THE MIDDLE GROUND

Five contenders lined up for comparison in the medium-sized van of the year contest, bringing together the segment-leading Toyota HiAce to do gentle battle with the Ford Transit Custom, VW Transporter T5, Hyundai iLoad CRDi and the latest entrant, the Renault Trafic.

Even the best efforts of German manufacturer Mercedes-Benz to include the all-new Vito failed at the last minute, with the company unable to get an example of its latest model to our shores. Although released into the European market last year, Vito does not materialise here until late 2015, prompting MB to withdraw from the contest, at least for 2015.

VW, likewise, has already launched its latest Transporter, the T6, into the German market, but chose to enter its outgoing version the T5 for evaluation.

Once again our judges were given the task of determining which of the contenders provided the highest levels of ride and handling ability, as determined through back-to-back drive evaluations over the same 25 km loop circuit.

Chris Gable:

A United Nations line-up of manufacturers tilted at Delivery’s 2015 Mid-Size Van of the Year title. But the winner’s accent was on innovation, practicality and refinement.

Mid-sized vans make the world go round. Or so it seems when you’re seated in a passenger car and sometimes feel you’re surrounded by them – especially, and most obviously, in cities and commercial centres. Combined with the fact most of those city centres are increasingly squeezing passenger cars out of their precincts, it’s no surprise that light commercial vehicle sales in Australia are powering ahead.

As commercial vehicle drivers ourselves, we’re well aware that – as the name implies – vans are the backbone of commerce. However, for much of every day they’re also our mobile workshops, storerooms, offices and, in some ways, homes away from home.

Hence the importance Delivery Magazine places on light commercial vehicle driveability, practicality and, importantly, levels of driver comfort. Hence, also our quest to find and recommend to our readers the head-and-shoulders best vehicle in each light commercial category. We do that by assessing the assembled best new and updated vehicles in each category over the same 25 km real-world road loop used to decide our respected Delivery Magazine Ute of the Year winner. Our judges then open, shut, clamber over, probe and annotate every feature and foible. It’s a time-consuming but revealing process.Medium-Van_OTY_13

From a judge’s point of view, the often-gruelling judging procedure also can be enjoyable – especially when the cream of each crop turns out to also offer a rewarding driving experience. In other words, if it’s comfortable, practical and, importantly, fun to drive our judges might happily hop straight back behind the wheel and take it for another lap, or two.

That’s exactly what happened at this year’s Delivery Magazine Mid-Size Van of the Year muster. And, as these things happen, a walk-up winner seemed to emerge early, only to be trumped by an obvious standout during the methodical sorting process that followed.

The contenders? For starters, Toyota’s venerable HiAce, here in SLWB (Super Long Wheel Base) 3.0-litre turbo-diesel form and updated with minor tweaks last year.

Incredibly, after nearly 50 years on the Australian market, the HiAce still dominates the LCV market. Latest official industry sales figures at the time of writing showed this fifth-generation of Toyota’s winning formula claimed an astonishing 46 percent of its segment.

Also seemingly ageless was VW’s Transporter – here in 2.0-diesel/seven-speed DSG T5 form – and Hyundai’s iLoad CRDi, former three-time winner of Delivery Magazine’s coveted van of the year award and the HiAce’s closest sales rival in the mid-size LCV market.

The fifth-generation Ford Transit also joined our mix in Australian-market Custom specification, boasting impressively car-like comfort and safety spec.

Newest of all, however – and, in fact, officially launched in Australia only on the final day of Delivery’s Van of the Year testing extravaganza – was Renault’s new Trafic.

Significantly upgraded over the model that’s been gaining sales traction here for a couple of years now, this new Trafic brings new-gen diesels – including the twin-turbo 2.0-litre in the L1H1 version we tested – and, like the Transit, a raft of car-like safety and convenience features. Headlining the latter are 14 well-thought-out storage bins in the cabin and a Transformer-style ‘desk’ arrangement you access by flipping down the centre seat backrest. Clever.

