In fact to call it a car-derived van at all is a misnomer – the Berlingo and its twin the Peugeot Partner were the first in class to be built as a van from the nuts and bolts up, rather than being a van on a car chassis.
It wasn't long before the others followed suit – first Renault with its Kangoo, then Fiat with the Doblo Cargo and finally Vauxhall with the new Combo. But hang on a minute – where was the market leader Ford? Nowhere to be seen until now. But Ford is back with a vengeance.
With the Transit Connect going on sale in August promising class-leading levels of durability, ruggedness and load capacity, we put the young pretender to the test against established rivals the Citroen Berlingo and Fiat Doblo Cargo.
Ford Transit Connect 1.8 TDCI SWB
Ford has eschewed the 'Postman Pat' styling favoured by the other manufacturers for its 'baby' Transit and has instead gone for a chunky, macho look that promises serious muscle power and doesn't disappoint. Transit Connect is available in three guises - short wheelbase standard roof, long wheelbase high roof and Tourneo, a five-seater with side windows.
There are three engines, all 1.8-litres - Ford's proven TDdi unit offering 74bhp at 4,000rpm and 129lb/ft of torque at 1,800rpm; the common rail TDCi with 88bhp at 4,000rpm and 162lb/ft at 1,700rpm and a petrol engine with 113bhp at 5,700rpm and 118lb/ft at 4,400rpm. The petrol unit will allow for LPG and CNG gas fuel conversions.
Already Ford has put 10 pre-production Connects in service with British Telecom and they will be monitored closely for any problems over the next few months.
A party of specially selected journalists was flown to the state-of-the-art Ford plant at Kocaeli in Turkey to watch the vans coming off the line and to drive the various derivatives through the Turkish countryside.
Outside, the Connect has a large front screen for maximum visibility and it shares its big brother's dropped side screen, which gives extra vision via the large side mirrors. In the cab, the driver's seat adjusts for height and rake, as does the steering column. The passenger seat folds down level with the load floor for extra cargo space and there is a multitude of options, including air conditioning, power windows and mirrors, ABS brakes and CD player. Such is the attention to detail that the Connect features space for a pen and mobile phone and even a curry hook. In the Tourneo, the rear seats fold forward or can be removed from the vehicle altogether to maximise loadspace.
In the rear, the SWB version offers a class-leading 3.4 cubic metres of loadspace with the passenger seat folded and 4.36 cubic metres for the LWB version. Payload is 625kg for the SWB (with an option to increase to 825kg) and 700/825/900kg for the LWB.
Up to two sliding doors can be specified at a price and both models can incorporate two Euro pallets. A ladder bulkhead is an option, along with a folding full width or full height alternative.
On the security front, the Connect boasts the Transit's lock-in-latch system which is claimed to make the van almost impossible to break into, shielded wiring and a key-operated bonnet lock.
The success or otherwise of the Transit Connect depends largely on pricing and this was due to be announced as Fleet Van went to press.
In the meantime the opposition is not resting on its laurels in blissful ignorance of the storm about to erupt around it. Citroen has already announced cashback offers of up to £1,300 on the Berlingo, so this summer looks like a good time for fleets to snap up a tasty light van deal.
On the road
FORD describes the new Connect as the baby Transit, but if this van is a baby, it must be a cuckoo in the car-derived nest, standing head and shoulders above the opposition.
The great thing about lagging behind the pack is that you can assess what is good and what is not so good about the opposition and act accordingly to avoid the pitfalls.
But with Transit Connect, Ford has done much more. For starters, while the opposition all looks fairly similar, the Connect style stands apart. If the Berlingo looks like Postman Pat's van, the Connect must surely belong to Desperate Dan. Its muscles ripple and Ford's claim that it sets new standards in ruggedness appear to be true. Climbing aboard, the first thing you'll notice is that beautifully supportive driver's seat, which not only adjusts every which way but has adjustable lumbar support and an armrest.
