(first posted 7/24/2015) 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 In 1988 it was superseded by the model in which we all recognize the Fiat Uno hatchback.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.
Not sure which I’d choose , prolly the Transit Connect with Diesel , IIRC they offer a tiny Diesel engine in Europe .
The Ford Transit Courier (it’s smaller than the Transit Connect you also have in the US) is available with a 1.0 liter EcoBoost gasoline engine, a 1.5 liter diesel and a 1.6 liter diesel (called Duratorq TDCi engines).
Yep as usual a PSA/Ford diesel comes with any Ford if you tick the box.
If the Renault Express and Fiat Fiorino are in the list, so must be the Citröen C15, based on the Visa…
Thanks for clarifying the difference between the Transit Connect and Tourneo … I saw both on my recent visit to Turkey, but it never clicked that the Tourneo badge was only on the passenger version (both are badged Transit Connect in the U.S.). In general in my travels, I see vans or pickups but rarely many of both, even occasionally with very localized preferences. But in rural Turkey there were quite a few pickups alongside the vans. And I noticed that in northern England. But in Thailand and of course the U.S., mostly pickups. Taiwan, China and Western Europe, mostly vans
Was there a reason you skipped the Citroen Berlingo?
I just picked the ones that kept their old names, more or less…
The Citroën Berlingo is the same van as the Peugeot Partner. Here’s the current model Berlingo (the C15’s successor, as pictured above by karonetwentyc).
that caddy panel van is sharp
I’m not sure why it’s taken so long for the US to get these smaller vans, and their use seems to increase exponentially every day. Every white F150 getting 15 mpg replaced by a Transit Connect getting 25+ mpg is a bonus in my book. For lots of businesses, the vans are just better, and no heavy duty use (Econoline, F-Series) is needed (Florist, office supplies, security installation, and on and on)
I’m surprised we don’t get any of the still smaller “vans”, like the Fiesta Panel which has no backseat and panel windows. There’s some local home health companies who still use Toyota Matrixes (Matrices?) and are now phasing in Focuses (Focii?), that have pulled the backseats, and put cargo barriers in.
Sedan deliveries have always been a tiny niche in the US when they’ve been offered at all; I suspect all but the largest fleet operators would just as soon fold the seats down on the normal hatchback and take the easier resale.
The sedan delivery concept has been absent from the US for 50+ years, FWD 4 cylinder vehicles didn’t even exist the last time one was sold here.
I would think the market for smaller and smaller commercial vehicles will continue to be explored in the US. The success of the Transit Connect, and now all the new offerings, will allow a bigger market.
And as to resale, I think it would mirror any commercial vehicle. Used until not financially viable, and sold at auction. The converted hatches are going to have holes in the interior from mounting the dividers, and all sort of extra wear in the rear, not to mention their exterior graphics, etc. No different from any used commercial vehicle, so why not start out dedicated?
The odd smaller vans that do get made tend to be loved, and stick around working for a while. I still see lots of panel HHRs delivering flowers etc, and they’ve been off the market for years. There’s also a lot more old panel Astros still working than I ever see passenger versions.
Recently read about a Californian residential HVAC contractor trading his fleet of cluttered full size vans for converted Scions. The rear windows are covered in decals to make them look like vans. There’s a chest of drawers fitted in the trunk, you can pack stuff in the former location of the rear seats, and on the roof there’s space for the ladders and a roofbox for additional storage. The economy of the things seems phenomenal and they look really cool in my opinion.
A local panel beater cobbled this Toyota BB ute from a wreck, the Scion brand doesnt exist outside the US.
Good overview Johannes! Really shows the role of the small van here, and how they transformed from cars-with-boxes to monospace very practical boxes.
However, you didn’t mention the one van that started the whole monospace thing: the Citroën Berlingo and Peugeot Partner. An instant hit when they were launched in 1996 and for good reason: they were the first purpose-built small vans. Their passenger versions sold very well for the same reason: they were small outside but VERY roomy. They were economical, handled reasonably well (thanks to the Peugeot 306 platform), had a small turning circle (useful in Europe’s narrow streets), were reliable, and they were really cheap. Even Jeremy Clarkson raved about it in the first “modern” Top Gear episode ever (hilarious to watch today, the studio is completely empty), and why? Because it had character. If anything, the first Berlingo/Partner was the real successor to the 2CV, but much more practical (and, as a diesel, just as noisy).
The current Berlingo/Partner (since 2008) unfortunately does not offer all of the same benefits: it is much larger but not as easy to handle and much heavier, therefore more expensive to own and run, and not as practical in the cities. It is much more car-like but, as a passenger version, almost as expensive as the C4 Picasso purpose-built minivan. Doesn’t sell as well as its predecessor, and leaves a gap since the Nemo/Bipper is again a bit too small.
