With their third generation Combo, Vauxhall finally has a very class-competitive compact van, with both short and long wheelbase body styles that together should be able to satisfy almost every buyer in this segment. With frugal running costs, smart design and unbeaten practicality, it's everything a small LCV should be.
These days, van drivers are well used to a car-like response from LCVs, especially small ones. That doesn't necessarily mean an enjoyable driving experience though and in the second-generation Combo you didn't get one, hardly surprising given that it was based on the underpinnings of a Vauxhall Corsa designed way back in the undemanding Nineties. This third generation Combo of course is very different thanks to an independent Bi-link suspension system clever enough to provide supple ride comfort, yet firm enough to resist body roll and support heavy loads. It's a class-leading compromise.
Can the same be said of the engines on offer? Well, the all-diesel line-up certainly seems effective on paper. At entry-level, there's the 90PS 1.3-litre CDTi unit, with 200Nm of pulling power, torquey enough to work well for van buyers shopping at the small end of the spectrum. Those looking for something Berlingo or Kangoo-sized though, will be more likely to want the 105PS 1.6-litre CDTi variant. This gives you nearly 50% more torque to play with, enabling the braked trailer load capacity to rise from 1,000 to 1,300kgs. And you can access that pulling power via a six, rather than a five-speed gearbox.
Urban operators might not like the idea of having to use any kind of gearbox, so for them Vauxhall is offering a 'Tecshift' semi-automatic version of this 1.6-litre diesel Combo. The penalty for being able to rest your left foot is that the transmission has only five speeds and power drops to 90PS. But is power really an important issue in a van of this kind? If you think it is, then you'll be target market for the most powerful engine ever offered in a Combo, a 2.0-litre 135PS CDTi unit putting out a hefty 320Nm of torque from way low in the rev range, just 1,500rpm.
This third generation Combo has a very different look to its predecessors. Of course, it does you might think: it's a significantly bigger vehicle. True enough, but looking over the smart but practical shape, you're still left with the nagging feeling that there's nothing especially Vauxhall-like about this design, aside from the huge Griffin logo on the front grille. Maybe though that too is much as you would expect were you to be made aware that this is essentially a Vauxhall version of Fiat's Doblo Cargo. Like its Italian design stablemate, this model's front end is dominated by a huge pair of clear glass headlamps, here incorporating daytime running lights. It's all very smartly done. My only issue is a practical one: that placing directional indicators in these large door mirrors is going to make them much pricier to replace when, inevitably, you bash one on a tight city street.
It's certainly a practical cabin with a large lockable glove box, several cubbies in the dash and large door pockets with enough room for half-litre bottles and A4 clipboards. Go for a better trimmed or a high roof model and there's overhead storage as well. As expected, it's all very car-like. Ahead of you, there's a steering wheel that adjusts for both reach and rake. And you sit very comfortably, especially if you've got the plush Comfort seat with its height and lumbar adjustment as well as a built-in armrest. A place to do business.
Vauxhall builds more vans in Britain than anyone else. More importantly, it sells more vans in Britain than anyone else. All the more surprising given that this was the case before they were properly represented in the compact LCV segment.
This third generation Combo model ensures that they now are, effortlessly covering both the main small van segment sectors and doing so with class-leading practicality and an unbeaten set of running costs. It's the long awaited final piece of the Vauxhall van jigsaw, completing a total LCV model line-up with something to offer every UK business operator.
You won't see this model making too many headlines, but the reality is that it's one of the impressive vehicles that the brand makes. Quietly concentrating on the things that really matter to operators, to many it'll be invisible, just one of those fixtures of the urban environment that blend into the background. But then, sometimes the very best designs have the very lowest impact. What's important is that this Combo does more than enough to be spotted by the people who count. People who'll find this Vauxhall difficult to ignore in their search for a compact van. Job done.Click here to find out more about our Vauxhall Combo range
In Phase II guise, Renault's Kangoo Van has evolved into a very complete contender in the compact van sector. It comes in two distinct body shape sizes in a bid to cover the main bases in the compact van market. There's also a Crew van option and even a Z.E. 33 all-electric version. Whichever model you choose, you'll find it well-built, pretty practical and pleasantly styled with an economy-focused engine range. If you're buying in this sector, this is one of the models you need to consider.