Medium-Van_OTY_9Over our test loop, the Transit Custom shone early with a combination of decent urge available in most conditions via its 2.2-litre diesel/six-speed manual drivetrain, bulkhead-enhanced cabin ambience and nicely compliant ride over all but bounce-inducing and broken bitumen.

However, points were deducted for the Transit’s relatively lacklustre ascent of the aptly named Mount Misery. In fact, most judges felt it simply was underpowered.

As they say in the classics, you don’t need to be Einstein to understand why the HiAce sells in such huge numbers. After all, Toyota’s aggressive fleet pricing and enviable reputation for reliability count for much in light-commercial land. However, let’s just say the HiAce SLWB definitely was the short straw in this company.

Hyundai’s iLoad put in a stellar performance in most disciplines, as did the Transporter, although both were compromised in terms of cabin ambience by the fact they lacked a sound-deadening bulkhead.

But it was the freshly minted Trafic that stole the limelight – and the trophy. At the risk of flogging a tired cliché, in so many regards the Trafic felt car-like to drive – especially equipped as it was with the test vehicle’s sporty, six-speed manual shifter that fell so nicely to hand at not much higher than knee level. And, in terms of practicality, the Trafic ticked most boxes on the judges’ road test evaluation sheets, and then some.

Combine all that with the mid-size Renault’s impressive roll call of active and passive safety features, claimed 20 percent improved fuel economy and downright agreeable driveability, and you’re definitely looking at a class winner.

The Trafic looks next-gen and, in manual form at least, it delivers on that promise. Meet Delivery Magazine’s praiseworthy 2015 Mid-Size Van of the Year.

Stuart Martin:

A wide variation of driving pleasure still exists in the medium van segment.

Time is not on Toyota’s side, and the HiAce has been overtaken – overflown even – by the rest of the market.

Sitting on top of the engine does little to enhance entry and exit ease, nor does it do much for headroom whilst getting behind the wheel.

Pedal placement also suffers for the steering column positioning, and, while the view forward helps having previous little front overhang, that same absence doesn’t bode well for an impact.

And yet this veteran toiler for Toyota represents almost half – yes, 40 percent or thereabouts – of the van segment in which it competes, thanks to cheap fleet deals, reliability and reputation.Medium-Van_OTY_7

The van sector is one of the light-commercial realm’s sales highlights – starting the year off with a sales rate just over 9 percent up on its 2014 performance, which totalled 15,890 sales, a 2.2 per cent improvement on its 2013 tally.

But the veteran Toyota workhorse is fast falling behind more adept vehicles like the Hyundai iLoad, which offers a more recent configuration, as well as better outputs.

Where the Toyota still wins out is cargo space – more than almost all the other vans being sampled here in the medium segment – its four-speed auto drivetrain and compromised cabin handicap it.

The iLoad is offered in six-speed manual or five-speed auto (one ratio more than the HiAce), and, while it shares the same 100 kW power output, the big Korean has an extra 43 Nm when selected with a manual, or 125 kW and 441 Nm when teamed with the five-speed auto, not to mention a longer warranty and wider service intervals.

The Hyundai’s cabin layout is more open – although it misses out on storage compared to the Ford and Renault – but both the iLoad and HiAce on test came with a vertical tailgate that makes loading a pallet on a forklift problematic.

VW’s Transporter trumps its Korean and Japanese opposition for a DSG seven-speed automated manual and (probably as a result) fuel economy, but again arrived for evaluation with a vertical tailgate as opposed to the optional barn doors. All the contenders in this comparison claim enough space between the rear wheel arches to take a palletised load. But the VW is the only one in the medium field of vans in this contest that jumps the $40,000 barrier yet misses out on simple features like a USB input.

Ford’s Transit doesn’t usurp any of the aforementioned on outputs (with 92 kW and 350 Nm), but sharper pricing, fuel economy and a warranty period equal to the iLoad bring the Turkish-built Ford back into contention.

