Volkswagen's Crafter, the UK's fourth bestselling large van, is the thinking business person's choice in this sector, especially since it was improved with a smarter look, a fresh range of 2.0 TDI diesel engines and enhanced safety and media connectivity. Now making more sense than ever before on the balance sheet, this is a contender better placed than most to take in its stride whatever your company can throw at it.
Once you settle into driving a large van like this, it's a very commanding experience. You sit high up in quite a car-like position thanks to the upright steering wheel, enjoying a supportive seat that's equipped with an armrest to prop a weary elbow on over longer trips. A pity then, that earlier Crafter engines tended to be relatively ponderous. That's not the case anymore thanks to far-reaching changes under the bonnet of this revised version and the adoption of a freshly designed electro-mechanical steering system.
Engine changes centre around the installation of a freshly-designed 2.0-litre TDI diesel unit, available to 102, 122 and 140PS outputs, plus there's a potent bi-turbo version putting out 177PS. All the engines will get you and your load where you need to be with deceptive speed. The smoothness and pulling power of this 2.0-litre unit is something that operators familiar with the old version may well notice in the first half a mile of use, even in the entry-level 102PS variant. Customers have a choice between front, rear and all-wheel drive (4MOTION), as well as the option of a manual or automatic gearbox.
Power arrives low in the rev range so that you don't have to row the thing along with the gear lever so much in town. On the open road, overtaking's easy too. It's the main reason why this vehicle has so much towing power too, all Crafters able to haul a braked trailer grossing at up to 2,000kgs. Further up the range, the differences with what went before are even greater, the top-flight twin-turbo 177PS BiTDI variant offering around 400Nm of torque.
This Crafter now features a smarter front end intended to bring the design more into line with the stylistic look of company's smaller Transporter and Caddy van models.
Moving inside is easy, thanks to a low step and a large door opening. And once in the cab, well, it's much as before. Volkswagen's designers had a chance with this enhanced model to brighten up the working environment. They haven't really taken it, but there is a smarter, higher quality feel about the interior these days, thanks to a smart instrument cluster with cool white illumination and darker, practical upholstery that'll be hardwearing. As you'd expect, two or three people can comfortably travel side by side in the front, but if you're not using the middle seat, you can pull down its centre section and turn it into a table complete with two upholders and a pen-holder - ideal if you've paperwork to complete or if you're stopping somewhere to have a bite of lunch.
The driver's seat is multi-adjustable and the wheel can adjust for reach and rake, so it's easy to get comfortable. Once you are, there's plenty of space for all your odds and ends, with storage spaces aplenty. You get a large bin in each of the doors big enough to store a large road atlas and a 1.5-litre drinks bottle. Then there are large shelves above the windscreen and more shelves (one of which is big enough for an A4-sized clipboard) on top of the fascia. There are no fewer than five cupholders for that morning trip to McDonalds and a handy dash-mounted clip to deal with stray paperwork. You also get a large glovebox that can be air-conditioned to keep drinks cool. And useful jacket hooks on the B-pillars.
Is there a better quality large panel van out there than the Volkswagen Crafter? Assuming you prefer the Volkswagen's engine range and pricing structure to that of its Mercedes Sprinter stablemate, then you'd have to say not. The only issue this vehicle used to have centred upon its running costs, but these are now amongst the most efficient in the class thanks to the adoption of a far cleaner and more frugal set of Euro6 2.0 TDI diesel engines.
Yes, the Crafter is priced at a premium compared to rivals but you can see and feel where the extra money goes. Forward-thinking businesses will accept this on the basis that residual values are very strong and the whole vehicle feels - and is - built to last, enabling companies to spread the up-front sticker price over a longer operating period. In ten years' time, we'd wager that this vehicle will still be going strong at a point when most of its rivals will be falling to pieces. Enough said.Click here to find out more about our Volkswagen Crafter range
Sharing a platform with the Peugeot Boxer and Fiat Ducato, Citroen's Relay scores with keen pricing and strong equipment levels. If you thought this sector of the commercial vehicle market began and ended with the Ford Transit, you'll find the Relay offers a wholly convincing alternative, with features you wouldn't expect at this price point. Thanks to a fresh range of BlueHDi diesel engines, it's now more efficient too.
Citroen certainly hasn't skimped when it comes to offering customers engine choices. It's common practice in this sector to offer one or two power outputs of the same basic turbodiesel engine. The Relay goes to battle armed with a range of three BlueHDi powerplants. Buyers get to choose from 110, 130 and 160PS units - and all are available mated to six-speed, all-synchromesh manual gearboxes. All engines are of 2.0-litre capacity and have been optimised for class-leading fuel economy.
Citroen has also listened to feedback from existing Relay users who expressed a concern that road noise in the cabin was higher than the class benchmark and the latest Relay features redesigned shock absorber mountings to reduce the amount of suspension bump and thump entering the cabin. The brakes have been beefed up as well, with dimensional and tolerance changes to make them more effective. They're quieter in operation as well.
