Sometime over the past 10 years an entire sector of the commercial vehicle market disappeared – and no-one seems to have noticed.
It wasn't many years ago that the UK's roads were swarming with car-derived pick-ups. Who could forget the cute Mini pickup or the legendary Ford P100, which was based on the old Sierra?
But one by one the players all dropped out and when Skoda finally withdrew its Felicia pick-up in 2000, the sector effectively died.
Bosses at Malaysian manufacturer Proton noticed this fact and it wasn't long before the decision was made to tweak up the home-grown offering based on the Wira car and take its first-ever step into the world of commercial vehicles. With the launch of the new Jumbuck this month, the car-derived pick-up sector lives again.
This is very much a toe-in-the-water exercise and Proton bosses were quick to point out at the press launch that they have no idea how big the market might be. A ballpark figure of 1,200 sales per year was their guess.
But the Jumbuck has two very big plus points going for it. First it has no direct competitors and second – and perhaps more importantly – it will be the cheapest commercial vehicle on the road today, costing £5,995 ex-VAT, alongside the base-spec Daihatsu Hijet and the Suzuki Carry. So whatever the shortcomings of this vehicle may be, that bargain basement price will remain one heck of a convincing argument.
The Jumbuck is offered in two formats – GL and GLS. While the cheaper GL model is being aimed at local tradesmen, the GLS, at £6,895 ex-VAT, is hoping to attract 'lifestyle' drivers who want to carry bicycles, surfboards, water-skis et al. Both models come with a large range of add-on goodies.
Under the bonnet, both are powered by Proton's 1.5-litre 12-valve four-cylinder petrol powerplant offering 86bhp and 91lb-ft of torque.
Unladen, this translates to a 0-60mph time of 14.6 seconds and a top speed of 96mph. Payload is a reasonable 635kg and load capacity up to the railings is 800 litres. The load area measures 1,630 mm by 1,349mm.
Proton bosses ruled out a diesel version as the manufacturer doesn't have its own units and it isn't cost-effective to buy someone else's. However, plans are already afoot to offer an LPG alternative.
Proton sales manager Mike Unsworth said: 'This pick-up is versatile, rugged, reliable and exceptional value for money. There is no other light commercial vehicle on the road for a lower price.'
And to counter any opposition from badge-snob fleets, the pick-up was designed exclusively for Proton by its subsidiary Lotus. Its engineers took a Wira and cut it in half, keeping the cab and discarding the back half.
A ladder frame chassis was manufactured and the rear load area designed as one piece, making the whole set-up particularly rigid. The suspension travel has been raised to 120mm for extra ground clearance.
Levels of standard equipment are higher than may be imagined for such a cheap vehicle.
The GL comes with remote central locking and alarm, height adjustable headlamps, rear window grille and rear cargo step. The GLS adds cloth seating to the GL's plastic ones, alloy wheels, electric windows, two-tone paint and a Clarion radio/CD player. Neither model has airbags, even as an option, although these may be added later after proper testing has been carried out. The GL has speakers and wiring for a stereo but the actual unit will cost £99 extra.
Among the options are load liners at £125, roof bar sets at £84.95 and a Truckman top at £995 (all prices ex-VAT). Warranty is three years/60,000 miles.
Behind the wheel
I WILL be honest and say I wasn't expecting a great deal from this vehicle. In the event, I was greatly surprised. For starters it looks nothing like the cheap and cheerful cobbled-together-in-the-backyard offering I'd expected. In fact it looks a lot more stylish than many vehicles twice its price.
The Jumbuck has been on sale in Australia since February – hence its rather curious name – and over there the Bruces and Sheilas have been lapping them up. After all, while most people would love to own a Mitsubishi L200 Animal or a Nissan Navara Outlaw, not everyone can afford one. In fact you could almost buy three Jumbucks for one 'Animal' – a sobering thought.
In the cab, our GL test model featured plastic seats which I thought had disappeared in the 1970s along with tank tops and A-line jeans. The amusing thing about them is that they act rather like whoopee cushions when you move around on them, so will provide hours of endless fun for the more juvenile fleet driver and his passenger. These items apart, the cab reflects the stylish exterior with a handsome swirling dash. Even in the lower trim level, there is a height adjustable driver's seat and steering wheel.
Cubby holes are a bit on the short side and the general feel of the plastics is rather shoddy, but every time I found a complaint about this vehicle, my mind kept drifting back to that £5,995 price and I found myself saying: 'What do you expect for the money?'.
In the back, everything feels a lot more solid and sturdy than in the front and the top quality Lotus influence becomes noticeable. There is a smart metal step at the rear and the massive tailgate can support a load of 300kg. Our test vehicle had the optional plastic lining – an essential for any fleets intending to use the vehicle for dirty work.
Firing up the pick-up reveals the smooth muted hum of the Proton petrol engine and a light clutch and easy gearchange make for a pleasant driving experience. With a half load of sand in the back, our test vehicle never felt under-powered, even on the hills. However, the power steering was way too light for my liking and left the vehicle feeling vague and spongy on bends. A bit more feel for the road underneath wouldn't come amiss. At 70mph there was also a fair amount of noise in the cab too and my co-pilot and I ended up having to talk loudly to each other.
I'm a great fan of solid, no-nonsense vehicles that don't pretend to be something they aren't. As such I liked the Jumbuck – in fact I liked it a lot. That bargain price is bound to tempt many a fleet decision-maker to at least look at this vehicle – and once behind the wheel, many of them will decide to buy it.
Model: Jumbuck 1.5
Power (bhp): 86
Torque (1b-ft): 91
0-60 (secs): 14.6
Top speed (mph): 96
Payload (kg): 635
Load volume (litres): 800
Price (ex-VAT): £5,995 – £6,895
On sale: Now