The dashboard is solid, chunky and businesslike with no pretension at style and the centre part will hold an A4 clipboard, as will the glovebox. There is also a document rack over the driver's head and a small pocket on the front of the driver's seat. With curry hook and space for a mobile phone, it is obvious that a great deal of thought has gone into driver comfort. There are can and coffee cup holders but unfortunately, no special space for white van man's precious two-litre cola bottle.
Ford boasted about the number of different bulkheads available but disappointingly, all are paid-for options.
The thoughtful touches carry on in the rear of the van, where Ford has provided a 12-volt powerpoint near the rear doors as well as in the cab. And there are a number of drilled holes in the sides of the van which can be used for racking systems.
Alternatively, the six load-lashing eyes in the floor can be unscrewed by hand and positioned in these holes. Damned clever stuff - simple but very effective.
On our 20 kilometre test route through the dusty villages around Kocaeli, Ford wisely chose to provide us with common-rail diesel-engined versions of the Connect and Tourneo.
As most of the opposition now offers only these new technology engines, it would not do Ford any favours to let us journalists drive both back to back - once you've tried common rail, nothing else will do.
The 88bhp engines proved quiet and smooth, yet lusty and gutsy on the road. Ford claimed it was aiming for Focus levels of handling and it has achieved just that. The Turkish roads did their best to faze the Connects I drove - dirt, dust, potholes, crazy hairpin bends and suicidal lorry drivers who didn't seem to know which side of the road was theirs. But not once did the Connect bat an eyelid and with ABS brakes and brake assist provided, I was assured of arriving back at Ford's Turkish factory safely in one piece.
Citroen Berlingo 2.0 HDi LX
THE trouble with being king of the castle is that there's always someone trying to knock you off your perch and claim your crown.
Citroen must secretly be dreading the Ford Transit Connect going on sale, as the new contender is bound to hit sales, but outwardly the firm is putting on a brave face, pointing out that in the past six years, it has managed to fight off challenges from a multitude of pretenders.
First up was Renault with its chic and stylish Kangoo. While this van is no mean performer and has sold like hot cakes across Europe, it has somehow never quite managed to outpace the Berlingo.
Then came Fiat with its outrageously styled Doblo Cargo, followed by Vauxhall with its copycat new Combo. All have tried and all have failed to wrest the sector's crown from the plucky Citroen.
So how will it fare against Ford's new onslaught?
Six years ago when the Berlingo first hit Britain's streets, people used to turn and point at it, such was its wacky Postman Pat styling. Now, it looks almost sombre after what has come since. Postman Pat it may look but that shape is not styling for styling's sake. It means the cab has acres of headroom and a light, airy feel.
Berlingo is a versatile beast indeed. It can be specified with conventional rear swing-out doors or one-piece tailgate, a rear roof flap for housing extra long cargo and single or twin side sliding doors.
Side rubbing strips all round plus huge plastic bumpers front and rear offer maximum protection from scrapes and scratches.
Prices range from £8,305 to £10,175 ex-VAT. The Berlingo's dashboard is surprisingly conservative, especially after the garish swirls and colours of the Fiat Doblo Cargo. But hey, who expects chic styling in a van anyway?
Of more interest to most drivers is that fact that this cab comes with a multitude of cubby holes, while the passenger seat folds down once into a handy desk with two cupholders, or twice to allow extra long loads to be carried. New for 2002 is a standard drawer under the passenger seat.
The driver's seat is rather on the soft, squidgy side for my liking compared to the firm offerings in both Transit Connect and Doblo Cargo – and there doesn't appear to be much lumbar support. But after a couple of long haul trips, I didn't suffer from any back twinges, so maybe Citroen knows a little more about seat technology than I'm giving it credit for. Legroom is no problem, even for those of a lanky stature such as myself.
The radio/cassette player looks a trifle 'hair shirt' at first glimpse but is of reasonable sound quality, while large side mirrors add to the van's safety.