All Kangoo models have great forward visibility, courtesy of the extensive windscreen and truncated bonnet, while the well-weighted steering and positive gearchange also impress. At the wheel of this Renault, you sit very upright, but quite comfortably thanks to the fact that both driver's seat and steering wheel are height-adjustable, plus there are remote controls for the stereo on the steering column.
On country roads, the wide track means that there's actually a reasonable amount of grip, whilst in town, light electric power steering makes it easy to slot into tight spaces, although until you get used to the shape, judging the extremities of the car during parking manoeuvres can be slightly difficult as the bonnet slopes away from you. Performance is leisurely, with even the fastest diesel models taking around 13s to reach sixty from rest on the way to just over 100mph.
Almost all customers choose a 1.5-litre dCi diesel that's offered in 75 and 90bhp outputs, though you can get a 1.6-litre petrol automatic with 105bhp if you really want to. All variants can haul a braked trailer grossing at 1,050kg but if you're going to be doing that very often, we'd suggest you choose the range-topping 1.5 dCi 110bhp Kangoo Van Maxi engine, which puts out a useful 240Nm of torque. That means fewer gear changes for diesel drivers and a much more leisurely feel, especially when towing. The other option is the all-electric Z.E. 33 variant with its 60bhp output and operating range of around 170 miles between charge-ups.
There's a revised front end to distinguish this Phase II Kangoo but none of the things that matter have really changed. Whichever body style you choose - the 4.2-metre-long Van or the 4.6-metre-long Van Maxi - the cab is pretty much identical. Even on the largest Kangoo, because the windscreen is placed well forward of the driver, the impression is that you're at the helm of a much bigger vehicle than you really are. Because this model doesn't have a raised roof, even in this biggest Maxi guise, its overall height of just 1.82m means it's compact enough to use in city centre car parks.
Inside, the basic dashboard design is still very user-friendly with its aviation-style handbrake designed to minimise strain on the wrist and dash-mounted gear lever. Certainly, by the standards of the compact van market, quality of fit and finish is impressive. The upright driving position also facilitates easy entries and exits.
An enormous amount of headroom is present in the front of the Kangoo, enough so that all kinds of elaborate headgear could be accommodated should the occasion arise. Though there's no optional middle seat of the kind that some rivals offer, space for driver and passenger is more than adequate, with only the passenger legroom (slightly restricted by the sloping floor) giving any cause for concern. If you need to carry more than one passenger, then it's worth checking out the Maxi Crew Van variant.
Given that no lesser industry light than Mercedes has based its own compact van upon it, you'd expect the Kangoo to be good. As it is in Phase II form. The ZE all-electric version still sets a new standard in its segment, while running costs are even more competitive than before. You'd also be quite shocked by just how much you can fit in the top Maxi version - enough to make you question whether a supposedly bigger Transit Custom or Vivaro-sized mid-range van model is really necessary.
Add in decent general ride comfort and the solidly-built interior and this Renault becomes a compact LCV that it's impossible to ignore. Whether or not you buy one may well all come down to the price you get and the proximity of your local franchise - in which case Renault dealers will likely feel quite confident in driving forward your business at the same time as driving forward theirs.Click here to find out more about our Renault Kangoo range
Ford Transit Connect
Ford's Transit Connect is a small van - with big ideas. It must suit buyers in both small and compact sectors of the LCV market - and does so thanks to the choice of both short and long wheelbase body styles and a versatile load bay. This revised version gets a smarter look, a classier cabin and a more efficient 1.5-litre EcoBlue diesel engine. Overall, there may be prettier little vans, but there are few more practical ones.
