Most new van launches are heralded by a huge fanfare of trumpets, a frenzy of marketing activity by the manufacturer concerned and a press trip for us eager newshounds to drive the new vehicle in an exotic location.
With the launch of the new commercial vehicle range from MG Rover, it was more like half a chorus of God Save The Queen on the kazoo and a short press release. So far, the company has not gathered the nation's press together to offer an insight into its marketing and sales strategy and it even took two phone calls before we managed to secure a booking for a press vehicle.
It may be purely down to a shortage of cash – in which case such an approach is of questionable value in the long-term – or maybe it signals that MG Rover only has limited expectations in the LCV sector.
Whatever the truth of matter, it's a great shame, as the van on test here – the Rover Commerce 2.0TD – turned out to be a cracking little performer during its test week at Fleet Towers and deserves its own launch party.
The old Rover hierarchy turned its back on commercial vehicles the day it ditched the Maestro van in 1994. This new model is a welcome addition to the arena as it promises to spice up the light end of the market.
Based on the 25 car, there are two versions – Commerce and Express.
The Commerce is available with either a 1.4-litre petrol engine offering 82bhp at 6,000rpm and 81lb-ft of torque at 4,500rpm or a 2.0-litre turbodiesel powerplant with 100bhp at 4,200rpm and 177lb-ft of torque at 2,000rpm. Prices are £7,072 and £8,264 respectively.
The MG Express models come with a choice of three engines – 1.4-litre petrol with 101bhp at 6,000rpm and 90lb-ft of torque at 4,500rpm, the same turbodiesel as in the Commerce and a blistering 1.8-litre petrol with 160bhp at 7,000rpm and 128lb-ft of torque at 4,500rpm.
This van has the honour of being the highest powered commercial vehicle on offer in Britain today, just sneaking past the Volkswagen LT and the Renault Master, which offer 158bhp in special versions.
For fleet testing purposes, we chose the Rover Commerce 2.0 turbodiesel as the most likely choice for company use. Drivers may lust after the Express 160 but few fleet managers are likely to buy such a beast. These fast models will be bought mainly by owner- drivers. Our test variant weighs in at £8,264 ex-VAT.
First thing to notice is that although this van is very much the 'cooking' version, it by no means lacks style and grace, especially clad in metallic silver paint as ours was. It's a £276.60 (ex-VAT) option, but well worth it, as the van will more than make up for that outlay at selling time.
There are plastic side rubbing strips and the body-coloured bumpers have small rubber protectors at each corner, which should mean the van will stay clear of annoying knocks and dents during its life.
Meanwhile this vehicle proudly shows off its British heritage with a small Union Jack badge on its rear end.
Entry to the cab is via standard remote central locking and the front area proves simple but pleasant.
In the dash, the background to the dials is a classic parchment colour and the centre console boasts a curious strip of wood-effect plastic, which looks suspiciously like something left over from the old Morris Marina and seems terribly out of place here.
Among the list of standard goodies are a driver's airbag, Trafficmaster alert system, auxiliary power take-off, immobiliser and alarm, stereo radio/cassette player and power steering.
Fleet managers who fancy giving their drivers a treat can opt for ABS brakes at £276.60, electric windows at £276.60 (is there something magical about this figure, I wonder?), electrically adjustable door mirrors at £191.49, Becker Traffic Pro satnav system at £846.81 and air conditioning at £591.49. All figures are exclusive of VAT.
The rear hatch opens to reveal a load area of almost one cubic metre, putting the van on a par with the Peugeot 206 van at 1.1 cubic metres and the Fiat Puntovan at one cubic metre. Payload is 485kg, just behind the Puntovan on 510kg and 206 van at 526kg.
Warranty is three years/ 60,000 miles.
##MG Express--none--MG Express##
Behind the wheel
MG ROVER'S re-entry into the LCV market shouldn't really come as much of a shock to anyone. After all, it is a pretty easy matter to whip the back seats and seatbelts out of a car and replace them with a load floor.
Citroen started the trend with the recently-launched Enterprise – a van version of the Xsara – and we could well see more to come. Ford swears blind it will not be offering an LCV version of the Focus, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to see one before long. But back to our Rover Commerce...
I immediately took a liking to this van. I liked the Union Jack badge on the back and felt proud to be British again – a feeling I don't get very often nowadays. I liked the stylish swirls of the van's exterior and climbing aboard I especially liked those wonderfully soft and supportive seats.
Standing 6ft 3in in bare feet, I was expecting conditions to be pretty cramped in the front, but even with an optional bulkhead fitted there was plenty of room for me to sit comfortably, thanks to the height adjustable steering wheel (a £127 option).
I've already mention the hideous piece of plastic wood in the dash (MG Rover rather grandly calls it a rosewood effect heater control surround) but to make up for it, those parchment coloured dials do give the van a classy, classic look. And the coffee cup holders built into the door pockets work a treat too.
My test vehicle also had electric windows, whose controls are mounted on the floor behind the gearstick. MG Rover also rather thoughtfully added the satnav system, which was wasted on me as I steadfastly refuse to have any truck with such new-found fangle-danglery. I can't see any cost-conscious fleet manager forking out over £800 for it when you can buy a map book in Woolies for £4.99.
Firing up the 2.0-litre powerplant reveals a fair amount of rattle and clatter – this is not a common rail diesel unit – although after a few miles the engine settles down to a muted growl. The unit is a heavy one for such a small van and the power steering could do with being lighter – there is a noticeable amount of pull on the corners.
However, gearchanging is slick and smooth and the clutch action is nice and light. And there is certainly no shortage of power – this van is a flyer. 0-60mph comes in just 9.1 seconds and the Commerce will pull right up to 112mph.
It also seems to enjoy being thrown into corners with gusto – something the driver will revel in but the fleet manger may well blanche at. MG Rover puts fuel economy at 51.5mpg on the combined cycle, but of course that could well alter with a lively style of driving.
THE MG Rover Commerce is a comfortable, powerful and practical vehicle at a very keen price. If the company can get its marketing act together, this van could well prove a popular fleet alternative from the more obvious choices on offer.
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