Delivery reports on what makes the grade in the quest for Van of the Year 2014

Short or long, low height or high roof, extended wheelbase or standard length, front or rear-wheel-drive, manual or automatic, petrol or diesel. Just what should the Australian van buyer be choosing and why? In this annual report on the vans available in the Australian market Delivery Magazine starts the conversation by considering safety as the first priority.

The crash safety rating of vehicles is becoming a fundamental inclusion when it comes to car selection. But the continuing testing of vehicles on a European and international scale really concentrates on passenger vehicles rather than light commercials. Even the title of the testing as Euro NCAP or ANCAP suggests, the “New Car Assessment Programme” is not treating the light commercial vehicle driver with the same level of importance as their urban dwelling, passenger-car driving, fellow human.

Despite the focus on authoritatively endorsed five-star safety on passenger vehicles, many of the light commercials on our market have not been tested. That leaves the buyer with a wide range of responsibilities, especially when designating a vehicle for fleet use. Where a national safety expectation exists, such as with Occupational Health and Safety legislation, it’s fair for an employee to assume the fleet purchase will reflect the stated safety levels of the vehicles available on the market when the time comes for vehicle selection.Vw-Transit

For the fleet manager, this assumption of vehicle safety should influence the vehicle selection, as placing the employee in a vehicle of sub-standard safety or with low-level crash injury prevention could constitute not taking the necessary steps to maintain the safest of workplaces.

In the quest for Delivery Van of the Year 2014, we cover the entire van population, staring with the small van sector that includes VW Caddy, Citroen Berlingo, Renault Kangoo, Peugeot Partner and Suzuki APV. There was a suggestion that Mercedes-Benz would be launching its small van contender, the Citan, into the Australian market earlier this year, but that project has now been shelved indefinitely, due to concerns over poor performance of crash safety testing results not being in line with desired MB standards.

For the medium sector we compare the Fiat Scudo, Ford Transit Custom, Hyundai iLoad, IVECO Daily, LDV V80, Mercedes-Benz Vito and Sprinter, the Mitsubishi Express, Peugeot Expert, Renault Trafic and Master, Toyota HiAce, and Volkswagen Transporter and Crafter.

In the large van segment it’s a closer run race with less competition, here including the Fiat Ducato, Ford Transit, Iveco Daily, LDV V80, Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, Renault Master, Toyota HiAce SLWB and Volkswagen Crafter.

This year we see a selection of new products heading for the Australian market but not yet available.

Renault’s Kangoo, Traffic and Master are all due for upgrade, as is the IVECO Daily range. Peugeot, Citroen and Fiat appear to be staying with their current designs and levels of technology. Ford is starting to introduce its completely new range across the entire LCV spectrum, but has so far only brought the Transit Custom to our shores. There’s also a new Toyota HiAce heading to our market in 2015.

Some companies appear to be avoiding the development of new products, and these include Mitsubishi and the Express, which some believe actually dates back to the days of Cobb & Co and the horse and cart of the American West. Suzuki’s APV is also almost as difficult to take seriously as a contender.

Hyundai arrived on the Australian market and within three years gained market leadership, knocking off the established brand leaders of Toyota and HiAce together with Ford’s Transit. Supply problems out of South Korea have seriously damaged the iLoad’s market penetration over the past 12 months, but, despite its obvious appeal, especially when compared to HiAce, it is now showing its age and is ready for a rethink.

The latest van to arrive on our market is the Ford Transit Custom. It’s arrived with great fanfare, largely due to glowing endorsements from the European market where it has gained various van of the year or fleet vehicle of the year accolades.

Ford Australia has seriously neglected the light commercial market over the past decade, to the extent that it appears to have lost its expertise when it comes to selecting the right product specifications for our market. There’s no doubting the Transit Custom, which incidentally comes with five-star crash safety rating, has the makings of being an excellent vehicle, but there are provisos involved with it achieving high-ranking market status.

The engine power and torque output selected for the Australian market is lower than that of other markets, and, frankly, it shows when you drive the vehicle. With anything approaching more than half payload, the performance is best described as doughy. There is no automatic transmission option, and the product planners have not included a sliding side load door on the offside, nor a tailgate option at the rear for Australian buyers, despite these being available overseas.

The interior cabin and dashboard design are very car-like, but there is no provision for an integral SAT/Nav unit to be incorporated in the dashboard. This is a fundamental omission, especially in a brand-new vehicle.