On a smaller scale there were also the van-conversions of people movers / MPVs / minivans. No rear seats, blinded side (rear) windows, flat cargo floor, often with a raised roof.
This Chrysler Voyager “van-edition” is 20 years old.
Those used to be fairly common here; a “Ram Van” version of the Caravan (later rebadged to Caravan C/V) was one of the original launch variants. Not sure if they are still available or not… I think the first-generation models actually had full metal sides with no windows, whereas the later ones kept the windows to get rid of a different stamping, just with body-color coverings.
Here’s a Lancia (ahem…) Voyager van-conversion with a 2.8 liter VM Motori diesel. As I said below, these van conversions are aftermarket jobs.
Some of those still have the XUD 1905xcc TDI thats in my Xsara best small diesel ever made and thanx to joint ventures in China an everlasting supply of parts should they be needed.
Great vans. As a once upon a time owner of a Vega Panel Express, I think I’d go with one of the small (still) car-based panel vans…..preferably a Ford.
It would take me 2 seconds to pull the trigger on a Transit Connect if Ford USA sold the manual transmission version here.
Alas, they never will… so I never will.
Good info on vehicles that we almost never see in the States. Our compact vans were just that in the early to mid 1960s, but just kept getting bigger. Until the Transit Connect showed up, there really wasn’t anything offered here. One more example of how the tax/tariff system in place messes with the choices we get.
In California, the vehicle tax system does punish larger commercial vehicles, based on “unladen weight” but most people just bitch about the high fees, because the choices are limited by what happens nationally, not just here.
That is another reason, in addition to purchase price, Fiesta or Focus hatches are used for some delivery fleets instead of the Transit Connect. The “chicken tax” is another economic barrier to choice in the United States. Nissan builds the NV200 and its Chevy rebadge in Mexico, avoiding the tax, but Ford puts back seats in every Transit Connect imported from Turkey, therefore making it a passenger car and avoiding the tariff.
The old Renault 4 was also availble as a panel van tough it look more like a sedan delivery.
I remember going to school in the the back of a Hillman Imp van (aka Commer Imp van) with no rear windows……times have changed
I owned a 61 Commer Cob the more van than wagon version of the Audax range way back when wish I still had it, but designs have moved on since then or have they? Most of these are available here my local PSA dealer has the Peugeot Citroen twins and everything else has a local outlet it seems, Around the corner from my house near the Simca collector is a 1300 MK2 Escort van still in daily use, must shoot it for the cohort.
The C15 Diesel was a great little Q ship,surprising how many cars you could whizz past with the low torque of the engine.Loved riving them more than some cars.
Don’t forget Citroen also did a pickup version of the C15.
I remember my first long ride in a C15 Diesel, the road surface was flat all of a sudden and the Diesel would humm at 130 kph, I had a rather high-end company Golf 2, but the ride, the road holding and the seating in the simple Citroën seats made the journey a feast !
Great car, wish the French would make French cars again……….
I always liked the Citroen C15, and the Bedford HA, possibly just because they hung around long after the car versions.
I think we also need to give an honourable mention to the Reliant 3 wheeler car derived vans!
As an aside, some classic car based van models were also available with windows all around and rear seats. Like this Renault Express.
You can see the problem though….everybody wants to know where the Pope is….
Looks rather like…..
In my memory, the most common UK panel van was the astramax, based on the Vauxhall Astra. A good company vehicle, in that they coped well with abuse. A hard driven Astramax was very hard to keep up with.
I think Clarkson claimed the Bedford Astramax diesel was the fastest car in the world, because no matter what you were driving or how fast you were going, there was always a guy behind you in an Astramax, flashing his lights trying to get past.
I used to find the same phenomenon occurring in the Scottish Borders, but it would be a Hilux with an Ifor Williams canopy and a couple of sheepdogs in the back. Saw some astounding overtaking manouevres on the A7 and A68.
Very informative article on a topic that is increasingly appealing to me. It’s also quite timely as I saw my first ever Iveco yesterday. It was obviously an RV and had European plates. It was quite the head turner.
That’s interesting Jason, motorhomes based on an Iveco (the Daily, I guess) chassis are quite rare here. Mostly the smaller FWD Fiat Ducato~Ram ProMaster is used for motorhomes. The Daily is a bigger and more heavy-duty RWD chassis.
Was it something like this ? Not the latest model Iveco Daily though, but still a recent model.
