Small by Design

We compare the small van segment of the market and find out what’s new in the zoo

Europe is literally full of them, but, for Australia, the small van syndrome still hasn’t really expanded to anywhere near its full potential. Perhaps the Australian big car preference works the same with the van market, or perhaps it’s just a lack of knowledge of the segment, given the fact that the importers all spend their advertising dollars on the passenger cars in their range, leaving the light commercials to fend for themselves.

Analysing the first half of 2010 at least highlights which of the smaller freight shifters is doing the best business in a market segment where (alphabetically), the Citroen Berlingo competes with the Holden Combo, the Peugeot Partner, the Renault Kangoo, the Suzuki APV and finally the Volkswagen Caddy.

In total market terms, this small van segment is worth a total of just 2029 units, and over half of this number (1116) are comprised of Volkswagen Caddy registrations. Interestingly, the Caddy is not the cheapest priced on the market, neither is it twice the vehicle of its competitors. So what makes the difference? We’d suggest marketing expertise. Combo-2 Combo

Volkswagen is an experienced purveyor of light commercial vehicles. Its sales force thinks, eats, sleeps and dreams about light commercials, and, consequently, the Caddy and its derivatives get suitable exposure. Not that there’s anything wrong with its competitors, but, in the grand scale of competitive analysis, they all blend into a known indifference on the part of their importers.

The Berlingo managed 227 sales in the first half of the year, beaten by Holden’s Combo with 356 registrations. Peugeot retailed just 20 Partners, ahead of the lowest placed performer, the Renault Kangoo. Into this model mix comes the flat fronted Suzuki APV which managed a creditable 148 registrations. And we say creditable because all the APV competition is car-derived vans with passenger car levels of comfort. The Suzuki APV, with its typically cab-over-engine design layout, is the least car-like, but offers the best available use of space within its overall dimensions.

Comparing the first half of this year with the same period of 2009 sees a gain of 68 sales for the Berlingo which goes against a drop of 111 for the Combo. Partner sales dropped 13 units but Renault dropped a depressing 246 units, suggesting that Renault’s head office in Dandenong is now concentrating on the new model based on the Renault Scenic platform and due for release in October.   The Suzuki APV also dropped sales substantially, down by 141 units.

What these figures also suggest is not only how the market views new purchases, but also indicates how the market will view your light van when the time comes for replacement. Resale values on the Caddy remain high, but that’s probably not going to be the case if you choose the lesser performing variants.

Having set the scene for van comparisons in this feature, we’ll dwell on the Citroen Berlingo. This attractive van is based on the C4 Picasso. An interior space of 3.3 cubic metres for the short van version is eclipsed by a longer version that tops out at a volume of 3.7 cubic metres. There are two engines on offer, a 1.6-litre, 16-valve petrol four-cylinder and a 1.6-litre diesel, and both produce a maximum power rating of 66 kW. Known as the L1 and L2, and obviously lackCitreon-Belingo_2ing marketing imagination when it comes to names, both the differing volumes are accommodated within the same 2,728 mm wheelbase. What differs here is that the L2 version has an overhang 248 mm longer than the L1. Payloads for the L1 are set at 850 kg, while for the heavier L2 it is reduced to 750 kg.

Dimensionally, each Berlingo variant can accommodate two ISO pallets, thanks to a load compartment length of 1,800 mm for the L1 and 2,050 mm for the L2. The width between the wheelarches is 1,229 mm and across the cargo area it’s 1,620 mm.

Standard equipment on the Berlingo is extensive. As well as a driver’s side SRS airbag, the Berlingo comes with cruise control, air conditioning, remote central locking, powered front windows, power mirrors and a heat-reflecting windscreen. The steering wheel is adjustable for height and reach and the van has an external temperature sensor, useful for determining just how icy the road might be if you live in the mountains. If you really want to option up, there are additional goodies that include a Bluetooth hands-free phone kit, rear parking sensors, automatic rain sensitive wipers and auto actuation of headlamps. Safety increases with side and lateral airbags, and you can get tyre pressure sensors, Electronic Stability Programme (ESP) and Traction Control (ASR).

Combo-4Having said that both the petrol and diesel engines produce an identical power output of 66 kW, the petrol manages this figure at 5,500 rpm while the diesel proves itself at 4,000 rpm, and backs it with a torque rating of 215 Nm at 1,750 rpm, compared to the petrol motor with its 132 Nm rated at 2,500 rpm. Both engines share five-speed manual transmissions, MacPherson strut front suspension with coil springs and hydraulic dampers, and independent trailing arms suspension with coil springs and dampers at the rear.

For once the diesel engine is the one to go for in terms of performance. 0-100 km/h comes up in 13.9 seconds, 7.2 seconds faster than the petrol version. It also creams it in for fuel economy, with a combined figure of 5.8 l/100 km compared with the petrol engine at 8.2 l/100 km.

With its rear barn doors including heated rear windows and wash/wipe, the interior of the Berlingo’s load space is protected to waist height by panelling, and there’s a ladder frame cargo retention barrier to protect the driver from parcels heading north when under heavy braking.

If you need additional load length, the passenger seat folds forwards, adding two cup holders and providing a flat work surface that can be used for writing or checking a laptop. If you go for the Extenso cabin option, the central seat folds flat to provide a desk function.

Berlingo is easy to drive, comfortable and has certainly enough performance on hand to keep its drivers happy. Caddy has a larger engine and transmission range from which to choose. The Combo is a bit breathless, but its 1.4-litre engine matches the 66 kW of the Citroen, even though it’s a little down on the torque stakes at 125 Nm. There’s a new Kangoo model heading this way which might also explain why current sales are, frankly, appalling, and Renault seems to have lost interest. If you head for the Suzuki, you’ll be saving a few thousand dollars but you’ll be losing out on your creature comforts.

Light vans have a lot to offer. You just have to find the one that’s right for you.

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