Delivery looks for the best in the light-van category through the eyes of six judges
As the head of the judicial panel, contributing editor Stuart Martin provides his overview of the four contenders facing off for the small-van title, including the award’s defending titleholder, Renault’s Kangoo.
In this four-way contest, each of the participants carried 300 kg of ballast in the load bay and was driven by each of the six-member judging panel over the same 25 km road loop. As road surfaces go in NSW, the route covered a mix of rough low-speed bitumen, faster open roads and pockmarked split dual-lane carriageways bearing the national open road speed limit.
The Kangoo is more than familiar to the Delivery judging panel, having been a resident long-termer on evaluation with the magazine, and the expectation of a comfortable ride, good forward vision, comfortable seats and a relaxed demeanour on the road was met.
Not endowed with the most powerful engine, the 81 kW/240 Nm 1.5-litre turbodiesel is deceptively flexible and is bolted to a six-speed manual that has a crisper shift than the outgoing model, and sub-5.0 l/100 km fuel economy claims are backed by the real-world experience.
A five-seater that can quickly convert to a van (as the seat folds flat easily), dual sliding side and barn-opening rear doors endear it to those loading it to the 750 kg payload (with a pallet fitting between the wheel arches) or its maximum 3400 litres of cubic capacity.
There’s a sat/nav system that is easy to see but not as easy to use, and the voice control button remains in an annoying spot, meaning your right knee can sometimes communicate with the world.
Fiat’s Doblo doesn’t offer the same expansive cabin and dashboard as the Renault, nor does it have the leather helm of the French vehicle, which follows the cheap trim trend started by the rest of the cabin.
Where the Fiat did come back in the running was with a ride quality worthy of mention, and handling that didn’t detract from its appeal either, but it’s not up to its French opposition in this segment.
Dual sliding side and rear barn doors (which are poorly laid out for rear visibility) allow good access to the rear cargo bay, rated at 663 kg for payload and 3.4 cubic metres.
The seating is more “on” than “in” – which might result in numb bum syndrome on a long run – and there’s only manual air-conditioning, and an infotainment system that is somewhat counterintuitive.
It all sits within a centre stack that is poorly laid out and rather difficult to use.
Where the Fiat’s downfall began is with its gearbox, a robotised five-speed manual that needs a sixth gear – 100 km/h is just above 2500 rpm, which is a bit too busy at cruise.
But it’s the ponderous nature of the gear change in auto and manual mode that blights what is a nice little power plant.
A conventional manual or automatic, with six gears, would better serve the 1.6-litre 66 kW/200 Nm turbodiesel four-cylinder and probably improve on the already-frugal 4.9 litres per 100 km fuel use claim.
The Berlingo in long-body guise holds up the other side of the French flag well enough, if feeling a little claustrophobic particularly in comparison to its compatriot.
Anyone beyond average height is going to be looking for a greater range of adjustment from the seat and wheel to get a decent driving position – the seating feels too close to the dash and taller drivers will feel hemmed in.
The centre stack layout is poorly displayed, a little dysfunctional, and not easy to navigate while driving – and having the power-window switches amid the buttons on the centre display and not on the doors is not an ideal position for them.
It’s powered by a 1.6-litre turbodiesel four-cylinder that offers 66 kW and 215 Nm but, like the Renault, is offered only in manual form.
It’s here that Citroen falls short on the cog count, with a five-speed manual. This is a nice gearbox to use but translates to a highway speed rev count around 2500 rpm, which is too busy for a comfortable cruise.
That also goes against it in the fuel economy stakes – the ADR number on the combined cycle is 5.7 litres per 100 km – and the optional six-speed automated manual claims 4.7, but automated manuals have not covered themselves in glory during this judging period.
A rear cargo capacity of 4.1 cubic metres is useful, and it too can take a pallet through rear barn doors and onto the floor between the wheelarches, up to a maximum 750 kg payload.
A plastic steering wheel and manual air-conditioning cheapen the Citroen’s cabin a little and the exterior mirrors are on the small side, but in-cabin storage is decent, as is the ride quality, which is close to the Renault.
The only petrol model here is the Volkswagen Caddy, and while it’s using a little more fuel in its peppy power plant, the DSG drivetrain works well.
The 1.4-litre, turbocharged, direct-injection petrol four-cylinder offers 92 kW and 220 Nm and has the stop-start fuel-saver system to claim 6.2 litres of premium ULP petrol on the combined cycle.
The absence of a diesel variant does take the sting out of Caddy’s appeal in this market segment, a problem that Volkswagen is working to resolve.
