles as South Africa's dreaded middel mannetjie or potholes.
All models have 14 inch wheels and tyres while the flagship 1.6 ELX model gets alloys.
For model "spotters" mirrors, grille, bumpers, door handles and the rear step are black on EL models and colour-coded on the ELX. There are front fog lights on the ELX.
Metallic paint is an option across the range.
The Strada's load box is 1 685 mm long and 1 350 mm wide (1 090 mm between wheelarches) and its tough plastic liner that can withstand freezing sub-zero temperatures as well as the highest temperatures.
In addition to load loops along the sides of the load box the Strada also has integrated loops within the load box area so heavy objects can be properly tied down.
The tailgate has one-handed opening, drops down 90 degrees, is coated with a non-slip surface and can support a weight of up to 300 kg.
As to be expected given its Palio background the Strada has a comfortable car-type interior, with good space, including room behind the driver's seat for small objects, as well as internal stowage of the spare wheel for better security.
The seats offer good reach and backrest adjustment, and are also equipped with height-adjustable head restraints.
I found no trouble at all in getting comfortable, and even very tall drivers won't have a problem - though they will have to shift the jack and warning triangle from behind to under the seat to give them enough reach adjustment.
All controls are within easy reach and there's a built-in radio/CD combo standard on the ELX.
All versions come standard with power steering, key-operated central locking, a Fiat Code immobiliser, tinted windows, a digital clock and a cigarette lighter/12V power point.
The flagship ELX also has electric windows, a radio with CD front loader (EL models are pre-wired for radio and antenna fitment) and air-conditioning (optional on the 1.2 EL and the 1.7 TD EL).
Under the skin
The Strada has independent MacPherson strut front suspension with tough forged steel lower wishbones and an anti-roll bar, while the back has a reliable live axle with single parabolic leaf springs.
The front brakes are 257 mm ventilated discs, and the rears 228 mm drums.
The doors are fitted with side impact bars and the vehicle comes fitted as standard with an energy absorbing steering wheel, anti-submarining seats, fire prevention system (locks the fuel pump and prevents fuel escaping) and a Fiat CODE immobiliser system.
The Strada 1.6 ELX comes standard with a driver?s airbag and pre-tensioner seatbelts.
On the road
The launch was held just outside Johannesburg, so obviously all the vehicles, with the exception of the turbo-diesel, suffered from 17% power loss.
Nevertheless Fiat SA was still confident enough to put a load in each car (vehicles were also available to drive without loads) and to allow us to drive them under hard conditions.
And what a revelation!
As expected the little diesel was a real beauty, as Fiat diesels tend to be, and gave great lugging power right through the range.
However the big WOW came from the 1200, which wasn't the sluggard I expected it to be.
Yes, it required more gear changing than the others, but in reality its power delivery was smooth and sufficient, especially for those who will use it either as a passenger car replacement - very much a big section of the bakkie market - or for in-town deliveries.
At the top end of the range the 1600 had more than enough power, while the ELX version offered the refinement those paying that bit extra expect.
The cars are all built in South Africa at the Nissan SA plant in Rosslyn, Pretoria.
All have 20 000 km service intervals (even the diesels), have a 24 months manufacturer warranty with unlimited mileage, and an additional 12 months dealer extended warranty (or up to 100 000 km in total).
There's three years on paintwork and five years on rust anti-perforation.
The new models are covered by the AA Fleetcare roadside assistance for 12 months.
Fiat Strada 1.2 EL: R77 900
Fiat Strada 1.2 EL: a/c R83 900
Fiat Strada 1.6 EL: R93 900
Fiat Strada 1.7 TD EL: R101 900
Fiat Strada 1.7 TD EL a/c: R107 900
Fiat Strada 1.6 ELX: R115 900
On first impressions the Strada offers a good alternative in the small pickup market.
There's room for another competitor in this segment given the high growth rate in South Africa at the moment, and it's good to see that its pricing is competitive - enough to perhaps make some of the others look at their pricing, too!