CC Global: Compact European Panel Vans – Their Evolution In The Past 25 Years

Panel vans based on small and compact car models have always been the most common commercial vehicles throughout Europe. Widespread, from north to south and from west to east. Both in urban and in rural areas. Everybody likes these little Jack-of-all-trades, from cable guys to farmers. Cheap to buy, cheap to run, easy to drive and with a decent level of comfort and handling (because car based, not truck based). And with a nice low and flat cargo bed.

All mainstream automakers offered one or more models, using their small or compact cars as a starting point. With a beefed up chassis and suspension, so that they could cope with the extra weight and, maybe even more important, the extra abuse.

When comparing the previous generations with today’s models, the most striking difference is the design of these vans. In the older models you can clearly recognize the hatchback model, on which the van was based. From front bumper to B-pillar it was the car model alright. From there on a boxy and taller cargo compartment took over the original hatchback design. A cargo box, quite literally, with rear doors.

Now the driver’s compartment perfectly matches the cargo compartment; a one piece design, with a one piece roof. The van’s body doesn’t resemble the automaker’s hatchback model anymore. Today most of these compact van models are also offered with rear seats and rear side windows. Which actually makes these minivans great minivans.

The small vans of yore mostly had dead simple four-cylinder diesel engines, with a displacement between 1.7 and 2.0 liter. Then the turbo chargers arrived, followed by direct injection and later on common rail injection. Displacement shrunk though, by now somewhere between 1.3 and 1.6 liter for the diesel offerings is the norm. Still, the power and torque numbers went up. The payload capacity of the smallest panel van models is around 500 to 650 kg (1,100 to 1,400 lbs).

What follows next is a comparison between some of the renowned (circa) 1990 models and their current equivalents, so 25 years later. In alphabetical order.

The first generation of the Fiat Fiorino was based on the Fiat 127. In 1988 it was superseded by the model in which we all recognize the Fiat Uno hatchback.

Arguably the Fiat Group is the Master of Vans these days. Fiat offers five distinctive models, from small to big: Fiorino, Doblò, Scudo, Ducato and the Iveco Daily.

However, only the big Iveco Daily is a “unique” Fiat Group product. All the others are also sold by other European automakers, here’s the short list:

– Fiat Fiorino, aka Citroën Nemo and Peugeot Bipper (Sevel joint venture).

– Fiat Doblò, aka Opel & Vauxhall Combo. Ram ProMaster City in North America.

– Fiat Scudo, aka Citroën Jumpy and Peugeot Expert (Sevel joint venture). Toyota offers this van as the ProAce.

– Fiat Ducato, aka Citroën Jumper and Peugeot Boxer (Sevel joint venture). Ram ProMaster in North America.

The first Euro-Ford Courier was introduced in 1991, based on the Ford Fiesta Mk3. For a very long time Ford also offered its Euro-Escorts as panel vans.

These days Ford offers four Transit models, from small to big: the Transit Courier, the Transit Connect, the Transit Custom and the Transit. All of them are also available as people movers, known as the Tourneo models, except the biggest Transit. Which is just called “minibus”, as far as I know.

A six-door Ford, since this Transit Courier has sliding doors on both sides and two rear doors, for a maximum of practicality.

Renault has a very long history of building small panel vans, in 1986 the French automaker introduced their new Express, based on the contemporary R5. Or Supercinq, in correct French.

The first generation of the Renault Kangoo was introduced in 1997, today’s smallest Renault panel van is called the Kangoo Express. Like so many other vans, the Kangoo has also been cloned, as a Mercedes Citan. Mercedes also uses Renault diesels in other vehicles. If you read that a Mercedes has a 1.5 or 1.6 liter diesel engine, then it comes from Renault.

The 1990 Volkswagen Caddy is clearly not a van, but a pickup truck based on the Golf Mk1 hatchback.

The Caddy II family was introduced in 1995, built on the same platform as the contemporary Volkswagen Polo hatchback. The Spanish equivalent of the Caddy van was called the Seat Inca.

Recently introduced, the Caddy panel van as sold today.

This is what’s going on inside the Volkswagen Transporter’s smaller family member. The Volkswagen Caddy and Transporter are not shared with any other automaker. Just like the whole Ford Transit family, the Mercedes Vito and the Iveco Daily. The rest of the Euro vans, regardless their size, is either badge-engineered (joint ventures) or just a plain rebadge job.

Nonetheless, the compact panel van is still the Jack-of-all-trades it has always been. Wherever you go in Europe, the whole landscape is littered with these handymen. The counterpart of the pickup trucks in North America. Or the utes Down Under. And the small car-based pickup trucks in South America.