The Citroen Relay, Peugeot Boxer and Fiat Ducato - all the same model but with different badges and variants - go on sale this month but it was Citroen which stole a march on the other manufacturers by hosting a press driving day last week at its Slough headquarters, giving British journalists their first chance to assess the new van on the road.
Citroen van sales rocketed last year. Berlingo - which won the light van of the year prize at this year's Fleet News Awards - was up 25% on 2000 and old Relay, in its run-out year, rose an amazing 42%.
Some of this success was down to Citroen's aggressive pricing policy and special deals and in a bid to steal sales from its French and Italian partners, new Relay will be offered from launch on April 19 with cashback deals of between £1,250 and £1,500. Using the old adage 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it', Citroen has kept all the best features of the old Relay and has - as commercial vehicle operations manager John Hargreaves told me - 'Berlingoised' the van, giving it the levels of comfort and specification a car driver would expect.
The front end has been restyled and Hargreaves added: 'There will be no 'hair shirt' models in the new-look range. They are all equipped to a very high standard, which will result in improved residual values. We are confident that the new range will strengthen the company's position in the light commercial vehicle sector.'
Citroen claims areas of improvement in the new van are comfort and safety, performance and cost of operation, load carrying efficiency, reliability and durability and model choice.
Most models now come with central locking, electric front windows and electric heated door mirrors. Surprisingly, though, a driver airbag is a paid-for option at £220 plus VAT. In the cab, there is an ingenious pop-up document clip, mobile phone holder, 12-volt socket, adjustable lumbar support on the driver's seat and folding armrest, height adjustable steering wheel and a fold-out desk on the middle seat with coffee cup holders and a clip for a laptop computer.
The new range is based on three gross vehicle weights - 2.9, 3.3 and 3.5 tonnes. There is a choice of three wheelbases (standard, medium and long) and three roof heights (standard, high and extra high). This gives a load volume range from 7.5 - 14 cubic metres.
There are also three common rail diesel units on offer - 2.0, 2.2 and 2.8-litre units offering between 86 and 127 bhp - and a 2.0-litre petrol powerplant so the Relay can be converted for use with LPG or CNG.
This makes up a staggering array of options which can be mixed and matched to suit individual fleet requirements.
Prices range from £12,300 to £19,530 ex-VAT.
Outside, the front end 'nosejob' has sharpened and modernised the Relay's looks and the Citroen chevrons on the bonnet have been increased in size so no-one will be left in doubt from whence this van hails. The bumpers are bigger and the sides how have rubbing strips to stop those annoying bumps and dents that do so much to reduce the value of a vehicle.
The door handles have been redesigned so they can be opened with either hand and there is a now a full-width step at the rear to aid loading and unloading.
The body structure has also been improved and the front compartment has been strengthened to further protect occupants in the event of a crash. Underneath, there is a revised front cross member and strengthened door frame apertures, underbody side members, suspension supports and attachments.
Noise and vibration has been reduced too, with stiffer engine supports, modified front seat cross-members and extra underfloor acoustic insulation.
On the safety front, the new Relay has disc brakes all round apart from the 2.0 HDi and headlights have been improved. Warranty is three years/100,000 miles. Behind the wheel
Citroen was so intent on 'getting in first' that only 2.8-litre 127bhp diesel and 2.0-litre 86bhp variants were available for testing on the day. The new 2.2 HDi units - a first for Britain - were still on the production line at the Sevel factory.
But with short and long wheelbases and standard and high roofs, there was no shortage of models to choose from.
Climbing aboard the cab of a medium wheelbase, high-roof roof model first, I was immediately impressed with the new look arrangements. The dashboard is neat and stylish without being too over the top and the driver's seat has to be felt to be believed. After a two and a half hour drive to Citroen's headquarters in a Vauxhall Zafira, it felt rather like getting off a bean bag and into a Schreiber leather recliner.
There are more cubby holes than you could shake a stick at, including those all-important side bins for white van man's two-litre cola bottles in each door and the fold-up document clip is an ingenious device that will help drivers with the mountains of paperwork they inevitably have to deal with. Such is the attention to detail that each door even contains a special hole in which to put a pen — it might sound like small beer but if you've ever scrabbled in vain for a biro, you would appreciate this addition. The fold-down desk is a great idea too. The clip on the side will either hold documents or help keep a laptop in place.
My only real gripe is the extra cash required for the driver's airbag. In my view, the van is a place of work and a driver deserves the protection an airbag gives as a legal right, although Citroen would argue that other manufacturers charge for their airbags too. The only answer to this conundrum is a change in the law. Other paid-for items include metallic paint at £300, ABS brakes at £400, offside sliding side door at £250 and full steel bulkhead with window at £200, all ex-VAT.
In the back, things are much as they were in the old model, with half-height load protectors and six load-lashing points in the floor. The bigger rear step will be a definite boon to anyone who spends a lot of time loading and unloading.
Firing up the 2.8-litre engine reveals a lack of that old diesel death rattle thanks to common rail technology and the Relay lacks the 'big truck' feel that would put off some more timid drivers. Those heated adjustable side mirrors are huge, giving a fantastic view of the road behind and acceleration was lusty if not startling. You can have too much power in a van in my opinion and the Relay tested here, with 127bhp on tap, seemed to balance power and sensibility, even with a half load on board.
The dash-mounted gearchange was a trifle more notchy than I remembered from the old model, but these vans had just a few miles on the clock so had hardly been given a chance to bed in. My only complaint on the driving front was that the brake and accelerator pedals were too close together for my size 10 right hoof. My co-driver - a female with a rather more diminutive shoe size - found no problems though.
The Relay was always a cracking van - it is now even better. With Citroen's ultra-aggressive sales stance, it can only go from strength to strength.