The diesel model was a victim of the company’s emissions scandal, and, whilst it has said it is working to resurrect the diesel Caddy, Volkswagen has put no timeframe on the return.
On the plus side, it has a leather-wrapped steering wheel, but, on the debit side, has only manual air-conditioning and a sliding door only on the kerb side.
Road roar throughout the van body is more pronounced than any of its opposition, which does detract from the Caddy’s cabin, which is a clean and useful design.
In terms of on-road handling, the little Volkswagen was, however, upset more than the rest of the combatants in the segment by a mid-corner bump on the road loop.
Three of the four in this category have parking sensors at the rear, it’s an option on the Volkswagen, and only the Citroen has a reversing camera, in lieu of sensors.
The Citroen has only a driver’s airbag, while the Fiat, Volkswagen and the Renault have dual-front and front-side airbags.
Self confessed Volkswagen devotee, Rob Randazzo, makes his appraisal of the smaller contenders in the Van of the Year contest.
Volkswagen began the small-van trend when it created the Caddy, but for Delivery’s testing to find the best of the best we were supplied with three other brands to complete against the pioneer. Two of the tested vans were manual, two were auto, three were two-seaters, one had enough seats for four passengers to accompany the driver, three were diesel powered, and one drank petrol (thanks to Dieselgate).
I was disappointed with the Fiat Doblo’s automatic “robotised” gearbox, which had a distinct delay between gear changes. The Doblo also had the lowest torque rating of the test vans, was noisier, and, at 2300 rpm, was the highest revving at 90 km/h. Unfortunately, the little Fiat did not make my top three.
The Citroen Berlingo, in long-body guise at $31,380 (drive away) with an excellent five-speed manual gearbox, produced 66 kW at 4000 rpm and 215 Nm of torque at 1500 rpm. It had 60/40 barn doors at the rear and two sliding side doors into the cargo area, which had a maximum volume of 4100 litres. Payload is an impressive 750 kg, so our test Berlingo, like the other vans, was loaded to a little under half maximum. The Berlingo is a zippy performer, and the 1.6-litre diesel engine sat comfortably on 2100 rpm at 90 km/h, pulled very strongly in fourth gear up most hills, and consumes diesel at a rate of 5.7 l/100 km.
Due to Volkswagen’s recent corporate emissions “problems”, the Caddy was the only petrol-powered small van to compete in our evaluation. However, the Caddy’s new 1.4-litre, turbo-petrol engine works very well with its seven-speed DSG auto transmission, and Caddy still remains Australia’s top-selling small van. Punching out 92 kW of power at 4800 rpm, and 220 Nm of torque from 1500 up to 3500 rpm, this little load carrier is hanging in there, despite the cloud of shame hovering over its manufacturer. Our test van had a load volume of 3200 litres, payload of 774 kg and will make your wallet lighter by $33,891 (drive away).
The small van that impressed me the most was, by far, the Renault Kangoo Maxi Lifestyle. This van was the most expensive tested in this segment at $34,120 (drive away), but it also combined exceptional versatility with performance and practicality. Able to carry a load volume of 1300 litres along with the driver and four passengers (as long as you do not exceed the 750 kg payload), it quickly converts to a larger load-carrying volume of 3400 litres by dropping the rear three seats to form a single, flat, load surface. Our test Kangoo had 60/40 barn doors at the rear, sat/nav, climate-control air-conditioning, excellent lighting and plenty of tie-down anchors in the rear, plus two sliding doors with windows into the cargo/rear-seat area. The responsive little 1.5-litre turbo-diesel engine creates 81 kW at 4000 rpm and 240 Nm at a low 1750 rpm (about 90 km/h in sixth gear), while sipping fuel at just 4.7-l/100 km. The Kangoo handled every aspect of Delivery’s real-world test route perfectly. What more could you ask for?
Journalist Chris Gable joins with the judging team with these observations
Practical, drivable and versatile, these tasty Europeans were each worthy contenders in this year’s Delivery Magazine Small Van of the Year category
Australia’s thriving small van market remains a continental affair. Two French, one German and, this year, one Italian contender offer well-thought-out urban and inter-urban compact delivery vans with flair.
The good news is that the worthy contenders for this year’s Delivery Magazine Small Van of the Year Awards also are eminently practical and, thankfully, enjoyably drivable. If you’re going to be doing mainly city drops over long days, it obviously helps if your drive at least has an element of fun about it.
And that’s mostly the case with this year’s Small Van of the Year contenders. They can be enjoyable to drive, they’re right-sized and easily manoeuvrable for urban work, and, in the case of one contender – and last year’s category winner, Renault’s quirky Kangoo Maxi Crew – family friendly.
