After carefully drip-feeding the press with tasty titbits, the van - now named Vauxhall Vivaro and Renault Trafic - broke cover at the Brussels International Commercial and Recreational Vehicle Show in January 2001, followed by a press launch in Denmark in May.
Fleet orders finally started flowing in September last year.
Praise for the van has so far been rapturous - Fleet Van's predecessor Commercials In Business labelled it a stylish, smooth contender which was set to take the light panel van sector by the scruff of its neck and last month the Vivaro/Trafic was named International Van of the Year 2002.
A star, it appears, has been born.
Renault and Vauxhall could well be forgiven for assuming that this new two-pronged attack would take the light panel van sector by storm. And but for one rather large fly in the lcv ointment, they may be right.
That fly comes in the shape of the Ford Transit, a seemingly invincible offering that has topped Britain's vans sales charts for the past 30 years. To give an idea of its success, Ford sold more than six times as many panel vans as Renault and Vauxhall combined last year.
With a new short wheelbase front-wheel drive Transit launched to take on the new Vivaro/Trafic, Fleet Van brought the two contenders together for a head-to-head battle.
JEREMY Clarkson, Quentin Willson and the like don't know they're born when it comes to the comparative testing of cars.
Cars are a doddle - but when it comes to vans, the unwary motoring hack soon finds himself stepping into a veritable minefield in which direct comparisons are sometimes nigh on impossible.
The first item to note in this test is that while Ford has just the Transit to offer in its panel van range, both Vauxhall and Renault split their offerings into two - Vauxhall has the Vivaro as a light panel van and Movano for more heavyweight jobs, while Renault has Trafic and Master. Both Vivaro and Trafic and Movano and Master are the same vans, by the way, with different badges.
Most of the other marques have two panel vans - Citroen Dispatch and Relay, Volkswagen Transporter and LT35, LDV Pilot and Convoy et al - but the Transit name is so powerful that Ford would be foolhardy indeed to call its SWB van anything else. The second point worth making is that vans generally are available with a bewildering number of options. Manufacturers tend to build a basic shell and let buyers choose what extras they want, rather like at the pick 'n' mix counter in Woolworths. So extreme care must be taken to compare like with like.
Just to complicate matters, certain manufacturers load their vans with every goody available when sending them out to magazines for testing, in the hope that us journos won't notice that such extras as CD players, electric windows and air conditioning are in fact paid-for options. Wily old stagers such as myself are rarely fooled!
Thus I spent a week with the Vauxhall Vivaro 1.9 DTi 80bhp and the Ford Transit SWB 2.0 TD 75bhp and a mountain of press packs, driving, comparing and finally passing verdict. For the sake of this test, readers can substitute the words Renault Trafic wherever Vauxhall Vivaro appear - the two vans are identical.
Despite what some industry experts would have you believe, many fleet operators still buy on price and price alone - hence a driver's airbag is still a delete option on a surprising number of vans.
But any potential buyer looking for a lead in this area will be disappointed - Ford has pitched the Transit at just £5 more than the Vivaro at £12,000 ex-VAT.
Looking at the options list doesn't help either. Both vans have a driver's airbag, immobiliser, remote central locking and power steering as standard and while Ford charges more for a CD player than Vauxhall, it charges less for electric windows and mirrors.
The basket of options listed at the end of this feature show Ford's total at £2,050 while Vauxhall's is £2,195.
However, turning to the exclusive running cost table in the back of Fleet Van tells a more interesting story. The Transit is predicted to cost 12.19 pence per mile to run over four years/100,000 miles while the Vivaro's figure is 11.46ppm. It might not sound a lot but in the life of the vans, the Transit will cost an extra £730 to operate. A fleet running 100 Transits as opposed to Vivaros will thus be £73,000 out of pocket.
Sorry, Ford, but in this section there is no contest. If the Vivaro is Claudia Schiffer, the Transit is Dawn French - one sleek, stylish and glamorous, the other dumpy and lumpy.