The Blue Oval’s smaller Transit feels the more cohesive package – particularly when driven back-to-back with its larger sibling and the opposition – thanks to a well-developed suspension system that plants it comfortably on the road and a cabin that is well insulated from the drivetrain and ambient noise.

It needs to be worked a little more than some of the others but it has been given the gearshift with which to do it, as well as having rear barn doors for easier forklift loading and an integrated roof rack. The Ford and Hyundai both have 12-month/15,000 service intervals with capped-price servicing.Medium-Van_OTY_5

The French connection has been renewed with enthusiasm by way of the Renault Trafic, which has 103 kW and 340 Nm (270 of which is on offer from 1250 rpm, says Renault), a six-speed manual gearbox and road manners to make using it enjoyable.

Time will tell if the absence of a full-fluid automatic or QuickShift automated manual will hinder the French van’s scope – or that of the manual-only Transit Custom – for sales potential in an auto-addicted Australian market, but it’s less of an issue on the LCV segment.

Taller drivers are able to get comfortable in the Trafic, with a reasonable range of seat movement despite the presence of a bulkhead, and the reach’n’rake adjustable leather-wrapped steering wheel and a height-adjustable seat helps as well.

The cabin has plenty of storage, as well as a useful centre fold-down console and a decent loadspace (which can be locked independently from the cabin), with five cubic metres of space through the 180-degree opening “barn” rear doors and a 1200 kg payload rating.

The French workhorse has a strong safety features list that includes auto wipers and headlights, stability and traction control, rear sensors, and a reversing camera (in the mirror), which will also please the work safety crew, while the 12 months/30,000 km service interval will make the fleet managers happy.

Kurt Grossrieder

The requirements for fleet application can produce a different set of parameters.

The medium van segment was a much more closely run contest, with five models to evaluate. Like it’s smaller sibling, the VW Transporter is functional and efficient but is also now showing its age before replacement later this year with the new T6.

Medium-Van_OTY_8Hyundai’s iLoad is an honest worker, and with its SBV (semi-bonnet) design it enables across cab movement of the driver, something not possible with the HiAce. It’s not surprising that many tradies moved into the iLoad, as the comfort, ride and handling levels are superior to the Toyota. It is, however, also now starting to show its age, especially when compared to the Ford Transit Custom.

All vans in this segment should have a sliding door alternative on both sides, as it is time consuming for a driver to walk around to the nearside to load or unload. Although available in other markets with a right-hand sliding door, Ford has not chosen to offer this for our market and this is a serious omission. In other respects the Transit Custom drives well and benefits from being more car-like. Another demerit mark is that an automatic version is not available and the driveline feels slightly over geared for stop/start driving.

The all-new Traffic is a revelation in the medium van world. It’s ride and driving characteristics are the best in class and the engine and gearbox are well matched, with smooth and slick gear changing. The model supplied for evaluation was 2.0-litre diesel with six-speed manual gearbox.

The market leading Toyota HiAce offers value for money with a large cargo area (in Super LWB form it rivals the large vans for cargo volume), but, in terms of ride and handling, driver comfort and vehicle dynamics, it lags behind the competition.

From a fleet safety perspective all the medium van contenders should offer reverse camera and rear parking sensoMedium-Van_OTY_5rs with a large screen display to minimise any chance of accident. Cargo barriers with vapour seals protect against anything that may be loose in the rear cargo area, mesh lining to the van sides offers protection from pin dents to the external surface and also offers unlimited points to secure items. Barn doors that fold back against the side of the panel van enable forklift use, but width between the wheel arches needs to be sufficient for a standard pallet, something that is not always the case.

Summation:

The all-new Renault Trafic impresses from the outset with immediately better ride and handling characteristics, low interior noise levels and a high quality set of safety equipment. Renault has good reason to be pleased with its improving performance in market penetration, and its pricing is certainly sharp. A worthy winner of the Delivery Magazine Medium Van of the Year Award for 2015.

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