LDVThe Chinese automakers have now entered the Australian market with the LDV product produced by Chinese giant SAIC. There’s been a change of distributor recently to that of ATECO, and it’s fair to assume that the new management structure and additional experience of the ATECO group will help to grow the brand. That said, the LDV is essentially quite an old design dating back a decade or more, and, while low pricing will make it attractive, it’s not a leader in the technology or safety stakes.

In taking an overview of the small, medium and large van segments Delivery rates the Citroen Berlingo highly for offering a great little diesel engine in a very drivable package. It feels more up to date than the now relatively staid Caddy, and is altogether nicer to drive than the Peugeot Partner. How the new Kangoo increases the competition from Renault remains to be seen.

In the medium segment we still see the Hyundai iLoad as providing very good value for money. The Transit Custom, as mentioned previously, requires some easily managed fine-tuning to turn it from good to excellent. Fiat’s Scudo and Peugeot’s Expert are pleasant enough, but not overwhelming, and VW’s Transporter loses out to the Mercedes-Benz because of its DSG transmission not performing as well as the fluid alternative of the Vito.

No amount of fine-tuning will endear the HiAce to our test team – it’s outclassed in all areas except dealer ability and product support. We are looking forward to seeing just how well the design and engineering team at Renault have applied their expertise to create the new Trafic, which, incidentally, becomes the basis for Nissan and General Motors LCV products in European markets.

That moves us along now to the large van segment, and here we have the “Battle of the Biggies” with IVECO, Fiat, Ford, LDV, Mercedes-Benz, Renault and Volkswagen.

In Europe, it appears that manual gearboxes are the preferred options, but for the Australian market there’s little doubt about the universal acceptance of automatic transmissions. Delivery has driven just about every permutation of twin-clutch and standard AMT (Automated Manual Transmissions) and, when these are compared to full-fluid automatics, the AMTs lose out every time.

For those that have never driven an AMT, it works differently from a standard fluid automatic. Mechanically, the gearbox is a standard manual unit that has an automated change mechanism on the top of the gearbox that changes the gears below without intervention from the driver.

As it is essentially a manual gearbox, and in order to change gear ratios the engine has to power off, the selectors make the ratio change, then the engine powers on again.

In a fluid automatic the ratio shifts happen seamlessly, even if the driver maintains full power with the accelerator pedal depressed throughout the gear change. There is no power-off/power-on change to the engine and transmission. Where AMTs’ do work well is with heavy-truck models, where 12, 16 or 18-speed gearboxes are shifted by highly intelligent electronic control modules. When applied to six-speed gearboxes the shifts don’t seem to be as smooth or seamless, largely due to the higher revving smaller capacity engines.

Ford has yet to complete the introduction of its new Transit range, but in the past the company has suffered severely for not offering any form of automatic or AMT option. The same applies to Volkswagen with the Crafter, which only offers a six-speed manual gearbox throughout the range. Renault, Fiat and IVECO have stayed with AMT designs while Mercedes-Benz has stayed with fluid automatics.

Mercedes-Benz renewed its Sprinter at the end of last year and in so doing it upped the safety aspects to something approaching a stellar performance, especially when compared to some members of its competition. In order to reach increased production targets, it will no longer allow production-line sharing of its factories with Volkswagen, so the Crafter will now be supplied from an as yet to be built factory in Poland, near the home of the Caddy in Poznan.Sprinter

The new Sprinter is the world’s first van to meet the future Euro VI emissions standard in all of its engine variants, dramatically reducing the emission limits for nitrogen oxides (NOx), total hydrocarbons (THC), and particulate mass.

The performance of the diesel engines creates a broad choice for the buyer – between four- and six-cylinder units with outputs ranging from 95 hp (70 kW) to 190 hp (140 kW). As Australia moves to expand its distribution availability of natural gas, the Sprinter also offers a suitable 1.8-litre engine featuring direct injection that generates 115 kW.

The big plus for Sprinter is the 7G-TRONIC PLUS seven-speed automatic transmission with lock-up clutch, which is the only system of its kind to be found in a van. Add to this smooth shifting transmission five new assistance systems – including several van firsts – and you end up with one of the safest vans on the market.

The following systems are celebrating their world debut in the Sprinter: Crosswind Assist, which is fitted as standard; and Collision Prevention Assist and Blind Spot Assist, which are both optional. Other new features are Highbeam Assist and Lane Keeping Assist.

One of the functions of the Electronic Stability Program, Crosswind Assist is part of the vehicle’s range of standard equipment. Mercedes-Benz has also improved the Sprinter’s handling by lowering the chassis height. This has achieved the combined objective of reducing the van’s drag and fuel consumption and makes it easier to load and unload cargo.

In terms of current vehicle specifications, safety and availability, the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter heads the list.

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