TALL ORDERS

The Quest for the Delivery Magazine Large Van of the Year

The first quarter of this year sees growth in the large van segment after a period of stagnation through the previous two years where the market settled at the 14,000-unit mark.

Already the VFacts registration statistics (YTD April) are showing 4,580 units, and with new products from Iveco with the Daily, Renault with the Master, Fiat’s Ducato and Ford’s Transit VO, the new arrivals polarise attention to this segment amongst potential buyers.

Large-Van-OTY_14In the same way as VW grew the small van segment with Caddy, growth in the large van segment can be attributed to Mercedes-Benz with the Sprinter, winner of the Delivery Van of the Year Award for 2014.

Sprinter is currently holding 21 percent of this segment, ahead of the Isuzu N-Series, traditionally the leader of the light truck brigade, which lags behind by less than 2 percentage points.

Delivery foresees a strategic shift in emphasis from the cabover light truck, complete with tough chassis and bespoke tray or pantech’ body, towards the higher levels of sophistication and driver comfort afforded by the platoons of European vans assailing our shores.

This is a world of fluid automatics and automated manual gearboxes versus the simpler and lower priced manual gearboxes. Sprinter has the 7G-TRONIC fluid auto and is now challenged by the all-new Iveco Daily with its eight-speed ZF fluid auto now available.

Large-Van-OTY_11VW’s Crafter is due for replacement in 2016 after concluding its joint manufacturing venture with Mercedes-Benz, which relied on the Sprinter heading down the same production line as Crafter. Although both brands shared the body design, engines and transmissions were separately provided by the individual marques. There is some suggestion that the replacement Crafter, to be built at a new production facility in Poznan, Poland, could be also badged as MAN. This is the result of influence from the newly-formed VW Heavy Commercial Group headed by Andreas Renschler, as it brings together the brands of VW, MAN and Scania.

IVECO’s new Daily range comes into our market wearing the crown of International Van of the Year, confirmation of its abilities by a judging panel representing the top European commercial vehicle publications.

Renault is also fighting hard for market share with its Master, gaining nearly 9 percent of the segment and doubling its performance by comparison with the first quarter of last year. Fiat’s Ducato is also scoring new friends, with a sales performance matching that of Ford, with each brand holding 6 percent of market share.

So there you have it, a synopsis of the large van contenders. Now read on to find just which brand reigns supreme in this category.

There were surprises – and disappointments – aplenty during this year’s Delivery Magazine Large Van of the Year shoot-out as Chris Gable found.

When the going gets bulky – and underground carpark and loading bay height restrictions no longer apply – the tough get tall. In simple terms, that’s the philosophy behind large commercial vehicles.Large-Van-OTY_4

Just as it is for their less-lanky mid-sized brethren, demand for large vans is strong. And there’s a good chance that’s due in – ahem – large part to the inexorable rise of internet shopping. After all, those zillions of parcels zooming interstate and worldwide at the click of a mouse or ‘return’ button need to finally arrive at their end-user destinations somehow.

Plus, of course, there always have been – and always will be – awkwardly tall items that don’t require a tail-lift and, perhaps because they’re also fragile, are better suited to being manhandled into skyscraping light commercials, anyway. You get the picture?

Back this year to defend its 2014 Delivery Large Van of the Year title was the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, here in 713 mid-wheelbase specification. Still bristling with the outstanding safety features – including the impressive Crosswind Assist – ride comfort, fuel economy and drivability that helped it claim last year’s title, it was going to be a hard act to follow.

Up against the big Benz was the latest iteration of VW’s Crafter, here in bi-turbo 35 TDI340 MW form and boasting a raft of safety features including ESP, ABS, ASR, EDL, Emergency Brake Signal and Hill-hold Assist.

Large-Van-OTY_12Ford’s latest Transit VO, launched last year, also brought new technology with it, including stability control with rollover mitigation and driver, passenger, side and curtain airbags, together with the SYNC voice-activation system.

The Renault Trafic’s ‘big-brother’ Master was in twin-turbo L2H1 specification, now with stop/start tech, new safety features including Trailer Swing Assist, and impressive driver convenience features.

Fiat’s new Ducato Extra LWB, launched here late last year, also brought safety gear including standard ESC with rollover mitigation and Load and Centre of Gravity Detection (LAC), reversing sensors and hill hold. It also brought such driver convenience items as Bluetooth and MP3 playback and a new five-inch touchscreen.

Also from Italy came IVECO’s new-to-Oz Daily vans in both 35S17 and supersized 50C17 specs. Packed with impressive new tech, the big IVECOs were expected to be this year’s headline acts. However, both Daily variants instead proved this year’s first disappointments.

On paper, the mighty Daily is mightily impressive. And apparently it verified that claim on the smooth-surfaced main loop of Victoria’s Anglesea Proving Ground, where its Australian media launch was held this year. However, while smooth in some sections, Delivery Magazine’s 25 km test loop for both Ute of the Year and Van of the Year evaluations is decidedly ‘un-smooth’ in others. In other words, it’s representative of the types of surfaces encountered on real-world Aussie roads.

