Such fleets usually have more than one eye on the purse strings and are therefore likely to take a keen interest in the van on test here. The Extol is a brand new offering from Daihatsu, coming in at a bargain basement £6,995 ex-VAT and offering a generous load capacity of 2.2 cubic metres and payload of 615kg.
The new model is at present being sold alongside the old Hijet but it will eventually replace it.
I well recall my test in a Hijet a couple of years ago – it was as close as I can imagine to driving a biscuit tin on wheels and felt about as safe too. OK, it costs exactly a grand less than the Extol but I can't imagine anyone buying it for any reason other than price.
The Extol is a different matter altogether. It is chunkier, far more drivable and comes as standard with twin airbags, central locking and – glory be – a CD player. At last we have a cheap microvan which fits the bill for 21st century fleets.
Daihatsu had one van in mind when building the Extol – the Suzuki Carry, which is the only other real contender in this class.
Both cost exactly the same, but the Extol beats the Carry in most main areas.
Its wheelbase is 80mm longer, its payload is 38kg more, its load length is 80mm longer, its load height is 75mm more, its turning circle is 0.2 of a metre tighter, its fuel tank is six litres bigger, its 1.3-litre petrol engine is 7bhp more powerful and its service intervals are 3,000 miles longer. The gloves are clearly off for a featherweight fight to the death.
Depending on how you hold your mouth, the Extol either looks laughable or funky. I incline towards the funky point of view.
At least the Extol eschews that loaf-of-bread-on-wheels image the Hijet suffers from and, with colour-coded bumpers front and rear, it could even be described as chic. The downside is that there are no side rubbing strips and no wheelarch protection, so the van is likely to be knocked and scraped fairly comprehensively during its busy working life on a fleet.
In the front
Opening the van via standard central locking, the doors seem painfully thin but, once inside, the cab is pleasantly large and the seats are surprisingly comfortable. They even recline.
And with a standard height adjustable steering column, my 6ft 3in frame fitted behind the wheel nicely.
Top marks to Daihatsu for providing twin airbags as standard, although there is no mention of ABS brakes even as an option. There are two can holders in the centre console but little other space for odds and ends, apart from a map holder in the driver's door and two curious little niches in each door that Daihatsu describes as 'ticket pockets'. The glovebox is only big enough to hold the vehicle's handbook.
There is a grab handle for the passenger if things get a bit lively (more of which later) and the CD player has a detachable front, which may or may not deter thieves. Having been the victim of a crime where the thief stole the back half of a stereo system from a Volkswagen LT I was testing, I remain unconvinced of the worth of these devices.
In the back#
The Extol features twin side sliding doors which operate smoothly and easily and an up-and-over tailgate at the rear which works with a damped operation.
The floor is flat and covered with a rubber mat but the position of the engine means the load floor is higher than you'd expect from looking at the outside of the van. There are no load lashing points. And here's a curious thing – although the Extol looks bigger than the Hijet, its load volume is lower (2.2 cubic metres ot the Hijet's 2.9 cu m) and the payload smaller (615kg to the Hijet's 635kg).
Cargo dimensions are 1,700mm load length, 1,330mm load width and 1,175mm load height.
On the road
Only one engine is available, the 1.3-litre petrol unit that powers the Toyota Yaris and Daihatsu Sirion, YRV and Terios. It's a shame there are no diesel versions but at least LPG conversions are possible.
It's a lively little unit offering 84bhp at 6,000rpm and 88lb-ft or torque at 4,400rpm and it revs freely and easily up to the red line.
The clutch is light and the gearchange is smoother than it feels at first but the general driving experince is spoiled for me by an overdamped power steering system which leaves no feel at all between the steering wheel and the road.
Anyone trying tricks on the corners in the wet will soon be taught a lesson as the front end is all too prone to break away under such conditions. But as long as you don't stuff the van into a wall, you soon get used to this shortcoming and learn to treat it with a little respect.
The high driving position of the Extol gives the impression that you are behind the wheel of a much bigger van.
But that's no bad thing.
Another plus point for city-based fleets is the astonishing 8.8-metre turning circle, which will see the little van fitting into gaps you'd never think possible. Warranty is three years/60,000 miles and srevicing intervals are 9,000 miles.
If I was driving long distances for a living, I would not choose this van. But Daihatsu didn't build the Extol for long-distance motorway work anyway – it was made for short haul city work and for that purpose it is an admirable performer for a staggeringly low price.
Price (£ ex-VAT): 6,995
Engine: 1.3i petrol
Power (bhp/rpm): 84/6,000
Torque (lb-ft/rpm: 88/4,400
Load vol (cu m): 2.2
Payload (kg): 615
Load length (mm): 1,700
Load width (mm): 1,330
Load height (mm): 1,175
Braked towing weight (kg): 1,000