As anyone, who has travelled to Europe will testify, the windowed van is the ultimate one family vehicle, writes Iain Robertson, satisfying multiple tasks that include classless people-carrying and workhorse duties.
We are such car snobs in the UK. Over the past twenty years, despite the spectre of catastrophic economic collapse hanging over our heads like a trembling Sword of Damacles, the largely affordable, mainstream ‘Cortina’ of the 1960s, which was perfect for a realistic pipe-smoking parent of the era, has been supplanted by a semi-amorphous blob wearing a Teutonic badge of office. Unless it possesses a ‘Three-Pointed-Star’, a blue-and-white roundel, or four-interlinked-rings, its driver is classified as council-house clobber.
There are socio-political reasons for this situation, which are bolstered by a cloying financial greed that makes consumer goods unrealistically priced, turns banks into faceless, hateful entities and encourages social clambering today like it has never existed before. A sometime class structure has denigrated into an ‘us and them’ situation, perpetrated by the city oiks of the mid-1980s, who managed to straddle the unseen lines that epitomised the Thatcher generation.
Drive a purposeful van and you are a ‘workie’. Drive an excessive Bimmer and you are something else. Yet, the pan-European view is genuinely something else. It is never more clear than when popping down to the beach in Marbella, Figueira da Foz, or Juan les Pins, on a Sunday lunchtime, when countless Ap three-wheelers arrive, with racks on their roofs and lace curtains on their side-windows, disgorging mama, papa and 2.3 kiddiewinks, all dressed to the nines, at a cost-effective eatery for post-church, Sunday brunch. They do not care. It is basic transport. It is the vehicle for the plumber, the baker, the local artisan that doubles as the family hack and serves purpose, when a crust is not being earned.
Around six years ago, I was allowed to run a van-with-windows, as a long-term test vehicle. It was supplied to me by Peugeot. Its name, which was far too long even for its sizeable, hatchback rear door, was Peugeot Partner Tepee Outdoor 1.6HDi. For my regular newspaper reports of the day, I renamed it ‘Le Shed’. I knew it was the wrong ‘sex’ and should have been ‘La’ but that was not the point. I was being pointed. The ultimate irony was that my stance on ‘Le Shed’, while not appreciated initially by the local Peugeot dealer, led to a local demand, with over forty examples of the vehicle being sold over a 12-months period to customers requesting ‘one of those Le Sheds’. While I was nonplussed by it, at the outset, I grew to admire and love it.
While its list price has escalated by almost £5,000 over the intervening half a decade, its kissing cousin, the Citroen Berlingo Multispace XTR 1.6BlueHDi 120 S&S tested here also has insufficient space on its hatchback rear door for its badge. Slipping behind the steering wheel, apart from a few extra niceties, such as sat-nav and proximity sensors (for parking purposes) and the change from rampant Lion to double-chevrons on the steering wheel boss, it is largely identical to my former steed. Therefore, I am calling it ‘Le Shed II’.
Personally, I think that whatever popularity I created for this van-with-windows back then does not qualify it to be priced at a whopping £20,345 today. Yet, it is a price tag that can be justified by its enormous boot (645 litres, seats-up; 3,000-litres, seats down) and a specification that leaves an owner wanting for nothing. Good heavens! When a Ford Fiesta, powered by a feeble 1.0-litre turbo-petrol engine can cost almost the same, there is no viable comparison.
The Citroen is powered by the latest version of the 1.6-litre turbo-diesel that propelled ‘my’ ‘Le Shed’ to a trans-continental top speed of an indicated 120mph, while having enough mid-range verve to more than keep up with the rest of the traffic. Of course, as is the way, it is cleaner and greener and kicks out 10bhp more, while emitting just 115g/km CO2 undoubtedly aided by its ‘stop-start’ system, thereby qualifying it for zero-cost VED in year one but only £30 per annum thereafter (while rating it at a lowly 21% for BIK business taxation). It is also rated at a cost-efficient Group 17E for insurance purposes.