Large-Van-OTY_10And that’s what brought the big IVECOs unstuck. Though bristling with promising technology – including the capacity to house CNG storage and hybrid battery packs underfloor without impacting on their considerable load capacities – both Daily variants proved unexpectedly unsettled and noisy on the bumpy, broken bitumen sections their competitors mostly took in their stride. Had it not been for their suspension seats, the driving experience in both Dailys truly would have been intolerable.

All of which is a shame. We’re convinced the big IVECOs have the goods to mix it with most of the Large Van of the Year contenders they were pitched against this year. However, in our opinion, they’re in need of the careful attention of a competent chassis development team capable of properly ‘Australianising’ them for our roads.

What also surprised us about this year’s Large Van of the Year contest was the fact that, although optional on some, none of the contenders came fitted with a reversing camera as standard. And, frankly, they should be mandatory. Perhaps ironically, the only contender on test sporting a camera was IVECO’s big-daddy 50C17, and the unit was an aftermarket job mounted on the dashboard for evaluation purposes by IVECO itself. We applaud IVECO for at least attempting to address an important safety issue that, shamefully, our ADRs don’t.

While impressive in so many other ways, the Ducato was undoubtedly hamstrung in this year’s LVOTY contest by the sluggish six-speed Comfort-Matic transmission that’s standard on LWB and ELWB variants.

The Transit and Master also impressed, especially in terms of their car-like levels of driver comfort. And the Crafter was well in contention but again disadvantaged by its transmission, in its case a close-gated six-speed manual ‘box that’s geared too high, presumably in the name of fuel economy. We stalled it several times simply trying to get it underway.Large-Van-OTY_9

But in the final analysis none of the others could quite match last year’s winner, and the Sprinter regained its crown in convincing fashion. Apart from those award-winning attributes that wowed us last year, Benz’s big van again stood out for its solid build quality and the fact it’s just so obviously well thought out and fit for purpose. The 7G-TRONIC fluid automatic transmission is a stand out that simplifies city driving and reduces fatigue.

All hail Delivery’s resounding back-to-back Large Van of the Year victor.

Stuart Martin and the search for the best overall package

The serious load-lugger vans of the Australian new vehicle market have cargo bays bigger than some Sydney studio apartments, not to mention being substantially cheaper to buy.

The heavy commercial side of the sales equation – between three and eight tonnes GVM – is up 14 percent so far this year, led in the sales race by four of the key products vying for the title on offer.

Crafter, Master, Sprinter and Transit are all returning sales figures well up on their 2014 tallies, and the IVECO product is on the ground with an eight-speed automatic so expect a bump in sales there.

Sadly, for the Blue Oval, the bigger Ford Transit feels underpowered even when only hauling a small chunk of the maximum 1295 kg payload – when viewed in light of its key opposition, 114 kW and 385 Nm is short of the mark – given the Transit (at least in Europe) once had the 3.2-litre five-cylinder now seen in the Ranger, it feels even more pedestrian.

It does offer a good list of safety features (four airbags, stability control and the automatic emergency alert system) as well as a useful payload and space, but it’s by no means the best here.

The features list is well stocked, once you get over the absence of an auto (if a little messy and complex in dashboard design), with a five-year warranty and capped-price servicing, but there are more effective tools here for a lower asking price.

The Fiat is a monster size mover of freight and it has much to like – plenty of power at 130 kW as well as 400 Nm of torque, a solid payload just shy of two tonnes and a load space of 15 cubic metres easily accessed by rear barn doors that fold almost flush with the side of the van.Large-Van-OTY_5

At $52,000, it’s at the lower end of the prices being asked for within the large van field here, but it’s let down by a ponderous automated manual gearbox and the underdone cabin.

The Volkswagen is one of several to make the Fiat (and IVECO) price tags look a little optimistic – $48,200 buys 105 kW and 340 Nm (but only a six-speed manual), 1500 kg of payload and 9 cubic metres in this guise, but thankfully it has a pair of rear doors to make the most of its space, unlike the smaller Transporter.

Drivetrain aside, it’s a similar beast to the Merc but the cabin set-up is far less useable than the Benz.

Comparable in many respects, the big Volkswagen doesn’t cover rough roads with the same level of composure as its second cousin, nor does it have quite the level of safety features.

Much was promised by the new Italian rep, but three things went against it – a steep asking price, flimsy fit and finish and a second-rate ride.

Launched to the Australian media at a proving ground just days before this round of testing, the smooth bitumen flattered the ride quality of both IVECOs – it’s not difficult to see why the suspension driver’s seat is standard range-wide.Large-Van-OTY_7

What needed no flattery was the drivetrain – the eight-speed ZF auto is a smooth and clever transmission and it made good use of the 125 kW and 430 Nm in the 35S17 and in the much larger 50C17 sibling, but both the mid-range and full-size IVECO representatives priced themselves – at almost $63,000 and just shy of $70,000 – out of contention.