Similar front, but different up fitting. It was a more a box shape with single rear wheels and the entire thing was a desert sand beige color. I could see people moving around in the back as it was in the parking lot where I work when I arrived around 6:30 am. The suspension also appeared to be off road capable with a skid plate up front.
Picture taking wasn’t conducive but it sure caught my eye.
OK then, an Iveco Daily 4×4 in a desert sand beige color.
The box was a wee bit taller, but you have nailed it!
Thats odd you cant throw a stone without it hitting an IVECO based camper van here though I do see Transits becoming more popular now they have FWD, nice low floor.
Not that offroad version though
The selection for work vehicles is becoming increasingly exciting. Too bad that happened a few years after it was important for me.
Great article. Read all your comments because they are always well grounded and intelligent. Your article was no less so.
That Caddy van is really looking good. Europe really did get some useful and economical work vehicles. Lots of interesting info in this write up.
An excellent read as always, Johannes.
A friend has a Skoda Yeti. Is there a commercial version of that in Europe, or is it passenger-only?
Volkswagen builds the VAG Group’s (factory) panel vans. The Caddy, the Transporter (everybody still calls it a “Volkswagen bus”) and the big Crafter, which Mercedes calls the Sprinter.
Below a Skoda Yeti that was converted into a van by a specialist, so an aftermarket job. This way it can be registered as a commercial vehicle, like the factory panel vans. Common practice in my country. Bigger SUVs often get this treatment, like the Land Cruiser 150-series, the Mercedes ML and the Land Rover Discovery.
More Skoda Yeti-van pictures here:
The Iveco Daily is more a light truck then a van, very strong chassis, strong engines, and they are used for all sorts of jobs. We have two in our fleet with sliding beds and wheellifts, much cheaper to operate on long distance transports then our heavier trucks.
Nice truck ! An Iveco Daily is a downscaled heavy diesel truck, I think that would be a good description. Very stout, and with powerful 3.0 liter diesel engines.
Where I live, a guy further down the road is in earth moving. He has a small semi-trailer to haul his equipment, and he prefers an Iveco Daily to tow it. His colleagues throughout the country seem to agree with him, when looking around.
Below the latest model, towing a semi-trailer to haul cattle.
any thoughts about the japanese entry into this market? i’ve been in the “taxi of tomorrow” which is a modified version of the nissan nv200. funny looking thing but surprisingly roomy inside.
In a way it did have a hatchback-based predecessor. The Nissan Sunny panel van below.
The Nissan NV200 is also available here. With a Renault diesel (of course), the 1.5 dCi engine. The full-size Nissan NV400 van is a rebadged Renault Master. Also available as Opel / Vauxhall Movano.
I’ve driven a Sunny van – long ago . Got it to an indicated 115 mph on a downhill stretch of motorway – sadly there was no turbo on the Isuzu motor so acceleration was far from brisk !
Meanwhile, in eastern Europe there are a lot of the Logan gen 1 vans driving around. Light and cheap enough for the job!
Big van for the buck.
you cant talk about compact panels without grandpa of them all. Citroen 2cv panel.
That’s a later model one .
I had a ’59 2CV AZ sedan , wonderful car indeed .
That Fiat “family” is interesting in just how many tie-ups they have with other manufacturers for rebadge partners. Odd to see them associated with both GM and Peugeot/Citroen, depending on model.
The Chevy CityExpress being a rebadged Nissan is odd, too, as I can’t think of any other models where they are associated.
Very interesting article. I’m confused by the picture if the VW Caddy second generation models. I recognize those on the right, but what about those on the left? They seem to have Skoda Felicia fronts. I know there were Felicia pickup and vans, but I had no idea they had also been sold as Volkswagens, and at the same time those looking like Polos were? What was going on there?
Also, I wanted to remind that the Brazilians keep on making their Uno-looking Fiorinos. Here is the latest one, sold in Chile alongside the Turkish model (called “Fiorino City”).
It is, indeed, a Skoda Felicia pickup. In some countries it was rebranded as a Volkswagen Caddy pickup.
Interesting! Do you know where?
Ramón, my guess is that it was rebranded for countries like Germany, Austria and maybe Switzerland.
In Northwestern Europe this breed of small pickups has always been very rare, the panel van was the obvious choice.
This is what I found on the German Wikipedia site about the Caddy II pickup: Volkswagen Caddy Typ 9U, built from 1996 to 2000, it didn’t have a successor. Engines either a 1.6 gasoline or a 1.9 diesel, payload capacity 500 kg. A rebranded Skoda Felicia, only some minor differences between the Skoda and the Volkswagen-edition.
The only small pickups I actually saw on the road here in the past years are the (original) Skoda pickup models, the Dacia Logan pickup and the rather ugly Renault Kangoo pickup below.