The Berlingo comes with two payloads on offer - 600 and 800kg, beaten just by both the other rivals. A Euro pallet can be accommodated in the rear and there are four load-lashing eyes built into the body. A ribbed plastic floor helps stop loads sliding around and there is a ladder frame bulkhead behind the driver for extra safety.
On the road
The Berlingo comes with a variety of engines - 75bhp 1.3 petrol, 71bhp 1.9-litre diesel, 90bhp 2.0-litre common rail turbodiesel and electric.
While the ordinary diesel is perfectly satisfactory for most fleet needs, the common rail HDi unit tested here packs a punch that will see the van showing a clean pair of heels to a surprising variety of cars.
Whether you want your drivers to be cruising about in a van which will hit 100mph with no trouble is a matter for you, but suffice to say I had a whole lot of fun during my test week with my foot nailed to the floor.
A nice light clutch and gearchange give the Berlingo a car-like driving quality and road holding is impeccable, even at high speeds.
Fiat Doblo Cargo 1.9 JTD SX
THERE is something to be said for waiting in the wings while others experiment with new concepts, especially if you are a motor manufacturer. This is exactly what Fiat did while Citroen was launching the Berlingo and Renault was following it with Kangoo.
That way the Italians could cherry pick the best ideas from each, add their own touch of flair, avoid the previously made mistakes and hopefully come up with a van which would be best in class.
To a certain extent, Fiat achieved just that with the Doblo Cargo - but it didn't stop there. If you thought Citroen, Peugeot and Renault were pushing back the design boundaries, Fiat simply flushed those boundaries down the nearest loo and made up its own set of rules. Both inside and out, this van screams to be noticed.
However, Fiat must now be wondering in hindsight whether or not this strategy was a wise one. Like its car relative the Multipla, the Doblo Cargo is not selling well. While Citroen sold 7,582 vans under 1,800kg in the first six months of this year (Berlingo and C15), Fiat managed just 215 (Doblo Cargo and Punto van). The figures tell a sorry story as the Doblo Cargo is a van which deserves better success.
Its carrying capacity is bigger than the Berlingo, its JTD common rail diesel engine outguns the Berlingo and Transit Connect - and more importantly in fleet terms, it undercuts the Berlingo on price.
Shy, retiring types need not apply - this van is built for those who want to be noticed. From the front, it has a macho go-anywhere look with a mass of plastic which wouldn't look amiss on a rugged off-roader. At the back, the shape echoes that of the Berlingo and Kangoo after a dose of steroids.
Everything looks big and chunky on the Doblo Cargo, especially the door handles and side mirrors, and the whole effect is one of massive solidity, beaten only by the Transit Connect.
At launch, the van came with either a 1.2-litre petrol engine or 1.9 naturally-aspirated diesel. I originally tested this model and found it rather lacklustre in performance, but there is certainly nothing lacking with the JTD. It will blast you straight into the magistrate's court pretty damned quick if you want to risk losing your licence and acceleration will leave many a car driver blinking in disbelief as you zoom by.
Prices range from £7,995 ex-VAT for the petrol model to £9,545 for the van tested here. That's £420 cheaper than the Berlingo with a 2.0-litre HDi engine and 600kg payload.
If you thought the exterior of the Doblo Cargo was on the wacky side, wait till you climb aboard. The pictures here just don't do the van justice - in fact you could be forgiven for thinking you had climbed aboard an arcade shoot-em-up game by mistake.
The dashboard and side doors are a mass of brightly-coloured curls and swirls and the knobs and switches are gathered together in a highly-unusual manner. For example, electric window switches, rear screen heater, fog light and hazard warning button are grouped together in a chic little bunch.
My test van came dripping with added (paid-for!) extras, including Fiat's CONNECT system, which is itself with a couple of paragraphs of explanation.