If you haven't tried a Relay for some time, you may not be up to speed with the way that the current generation design has been much improved in recent years. The front-end features large high-mounted headlights incorporating daytime running lights. It also incorporates a multi-piece front bumper to minimise accident damage and reduce repair costs.
Climb inside and you'll be greeted by surprisingly high-quality cab trim and a logical dashboard layout. The Relay features a dual passenger seat incorporating a drop-down desk unit. Up to ten in-cab storage areas are available, including the glovebox, a dash-mounted document clip and various open or lidded compartments on the dashboard. In addition, there are large door pockets, storage space beneath the passenger seat and a sizeable 22-litre overhead storage compartment.
There's been a clear effort not just to improve the perception of quality in the cab but also to beef up high use, high stress items such as the rear doors. These have been reinforced and higher strength door hinges are now used. Similarly, the sliding side load doors have benefited from reinforced rails, re-designed runners and improved door locks - all of which raise durability and security standards.
The Citroen Relay probably isn't going to be the first choice that springs to mind when you're building a preliminary shortlist for a large van, but it definitely deserves to be on your list. The basic van itself is extremely tough and well equipped, and from that point, you can specify a variety of options packs as required.
Citroen has clearly thought long and hard about reducing operator costs. The service intervals have gone out to two years or 30,000 miles. There's also a flexible warranty of 2 years/unlimited mileage or 3 years/100,000 miles, whichever comes first. The standard Trafficmaster system is also a real boon, allowing operators to benefit from efficient vehicle routing, avoiding traffic delays, plus there's the security of stolen vehicle tracking in the event of vehicle theft. If you thought all vans were the same, perhaps it's time you concentrated on how the manufacturers differentiate their products. On that score, Citroen's done a great job with the Relay. It deserves your attention.Click here to find out more about our Citroen Relay range
The Renault Master has been a mainstay of the large van sector for some time now, along with its siblings, the Nissan NV400 and Vauxhall Movano. With a vast choice of body styles, engines and options, the Master features economical and refined powerplants, load volumes from 8 to 22 cubic metres and fresh face.
The biggest changes to this Master come under the bonnet, where Renault now offers a choice of four dCi diesel engines. They're all based on the same 2.3-litre block, but the 110 and 125PS entry level engines are bolstered by one turbocharger, while the heavier duty 135 and 165PS units get a pair of turbos bolted on. Even the 110PS unit generates a respectable slug of torque, with 285Nm available at just 1,250rpm. The twin-turbo 165PS powerplant is good for 360Nm at 1,500rpm. A dual mass flywheel and a crankshaft with eight counterweights also help to reduce engine noise and cut the amount of vibration coming into the cabin.
The Master is available in both front and rear-wheel drive layouts and Renault has even built a special heavy hauler model optimised for motorway usage. The rear-wheel drive L4 version with single rear wheels has been added to the Master catalogue, in addition to the existing twin rear-wheel version. This variant means that 30 extra centimetres are now available between the interior rear wheel wells, which means a euro pallet can be loaded widthways. Five such pallets can be accommodated, and that is sure to interest long distance operators and express courier businesses at which this version is aimed. This version of the Master is only available with twin turbo engines. Fuel consumption is down by around half a litre per 100km compared with the equivalent twin-wheeled version, thanks notably to a longer final drive ratio (which means lower revs for the same travelling speed), plus the vehicle's lighter weight, reduced rolling resistance and the better aerodynamics of the single rear wheels.
The cabin of the Master has been designed to be as car-like in its seating position as possible while incorporating a number of 'office on wheels' features. Renault has given a lot of thought to the depth of the footwells relative to the hip point of the seating and the degree of seat rake available to offer a supremely comfortable driving angle that's a long way from the sit-up-and-beg stance you had to adopt in older vans. A suspension seat is available as an option, as indeed is seat heating. The design of the windscreen and side windows, plus the high-up seating position ensure commanding vertical and horizontal fields of vision of 39.9 and 193.1 degrees respectively.
The Renault Master is one of those vans that has improved at such a steady rate that it's quietly turned from an also-ran into a real contender. No, the interior doesn't feel quite as plush as a Crafter or a Sprinter, but you won't worry too much about that when you drive the Master and realise that it's more comfortable than both of them, so you'll emerge fresher after a long day at the wheel.
There's also a vast amount of different configuration options to choose from and the special L4 body optimised for motorway use is bound to attract the attention of those operators who need goods hauled long distances quickly and efficiently. The one thing that comes shining through like a beacon when giving this vehicle the once-over is that Renault has clearly engaged deeply with not just the people who buy vans, but the people who use them on a day to day basis. That can only spell good things.Click here to find out more about our Renault Master range