Its top speed is posted at 109mph but I know that, well run-in, ‘Le Shed II’ will top that figure with ease…in Germany, of course. Its 0-60mph acceleration benchmark is given as 11.1 seconds, which is far speedier than the aforementioned Fiesta. However, its Official Combined fuel return is given as 64.2mpg, which I appreciate is typical pie-in-the-sky but compares favourably with the 51.4mpg that I obtained in a week’s worth of motoring joy. It is aided by the leggy 6th gear that allows a 60mph cruise at only 2,000rpm.
Based on the platform of the Citroen C4/Peugeot 308, ‘Le Shed II’ is suspended like a sporty estate car and it corners with glee, sticking to the driver-chosen line religiously and seldom being deflected by mid-corner bumps. Its ride quality is firm but comfortable and its steering is faithful to input, belying its relative bulk and van-like proportions. It stops well. Goes well. Handles well. Thanks to a healthy 221lbs ft of torque, the refined and punchy diesel engine pulls like a steam-train and requires menu servicing only once every 20,000 miles. Quad erat demonstrandum!
Okay. Inside ‘Le Shed II’ is ‘plastique-fantastique’. The Berlingo cannot hide its commercial vehicle origins. Yet, that is not to suggest that it is any worse than that bloody Fiesta, which also relies on a hard, plastic-moulded interior. However, as stated earlier, the driver/owner will want for nothing. It is eminently practical, with a deep lidded (and removable) bin between the front seats, immense door pockets, under-seat trays, dash-top trays (the one ahead of the driver is lidded), drinks-holders fore and aft and even an overhead series of trays and bins, because there is space on high. Unlike ‘Le Shed I’, those upper trays have felt-lined bases, which means that items stashed there do not slide around and are not ejected, with every enthusiastic cornering manoeuvre. Ah…a step into the modern world.
While the large front doors allow graceful entry and exit to ‘Le Shed II’, the rear sliding doors, which allow access to three, individual, sliding, reclining and folding/removable seats, would not be out of place on a most practical taxi and there are more storage bins below the carpet. The driving position, behind a rake and reach adjustable steering wheel, is very good, if a little van-like, but both front chairs feature flip-up armrests and height, as well as rake adjustment for added comfort.
The touch-screen in the upper section of dashboard enables several cabin functions to be managed and the climate control system works efficiently at cooling an interior that can become very warm in continental sunshine, even though the four glazed sections of roof feature sun-dimming glass. Cruise control (incorporating a ‘speed limiter’), on-board computer and a remote ‘wand’ for the in-car entertainment are also standard on ‘Le Shed II’.
However, as mentioned earlier, it is the cavernous boot that makes this vehicle what it is. The rear window can be opened separately, which makes boot loading feasible in tight spaces. However, when you crack open the hatchback, there is acres of space to play with. ‘Le Shed II’ is a ‘car’ that makes a lot of sense as a genuine multi-purpose vehicle. It possesses zero pretensions but leaves most MPVs and SUVs seriously wanting on the space and comfort fronts. If load-lugging is your requirement for six out of seven days but it helps to transport the children to their five-a-side football matches on Sunday morning, complete with a heap of equipment, then this is the car for you. Of course, ‘Le Shed II’ is perfect for dog-owners/breeders, outdoor sports enthusiasts, antiques shop owners and those aforementioned local artisans, who desire multi-role family transport at weekends.
To be quite frank, driving ‘Le Shed II’ was like reacquainting myself with an old friend. I enjoyed every single minute of travelling to distant appointments, doing the shopping, popping to the takeaway and punting around the back doubles, rain, hail and shine. The Citroen Berlingo (and for that matter any van-derived-car) is so much better a driving experience than it deserves to be and, as a future motive force, it makes so much sense.
Drop your estuary twang, stop trying to be something that you are not. Get rid of the up-market prestige parked on your driveway and wake up and smell the reality of proper wheels. The Citroen Berlingo, or ‘Le Shed II’, is the ultimate, classless, do-almost-anything mode of transport. Cheap to run and live with, it might be the most undemanding vehicle that you have ever owned and will serve purpose like nothing you have owned.