The system not only acts as a satnav unit, but a phone on the side of the unit connects the driver to a centre in Italy, where a nice lady will tell you (in English of course) anything from the direction to the nearest Chinese takeaway to the star rating of a local hotel. It's a fascinating toy but I can't help thinking that no fleet manager in his or her right mind would opt for such a gadget, bearing in mind the £1,133 (plus VAT) price is unlikely to be recovered at selling time.
Other goodies of more immediate use on my test van were air conditioning (£554 and useful), rear parking sensor (£100 and essential) and ABS brakes (£480 and advisable).
The Doblo Cargo arrived at my office as the Berlingo was leaving and I was immediately impressed by the quality of the driver's seat over the Berlingo's, which I had found rather squashy and unsupportive. The Doblo's is firm, figure hugging and has both adjustable lumbar support and height adjustment. A side armrest completes a very nice little package.
However, on the downside, the Doblo doesn't have as many cubby holes as the Berlingo and the passenger seat doesn't fold down to make a table. The Transit Connect seems to have the balance just right.
As with Berlingo and Transit Connect, the Doblo Cargo can be ordered with lift-up tailgate and up to two side sliding doors. There are six load lashing eyes and a ribbed plastic floor and the van will take 3.2 cubic metres of cargo compared to the Berlingo's 3.0 cu metres and Transit's 3.41 cu m.
Payload on my test model was 625kg, but for an extra £150 plus VAT it can be increased to 805kg, a whisker behind the Transit Connect's 825kg.
On the road
Fiat answered criticisms that the old Doblo Cargo was underpowered by slotting its stonking 1.9-litre JTD turbodiesel engine under the bonnet, instantly giving the van class-leading power. Citroen's common rail unit brings Berlingo up to 90bhp, but Fiat's motor manages 100bhp, while Transit Connect trails behind at 88bhp.
Conversely, the Doblo has 148lb-ft of torque to the Berlingo's 155lb-ft and Transit Connect's 162lb-ft.
Being a common rail unit, there is no shake, rattle and roll at start-up time and power is applied smoothly and surely right up to the red line in a most undiesel like manner. The Doblo Cargo features a dash-mounted gearchange which beats the floor-mounted Berlingo and Transit Connect versions in smoothness and road handling is as safe and sure as you'd expect in a van.
The final reckoning
FORD originally promised that prices for the new Transit Connect would be made public in July, but as journalistic luck or otherwise would have it, we have been left waiting for confirmation.
However, we can still assess the contenders for drivability, practicality and durability – and let it be said that all three rate pretty highly.
Firstly behind the wheel, the Berlingo is beginning to show its age.
It is outgunned in power by the Doblo Cargo and its driver's seat is inferior, with little support. The Doblo Cargo tops the power chart at 100bhp and with its lighter frame compared to Transit Connect, it feels more 'chuckable' – although whether that is a good thing or not in a commercial vehicle is a moot point.
On the practicality front, Transit Connect begins nosing ahead. Its load space is biggest and its payload is best – but only just.
If, as we suspect, the Ford is priced ahead of the others, many fleet operators may decide that the little extra on offer in the rear is not worth the extra cash it will cost. However, there is no doubt that the Transit Connect feels the most rugged – and as Ford chiefs pointed out at the launch, they are not looking to sell these vans to the local florist and baker.
The Transit Connect is being aimed at the heavy end of the light market and the manufacturer seems happy to leave the others to pick over what is left.
But at the end of the day, the success or otherwise of the Ford Transit Connect will come down to pricing and here Citroen may have an ace up its sleeve.
The French manufacturer makes no bones of the fact that it wants to nudge up from its number three position in the UK van sales chart to number two past Vauxhall – and it is offering some blinding deals in its quest.
Already it is giving £1,300 cashback on Berlingo – and that figure is one few fleet operators can ignore. Ford, meanwhile, will be using its unbeatable marketing machine and its proven dealer network to tempt buyers. Let the battle commence...
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