Created at Renault's Technocentre in Paris, the Vivaro is probably the first van ever to be designed with style in mind and it very much echoes the way the whole Renault stable is moving. The curved jumbo roof, rakishly angled headlights and huge plastic bumpers all round make this a vehicle which wouldn't look out of place in the car parks of the best restaurants.
The Transit, meanwhile, is very much what it ever was - a no-nonsense, practical performer more often seen at rest near the local chip shop.
However, Ford could argue - and probably rightly so - that outward appearances don't matter a jot to most of Britain's van operators. The owner/driver may wish for style but for fleet purposes, performance and practicality mean much more.
In the front
Climbing aboard the cab of the Vivaro, the first thing you'll notice is that the doors snick shut in a most unvanlike manner - no banging and slamming required here. The Transit's doors aren't bad, but they can't hold a candle to the Vauxhall. The jumbo roof and huge screens give the Vivaro a light, airy feel and the dash echoes the van's exterior - it simple screams STYLE.
There are cup holders and two-litre cola bottle bins in the doors and a curry hook to ensure your takeaway doesn't end up splattered under the accelerator pedal. The driver's seat is adjustable for height and reach, but it doesn't have a tilt facility.
Climbing aboard the Transit's cab, I had the feeling that perhaps the Vivaro was a little too prissy. Ford has no pretensions to style at all, instead offering a chunky, businesslike feel with a seat which adjusts all ways.
The Transit may not have a curry hook, but it features a mobile phone holder, which is probably of much more use to today's average van driver.
In the back
Once again, the Vivaro wins in terms of door quality - the side sliding door opens, rolls back and closes again with a smoothness the Transit just can't manage.
On load volume, the Transit romps home a winner. It has a greater load length, width and height and has a 6.55 cubic metre loadspace compared to the Vivaro's 4.95 cubic metres. But if it's payload you want, the Vivaro is your van. It offers 1,000kg compared to the Transit's 768kg.
Both vehicles have six load lashing points in the floor but the Transit has an added two in the bulkhead. Neither vans offer interior load protection as standard, but I'd strongly advise any buyers to include it as a paid-for extra in the original purchase. A small outlay at buying time will pay dividends at selling time. Try offering a van for sale with a bashed, scuffed and dirty load bay and see how many offers you get.
The Vivaro's rear doors open to 180 degrees while the Transit doors unclip from their runners and revolve right round to 360 degrees. It's a plus point for the Transit but it means the Ford has a set of ugly door hinges in the process that look as though they will be liable to corrosion over time.
On the road
Unless you've been living in Afghanistan for the past couple of years, you can't fail to have read about the benefits of common rail diesel technology - it offers more power, better fuel economy, smoother deliverance and a general lack of all the things you never liked about heavy oil engines, such as that old morning death rattle and clouds of black smoke. While the Vivaro range offers nothing but common rail engines, Ford still relies on its old style Duratorq powerplants, insisting that they are just as good in terms of reliability and economy.
That may be, but I'd challenge anyone from Ford to drive the Vivaro first, climb straight into a Transit and not give the edge to the common rail van - in a head-to-head test, it stands out a mile.
The Vivaro fires up with hardly a murmur and a light clutch and slick dash-mounted gearstick ensure smooth powerful progress.
The small steering wheel helps disguise the van's size, so those not used to driving such a big vehicle should have no qualms about their first trip. Steering is just light enough and on the road, the Vivaro has crisp, sharp handling.
The Transit, meanwhile, is no mean performer. The clutch is heavier and the floor mounted gearstick is stodgier, but after the initial engine rattle dies away, it gives a lusty amount of power.
On the downside, the Vivaro on test suffered from an annoying squeak that could have been coming from anywhere. The Ford, on the other hand, was totally rattle and squeak free.
First let it be said that both vehicles are admirable performers - but there has to be a winner. Never let it be said that Fleet Van wimps out and declares a dead heat.
Both vans are admirable value for money, both offer a good payload and volume, both behave impeccably on the road and both have superb drivers' seats.
But at the end of the day, the Transit must give way. It has higher running costs according to our figures and lacks that wonderful common rail diesel engine.
The Vivaro wins by a nose.