Amazing this variety of European sized panel vans, i think they`re even most popular in Latinamerican countries than in their own European lands . Many of these are assembled both in Brazil and Argentina with enormous success . The above`s shown Fiat Fiorino of lattest generation is actually a made in Turkey`s Fiat Qubo which has also its sibling sold under badge Citroen Nemo .
Aside of brand`s favoritisms and beyond aficionados , fact is since twenty years to date the Fiat Fiorino has the leadership in production numbers and hot selling`s list .
Curiously two panel vans were removed for the public`s offer due to their bad record repairment`s problems , they got bad reputation : Volkswagen Caddy and Opel Combo imported from Portugal .
By the other side , best proven reliability and high resale values are given for the family duo Peugeot Partner and Citroen Berlingo .
The newest player Dacia Dokker from Romenia rebadged as the Renault Kangoo Series Two is rapidly getting an amazing score head to head with the FCA Fiat Fiorino`s leader
Interesting information, I always thought that small pickups were the best selling commercial vehicles in the Latinamerican market (in this size/weight segment, anyway).
The Opel Combo is now a rebadged PSA van. The Peugeot Partner, Citroën Berlingo, Opel/Vauxhall Combo and Toyota ProAce City are all the same. Also available as Fiat/Ram in the near future, I assume.
PSA has been the King of the Mountain for a long time now, when talking compact vans.
Thought this was an interesting juxtaposition: Ford’s last Escort van (1991-2002) and it’s replacement, the Transit Connect (2002-13). From the front the shorter Connect looks a lot taller and boxy, but from the rear view they look almost the same size.
Speaking of the Ford Transit (and Tourneo) Connect, the upcoming generation will be fully based on the latest VW Caddy.
The Renault Kangoo van has the most vile ‘A’ pillars known to mankind. ~Put a Mercedes badge and grill on it, and it’s still a POS !
Thanx to meth utes without a lockable canopy on the back are becoming rare and vans are getting more popular with tradies, a wet climate is helping too, its interesting following late model vans in traffic and guessing what the badge on the grille says Ford helpfully puts Transit on the back a lot of the multi brand models display nothing.
The latest multi brand model news: the full-size Opel/Vauxhall Movano is now a rebadged PSA-FCA (Stellantis) model, for obvious reasons. Looks familiar, doesn’t it?
Previously, it was based on the latest and “fresher” Renault Master. Which also means you can’t get a RWD (either with single or dual rear wheels) big van or light truck by Opel/Vauxhall any longer.
For the time being, the Renault-Nissan combo is on its own now, commercial vehicle wise.
Many years ago, some time in the 1990s, having seen a photo of an Escort with the bumped up back end sold in Europe, I wrote to Ford Motor Co in Dearborn and urged them to make these small panel vans available on the U.S. market.
My letter reached the manager inside Ford USA who had been trying to get them to do the very same thing. Your letter, he said, “made my day”.
Unfortunately, his cheer leading wasn’t enough and they never made it to the showrooms of America where if it isn’t bigger and more powerful and weigh and extra ton, it hasn’t got a chance.
Throughout the nineties, those panel vans were based on the all-new 4th gen Euro-Escort, as introduced at the end of 1990, with multiple updates and facelifts as the nineties went by. Pictured below a RHD 1991 panel van.
There were no Americanized versions of this series of Escort hatchbacks/sedans/wagons, BTW.
I drove and co-drove such an Escort panel van frequently in the mid-nineties. It had a 1.8 liter, naturally aspirated diesel engine (making a whopping 60 hp!!) and a 5-speed manual transmission. Slow, yes, but also highly practical and tough.
When using a decent plank, it was easy to push a loaded wheelbarrow in its cargo compartment, thanks to the low floor. Naturally it had rear cargo doors (with windows) instead of a hatch.
This is my favourite small van
You missed out on an interesting fact – from ’96 on there were two vw caddies sold in Europe alongside each other, one of them being an rebadged skoda.
See comment Ramón July 28, 2015 and replies somewhat further above.
There’s a company in the UK called Nu Venture which converts these panel vans to RVs. Very compact, but still contains a kitchen, shower, and space for 2 persons.
Would be interesting to rent one for a driving tour of Europe.
I did a Nu Venture GIS, they really look like downscaled versions of the usual set-ups (like the sheer endless variety of Fiat Ducato based motorhomes).
To keep things compact, below a VW Caddy camper conversion by the Reimo company.
Reveal or the new Mercedes Citan net wenesday…
Mercedes is killing me with this thing of presenting old renaults and nissans as “new Mercedes”