You don't buy any van prioritising ride and handling but with Ford's strong reputation in this department when it comes to passenger cars, then it's fair to expect this Transit Connect to dynamically, be one of the class leaders. Which broadly, it is. Like any LCV, this one handles better fully loaded, but even in the unladen state, cornering response is predictable and body roll well controlled. Once you've dropped off your load, you could even imagine rather enjoying yourself on the way home around the twisty stuff in one of these. To a point.
Of course, to a certain extent, you'll be limited by the modest output of the new 1.5-litre EcoBlue diesel powerplant that most Transit Connect customers go for. There's also an improved 1.0 EcoBoost petrol engine option. An upgraded six-speed manual transmission is now fitted to all engines as standard and the 1.5-litre EcoBlue engine can also be specified with an advanced new eight-speed automatic transmission, which has been engineered to deliver smooth, swift gearshifts.
If you're towing, then the top diesel's the variant to choose, offering a braked trailer towing capacity of up to 800kg. Depending on the variant you choose, the turning circle is between 11 and 11.9m. There's plenty of hi-tech here as well. Safety-wise, the Electronic Stability Program (ESP) is standard across the entire range, plus there's Hill Launch Assist to stop you drifting backwards on uphill junctions, Anti-Lock Brakes with Hydraulic Brake Assist, Active Yaw Control (that assists with oversteer and understeer), Roll Movement Intervention (to reduce body roll) and, if the worst comes to the worst, Roll Over Mitigation.
From the outside, it's clear that Ford's development team have prioritised function over form in this design. So, though the front end is these days sleeker and smarter, the overall look is still very boxy and practical-looking. Styling changes made to this revised model adopt the latest Ford design DNA. An imposing three-bar Transit grille combined with slimmer headlamps - with powerful HID Xenon lamps and LED daytime running lights available on high series models - combine with a more aerodynamic lower fascia and front spoiler to deliver a fresher look.
Inside, where build quality from the Turkish factory remains solid, it's much as before, though there's now a wider use of switchgear and design cues from plush Ford passenger car models like the S-MAX.
The upgraded cabin features a revised instrument panel with a new central control area that incorporates a floating, tablet-inspired six-inch colour touchscreen on high series models, featuring Ford's SYNC 3 communications and entertainment system. New trim materials provide a stylish and hard-wearing working environment for long working days in the cab. Getting comfortable at the wheel is easy thanks to a steering wheel adjustable for both reach and rake.
And there's plenty of cabin storage space. Though it's difficult to know where you would put a sandwich box, a flask or a big bottle of water, there are compartments both in front of the gearstick and behind the handbrake, then between them in the centre area between the seats, a holder for coins and tokens and two large cupholders, narrow bins in each door, a lidded glovebox, an optional tray under the front passenger seat and a shelf at the top of the facia capable of holding A4 documents. Oh, and a curry hook for your Friday night takeaway. A load-through hatch in the bulkhead and fold-flat passenger seat enable long loads up to 3.0m (L1) and 3.4m (L2) to be safely carried in the vehicle. In addition, a multi-fold dual passenger seat now enables van models to carry up to three people in the cab.
The improved Transit Connect remains a practical, no-nonsense, well-rounded package that still does a very effective job for Ford in appealing to business customers in both the small and not so small panel van sectors. The practicalities still stack up well against obvious rivals in both segments who clearly looked very carefully at what this model has to offer but, in many respects, failed to improve upon it.
It was just as well though, that the changes wrought upon this improved model were introduced. The introduction of a greener, more refined 1.5-litre EcoBlue diesel is welcome, as is the availability of an improved version of Ford's clever 1.0-litre EcoBoost petrol unit. With electric power in its future, this Connect will continue as an alternative that all small and compact van buyers need to consider. Tough, practical and ready for anything. Just as any Transit should be.Click here to find out more about our Ford Transit Connect range