French brand Renault was close to taking it from a daily double to a trifecta with the Master, such was the ease of operation with an (optional) reversing camera, standard rear parking sensors, rear barn doors opening to 270 degrees to access in this instance a 10.8 cubic metre loadspace and a useable and comfortable cabin.

Being sampled in manual guise instead of the QuickShift auto option (no longer available on the smaller Trafic) was far from an issue, with the easy gearshift part of an overall driving experience that belied the van’s size.

Punching harder than the numbers of 120 kW and 360 Nm from the small 2.3-litre turbodiesel would suggest, the steering was well weighted and the Renault had shrunk around the driver.

Large-Van-OTY_20But the leading sales contender for the segment has achieved that top spot for a reason – the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter is a first-rate all-rounder, and at $53,690 slides in well below less competent opposition.

Safety is key among the reasons why the big Benz has taken top spot – the Cross Wind Assist heads a list of electronic safety aids that make the Sprinter an easy drive regardless of adverse conditions. Stability control, blind spot and lane departure warning, a brake disc drying system and the availability of collision prevention system all add up to an impressive safety CV.

The drivetrain is not the most powerful in the segment but its optional seven-speed auto makes intelligent use of 120 kW and 360 Nm on offer, carting a 1.5-tonne payload in this instance within 10-cubic-metre loadspace, and the driver gets an easy and informative cabin from which to work.

The defending titleholder is a star of the segment. There’s a reason the three-pointed star is on the snout of more vans in the heavy segment than any other logo – it’s the best overall package and that’s why it has taken a triple-treat of Van of The Year titles.

Large-Van-OTY_10Kurt Grossrieder

The large van segment was again closely contested and this year features two completely new model releases, being the IVECO Daily and the Ford Transit VO.

The new Daily offers the most power in the class. Coupled with the eight-speed ZF transmission that’s established a great reputation in the passenger car segment with brands such as Jaguar, Range Rover and Maserati, it will handle the load with ease. On paper the Daily looks the pick, but on the road it lacks refinement in the suspension, offering only average ride quality.

Standardised features on vans in this large sized category should copy our suggestions for those in the medium sector, namely by offering both near side and offside sliding doors, reverse cameras and rear parking sensors, cargo and vapour barriers, plus rear barn doors that open back against the van body etc.

Many units within this category will be used as more than courier vans that carry parcels. Generally speaking, they can be utilised to carry bulk palletised freight with more frequency than occurs with medium-size vans.

Vans and forklifts in close proximity are not a good match for each other, and damages frequently occur during the loading and unloading process. The risk of damage is less likely with a more traditional light truck with a pantech body than with a van as the door surrounds and coaming rails are designed with this in mind. Along with dock rubbers fitted to the rear, the likelihood of damage is reduced.

The rear doors on the VW Crafter and Ford Transit did not open all the way back. This, in a fleet operation, will result in damages from forklifts and dock loading situations.

The market-leading Mercedes-Benz Sprinter that continues to gain over 20 percent of the total market in this category has once again taken the top honours. The unit tested was fitted with the driver safety pack (term TBC), with lane departure warning and blind spot warning etc. Any safety feature that will reduce the likelihood of damage to vehicles and other road users should be standard equipment across the class.Large-Van-OTY_1

The driveline package with a fluid automatic to reduce fatigue, along with the Mercedes Benz after-sales service and low cost of ownership, pump this unit to the top spot in the large van awards for 2015.

Summation:

The Europeans seem to prefer manual gearboxes, hence the non-availability of an automatic transmission in Ford’s Transit. Fitting a robotised or automated manual gearbox (AMT) as an alternative just doesn’t cut it with Australian buyers in this segment. They work brilliantly in heavy trucks, but the added rpm spread available in a light commercial makes for a stutter-and-stumble approach when changing ratios.

IVECO moved away from AMTs, adopting the excellent eight-speed ZF automatic. This rivals the Sprinter with its 7G-TRONIC, but there’s little difference in ability between the two, both giving seamless shifts.

Every model in this segment should feature reversing cameras and rear parking sensors as standard, but they don’Large-Van-OTY_17t – testimony perhaps to some last-minute price sensitivity on the part of the importer.

As mentioned by our judges, there’s work to be done to localise suspension performance on the new IVECO to suit Australian road surfaces if it’s going to take up the challenge to beat Benz and VW at the peak of their game. Meanwhile, Renault and Fiat also have appeal, together with the Transit, although the latter could benefit from a power and torque increase.

Against this tough competition Sprinter continues to hold the crown of Delivery Magazine’s Large Van of the Year Award for yet another year. Its seamless gear changing, well performing engine, excellent ride and handling, and, above all, its wide ranging set of safety features, including cross wind assist, lane departure assist and adaptive cruise control set the standard the others have to follow.

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