The world of light commercial vehicles may seem dull to some high flying decision-makers, but under its workaday surface lies a large and vibrant fleet sector which has seen healthy sales growth in the past year.
Car technology has advanced at a rapid pace in the past few years but that pace is even more marked with vans, because until relatively recently they were little more than huge storage spaces on wheels. Scant thought was given to fuel-efficiency, ride and handling or driver comfort.
Now, no self-respecting manufacturer would offer commercial vehicles without the option of airbags, ABS brakes, CD players, air conditioning, satnav systems and superb drivers' seats that adjust in a variety of directions.
As 2002 dawned, there was no shortage of new models for us to write about. The sparkling new Vauxhall Vivaro/Renault Trafic had only just gone on sale in the light panel van sector and was getting rave reviews all round. It offered a stylishness which was new to the market and ride and handling which are still unmatched. Meanwhile, Ford was about to shake up the car-derived sector – which had for the past six years been dominated by the Citroen Berlingo/Peugeot Partner – with the launch of the Transit Connect, which will eventually replace both the Escort van and Courier. Ford rather smartly used the mighty Transit name for its new model, although it has nothing in common with its bigger panel van brother.
The van was first shown to the public at the Amsterdam van show in spring and Ford promised new levels of robustness, drivability and cost of ownership to the sector. A subsequent test drive in Turkey confirmed this was no idle boast.
Meanwhile, Citroen, Peugeot and Fiat were busy launching their triplets the Relay, Boxer and Ducato panel vans, which hail from the same production line in Sevel, Italy.
All feature the usual mix and match range of wheelbases, roof heights and payloads and power is courtesy of a range of common rail turbodiesel units. The van features a smart new front end and there are a host of other improvements, such as lower levels of noise and vibration, more cubby holes and extra security.
Nissan used its new link-up with Renault as an opportunity to expand its niche line-up of commercial vehicles. The Master has now been rebadged as Nissan Interstar and the Trafic as Primastar. A new dealer network of Nissan Business Centres is being set up, together with an LCV website where customers can 'build' vans to their own specification.
The race for speed hotted up in the panel van sector. Until this year, Mercedes-Benz was undisputed king with its 156bhp Sprinter but this has now been eclipsed by Volkswagen and Renault, who launched a 158bhp version of the LT and Master.
The subject of van taxation has been a big talking point this year – many operators have been faced with doubt and uncertainty over whether their drivers should pay the full benefit-in-kind tax on the vehicle's P11d price or whether the flat van tax price of £500 per year should apply. In 2001, the Government announced that double cab pick-ups would be classed as commercial vehicles as long as they had a payload of more than one tonne and this led to a rush for these vehicles among company car drivers eager to cut back on their BIK tax. Subsequently, we discovered a chaotic situation where some tax offices were insisting on proof from drivers that they actually needed a commercial vehicle for their jobs before they were allowed to go on the lower rate of tax.
In August this year, the Inland Revenue announced that all such double cabs with a one tonne payload would qualify for the lower rate of tax, regardless of use, in a bid to end the confusion. However, it also said it was looking at the whole issue carefully, so new rules are widely expected in the next Budget.
What's in the LCV pipeline for 2003
The Berlingo, the van that changed the shape of the car-derived sector, has been relaunched in a bid to fight off opposition from the new Ford Transit Connect. But the big surprise from Citroen next year is the launch of the Xsara Enterprise in January, a van that looks nothing like a commercial vehicle.
The model was announced with just months of pre-planning in a bid to catch fleet buyers who, disappointed by the death of the evergreen Ford Escort van, wanted a vehicle less chunky and CV-like than the Connect. The Enterprise is a Xsara estate with the rear seats and seatbelts removed and the rear windows blacked out. Power is courtesy of a 2.0-litre HDi turbodiesel unit offering 90bhp and 154lb-ft of torque. Citroen is also promising 'fine tuning' of its new Relay range and new specialist conversions.
Fiat's big launch will be a brand new Scudo light van. Launch is expected at the back end of the year. Meanwhile, Punto van will get Fiat's JTD common rail diesel engine in August or September.
As the new year dawns, Ford's new light van, the Transit Connect, is at last leaving the showrooms and getting out on the road. Meanwhile, the Ford Ranger has been upgraded with extra passenger comfort, improved noise, vibration and harshness levels and better security. In spring, another Transit Connect will be launched with a factory-fit LPG option to take advantage of the savings offered by London mayor Ken Livingstone under his congestion charging scheme.
Big news for the truck and van manufacturer is the launch in January of the new Iveco Daily HPI. The van features a new 2.3-litre Unijet HPI second generation common rail diesel unit offering either 96bhp or 116bhp and 177 or 199lb-ft of torque. The old 2.8-litre unit remains for the bigger models.
There will also be a Combi version on sale for the first time, seating up to nine people plus generous space for luggage. Suspension and gearchanging are improved and Iveco claims noise in the cab has been reduced by 40%.
2003 will see LDV extend its range of limited edition models. Further to the opening of the company's £30 million paint plant, LDV will now also offer a full range of metallic colours. The luxury minibus, unveiled in 2002, will be on sale during the year, as will the concept Titan. There will be full availability of the XLWB van as well as a newly-launched welfare bus. A plug door will be available on all high roof van and bus derivatives and LDV will also be distributing a new pick-up.
The Sprinter may not be new, but there's something different both inside and out for 2003. The van was first to offer a common rail diesel engine back in 1995 and now it is first to come with ESP as a paid-for option. An electronic stability program means the van will 'feel' when a driver is losing control of the vehicle and will correct the errors and stop skidding on wet or loose surfaces. Outside, the Sprinter gets a smart new front end and there is a raft of improvements in the cab and on the options list. A conventional automatic gearbox is also available, alongside the current Sprintshift option. In late summer, Mercedes-Benz will launch the new Vito light panel van. It will be a completely new model with new engines and a choice for the first time of wheelbases and roof heights.
The Japanese manufacturer is promising special editions of both Shogun and L200 vans during the year.
Nissan is making the most of its tie-up with Renault and has a busy year ahead. Nissan Primastar, a rebadged Renault Trafic, is already on sale and in May the line-up will be expanded with a high roof version and a new 2.5-litre turbodiesel powerplant. April sees the launch of a 2.0-litre Terrano diesel van and in October Nissan launches a new car-derived van. Officially no details are being given but don't be surprised if it bears a striking similarity to the Renault Kangoo.
First new launch for Renault is a high-roof version of the award-winning Trafic light van in January. Also Kangoo is due for a facelift some time during the year and there are 'moves ahead' on Master, although the French manufacturer is at present keeping its cards close to its chest.
Vauxhall has a raft of new models appearing in the spring. First on the blocks is a high roof version of the award-winning Vivaro in March, together with a nine-seater minibus version. A new Astravan with automatic gearbox and 2.0-litre diesel engine make an appearance soon after and there will be a new Combo complete with rear seats.
Big news from the German manufacturer is that a new Transporter is planned for launch some time in the summer. There will be a new shape and new TDI engines and the vehicle will be available in both panel van and multivan formats.