Volkswagen's Crafter, the UK's fourth best selling 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.
Inside, the space available will of course depend upon your choice of wheelbase - short, medium, long or Maxi. And you'll also need to carefully select your roof height, the choice being between normal, high or super-high, equating to interior roof heights of 1.65m, 1.94m and 2.14m respectively. There are four load compartment lengths varying between 2,600mm and 4,700mm.
Load volumes vary between 7.5 and 17 cubic metres. The load width is 1780mm, narrowing to 1350mm between the wheelboxes. Payload capacity, now increased, will of course depend on your choice of Gross Vehicle Weight - 3.0, 3.5 or 5.0 tonnes.
Active driver assistance systems include ESP with trailer stabilisation, ACC Adaptive Cruise Control, a post-collision braking system, a side wind compensation system and a trailer manoeuvring assistant system. Buyers might also also want a reversing camera, a parking distance monitor and a Rear Traffic Alert system. Optional LED headlights, cornering lights and a Light Assist set-up can ensure a clear view of the road ahead at night, while the Crafter can also now come with online services tailored to the specific needs of customers.
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
Fiat's Ducato might not be the first name on your LCV shortlist, but the latest Euro6-engined model definitely merits your attention. Spun off the same platform as the Peugeot Boxer and the Citroen Relay, the Ducato scores in three key areas; robustness, low running costs and increased cabin sophistication.
Fiat has established itself as a centre of excellence for diesel engine technology and the Euro6 MultiJet II engines found under the bonnets of the Ducato reinforce that reputation. Most Ducato buyers opt for the entry-level unit, now a 2.0-litre 115bhp Multijet unit that's downsized from its predecessor Euro5 powerplant. Similarly, the flagship engine, previously 3.0-litres in size, is now a 2.3-litre MultiJet II unit, though it still develops 180bhp, the same as before. The core 2.3-litre MultiJet 130 and 150bhp engines continue on from before but get upgraded LPEGR technology to improve their efficiency.
As before, all the engines are mated to six-speed, all-synchromesh manual gearboxes and there's also the option of a ComfortMatic transmission. The braking system benefits from effective discs which are ventilated 280mm or 300mm rotors, depending on gross vehicle weight. In recent times, Fiat has added in tougher brake pads and a more powerful brake servo too, along with a redesigned brake pedal that allows for smoother modulation of braking pressures while reducing pedal effort by up to 45 per cent.
Mechanically, the Ducato retains its front-wheel drive configuration with a McPherson front suspension and a rigid-axle rear suspension with leaf springs. The front suspension top mounts have been reinforced to reduce noise, with a number of rear suspension configurations on offer depending on vehicle use. Single-leaf springs, with or without anti-roll bars, underpin standard van and passenger versions. Double-leaf springs, again with or without anti-roll bars, cater to large-capacity vans and heavy conversions. A heavy-duty rear suspension with double leaf-springs and an anti-roll bar is available for very heavy conversions up to maximum 2,500kg allowed.
The Ducato has come in for a fairly extensive refresh with this sixth-generation model. The front end now features large high-mounted headlights incorporating daytime running lights. It also incorporates a new grille as well as a multi-piece front bumper to minimise accident damage and reduce repair costs.
The cabin quality has improved significantly inside and Fiat has reconfigured the dash to improve ergonomics. The Ducato gets a dual passenger seat incorporating a drop-down desk unit. Up to ten in-cab storage areas are available, including the glovebox, a fascia-mounted document clip and various open or lidded compartments on the dashboard. In addition, there are large door pockets, a storage space beneath the passenger seat and a sizeable 22-litre overhead storage compartment.
Pounding the streets of Naples or Palermo is about as tough an assignment as you could think to put a commercial vehicle through, but it's here that Fiat's Ducato has earned a loyal following. If it can put up with that sort of traffic, heat-cycling, and punishment from potholes, cobbles and other road users, British conditions aren't going to make it break a sweat. The latest model builds on the toughness of its predecessor and adds a welcome layer of technical sophistication.
Fuel economy has been markedly improved and it's impossible to argue with the basic practicality of the Ducato. Perhaps the biggest threat this van has to face down is from its sister vehicles, the Citroen Relay and the Peugeot Boxer. Your buying decision may very well come down to which of these three you can negotiate the best deal on, but do consider the Fiat's better fuel economy before haggling.Click here to find out more about our Fiat Ducato 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.
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.
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