Enter, stage right, the French Kangoo, together with the equally French (and even-quirkier) Citroen Berlingo, VW’s updated Caddy (the small van that really kick-started the category, here obviously in commercial spec) and Fiat’s pretender to the Caddy’s throne, the interesting and oddly named Doblo.
First up drive this year was last year’s small van winner, Renault’s tres chic and impressively practical Kangoo Maxi Crew, this time obviously in 2016 spec.
Last year we liked its fold-flat second-row seats, each provided with a decent-sized side window to please even “are-we-there-yet?” pre-teen kids on weekend family outings. Importantly, we also liked its car-like drivability, a bonus if you’re going to be doing 10-12-hour days making anything from 100 to 150 customer drop-offs per day.
The Kangoo’s chassis is well sorted. On twisty bitumen, it sits on the road nicely (although one judge genuinely disliked it; see below). Its 1.5-litre diesel four is willing and the short-throw six-speed manual gearbox is well matched to it. The elephant in the room in that last sentence is that the Maxi Crew Kangoo comes only with manual transmission – albeit a good one, although a deal-breaker for some fleet buyers.
However, with an extra 100 kg to tote – this year a more real-world standard 300 kg for the small vans (positioned too far back in our test vehicle in order to show off the rear seats) – the Kangoo definitely lost some of its sparkle. Delivery judge and TNT national fleet and equipment manager, Kurt Grossrieder, even declared he’d fallen out of love with the diminutive Renault, perhaps unkindly dubbing it the “SS Kangoo”, because to him it felt all-at-sea. Kurt adjudged the revamped Caddy best in category, but had to then rule it out of contest due to the lack of a diesel engine under the bonnet making it unsuitable for fleet work. Most other Delivery Magazine judges liked it too, but preferred the Kangoo on points.
Much improved inside and out, the Caddy is an impressive generational step over its predecessor. Its interior feels even more Golf-like, and the flat-bottomed steering wheel now comes with plentiful, and sensibly arranged, wheel-mounted controls.
Its load-carrying credentials remain beyond reproach, and its 1.4-litre, four-cylinder, TSI petrol engine is matched to the latest iteration of VW’s seven-speed DSG.
Editor Chris Mullett isn’t a fan of DSGs and was turned off by the seven-speed one in the Caddy. Others didn’t mind it.
The manual-only long-bodied Citroen Berlingo was generally accepted as an improved, appealing small delivery van.
Yes, it’s even quirkier than its fellow-French Renault Kangoo, especially inside the cabin. In fact, a common criticism of the Berlingo concerned the layout of dashboard-mounted switches and controls. Judges felt the arrangement simply wasn’t logical, especially if you’re going to be stepping out of it into more conventional vehicles on your day/days off. (Sure, locating and utilising those controls soon would become second nature to its driver, but would take some learning.)
No one argued the Berlingo’s get-up-and-go. Its 1.6-litre diesel four definitely is willing, although most judges agreed it needed a sixth gear, rather than just five. Some just didn’t like its on-road manners on the 80-100 km/h test loop stretches, others did.
And then came the Fiat Doblo…
There’s a lot to like about the oddly named Doblo, its diesel 1.6-litre inline four-cylinder felt robust and willing negotiating Delivery’s often-demanding test loop on its aptly Italian Pirelli Chrono 195/60 tyres. Cargo capacity is good, and, like the other contenders in this category, accessible is via one-third/two-third split barn doors.
The Italian-quirky Doblo’s dynamics felt pretty good on the road, too. Its big drawback, however, was its decidedly, um, challenging automated manual gearbox. Obviously, you’d get used to it, but at first acquaintance the transmission gate seems just too complicated. When you do locate auto, changes are relatively sluggish. A few judges even gave up on the automated setting and shifted, sequential-manual style.
Yes, the Doblo is different, and it has some good qualities. But its biggest turn-off is its transmission. Fix that, Fiat, and you’ve got a future contender on your hands.
So Delivery’s call is, for the second year running, Kangoo, followed closely by a much-improved Caddy, then Berlingo and Doblo, the latter held back in the opinion of most judges by its user-unfriendly transmission.
TNT Express national fleet and equipment manager, Kurt Grossrieder, found a lot to like, and dislike, about this year’s Small Van of the Year contenders.
“I don’t like barn doors on small vans. Traditionally, we fleet managers don’t like barns doors because they make people think they can load the vehicle with a forklift, which makes it prone to forklift damage. However, fleet operational managers love them,” said Kurt.
“Give me a tailgate in a small van every time – although not this time. All four 2016 Delivery Small Van of the Year contenders have barn doors. Still, that’s not going to change the way they drive.
“First up test for me was the Caddy. Obviously, it’s a fleet favourite, and there’s a lot to like about this new one. It drives and steers well. In fact, it just does everything really well. I even liked its DSG gearbox.
“In my world, however, with only a petrol engine, it puts a black mark against it.
“Last year’s small van winner, Renault’s Kangoo, was next up, and, this time, it did nothing for me. In fact, I dubbed it the ‘SS Kangoo’, because I felt it wallowed around like a boat. Very disappointing.
“The Citroen Berlingo felt sloppy to me too, and down on power a bit. Come to think of it, it felt sloppy last year, too.
“The controls are terrible. There are no steering wheel controls, so, to do anything, you have to take your hands off the wheel. And the way the controls are laid out on the dashboard is illogical. You have to take your eyes off the road to find anything.
“This was my first experience of the Fiat Doblo, and I liked a lot of things about it. Its 1.6-litre diesel pulls pretty well. The ride’s acceptable, too. The controls are fine, and dash layout and the control position are both okay. But that terrible automated-manual transmission overrides everything else for me.
“What you have here is a torturous transmission! Changes are mushy and sluggish, and, half the time, it can’t make its mind up about which gear it wants to be in. I really don’t know how Fiat could put this van on the market like that.
“So, for me, it’s the Caddy. Its only drawback is the fact it’s petrol,” said Kurt.
Further Fleeting Impressions
His first taste of this year’s Small Van of the Year contenders left Australia Post and StarTrack national fleet manager, Terry Bickerton, underwhelmed. Thankfully, things got better.
“Talk about being thrown in at the deep end! My first-up drive on Delivery’s Van and Ute of the Year Awards was the little Fiat Doblo.
“I thought its NVH, ride and handling were all pretty well sorted, and the cabin space is great. It’s a really nice van spoiled by a tragic transmission. It’s probably the worst transmission I’ve ever driven. It can’t make up its mind, it doesn’t upshift when you want it to, and even the shifter pattern is odd.
“Other dislikes? You have to lean forward to adjust the side mirrors, and then you can’t see out of them properly while you’re doing it. And you can’t see the cruise controls because, like the Kangoo’s, they’re behind the steering wheel. Oh, and there’s no cup holder.
“I liked the Renault Kangoo. It’s a great little van. It’s comfortable, it’s quiet, it steers, and it turns. It’s well equipped, too.
“The only things I didn’t like about it were niggles, like the nearness of the footrest to the clutch pedal, meaning you could catch the side of your foot on it when changing gears, and the location of those side mirror adjustments. The torque curve is a little flat off the bottom. Other than that, it drives and rides well.
“I liked the Caddy, too. However, because it’s a petrol engine, with very little engine braking, it’s hard to compare it with some of the diesels here.
“The cabin is really car-like and comfortable. Everything is laid out well, and fit and finish is pretty good.
“The big disappointment for me on the drive was the way it was unsettled really badly by a couple of the big bumps on the test course. It got all out of shape for me on the mid-corner bump before Mount Misery.
“One thing I really didn’t like about it was the fact that, to reach the rear door latch, you have to stick your fingers down into the gooey hinge area, whereas all the others have a button, or plastic-covered latch of some description.
“The van itself is reasonably well mannered on the road, but the Citroen Berlingo’s dash layout is appalling – you have to reach right across the dash to get to the controls you need. Also, it was the only small van without a USB.
“Whether I’m buying 2 or 200 of anything, I’ll spend the money like it’s mine. And for my money, out of the four contenders for Small Van of the Year, I’d buy the Kangoo. It’s practical, versatile and fun to drive. I really liked it,” said Terry.
Editor Chris Mullett looks at the practicalities and appeal
Being part of a judging team can resemble trying to round up sheep in a paddock with six kelpies, each one thinking on a slightly different level in an effort to get the job done.
There’s no doubt that each of the contenders would easily please its owner, but, as in most appraisals, there’s one that stands out, and in this instance, for the second year running, it’s the Kangoo. This little Renault is the most versatile member of the quartet, with its fold-flat rear seat row moving it fast up the rankings. It’s a driver-friendly combination with a good gear-change, comfortable seats and a high specification of standard inclusions.
Caddy kick-started the interest in small vans, but the shift to a DSG transmission can introduce an annoying behaviour pattern in heavy traffic as the clutches engage and disengage to promote a squatting effect from the rear. Build quality is great, but a manual gearbox or fluid automatic would see it score higher in the overall ranking.