City Vans occupy a subcategory of their own within the larger Small Van sector of the Light Commercial Vehicle marketplace. Usually, they have high MPG ratings in the urban setting & car-like looks that enable them to blend in & negotiate city traffic with ease. But where did they come from & which one is the best? This sounds like a job for Vanarama Van Expert Tom Roberts.
Opinions vary as to which van was the first proper City Van, but in the UK many point to the Austin A35 as the first proper modern small commercial vehicle. Introduced in 1956, it remained in production until 1968, selling far more than its saloon car version which stopped being built in 1959.
From there, the evolution of small urban vans has gathered pace with today's offerings still nodding respectfully to the older vans. Powerhouse manufacturers such as Ford & the PSA Group market their vans as City Vans, using the name to market their vans to the types of trades that spend more time driving in cities & towns. There are some fantastic vans to choose from in today's City Van sector - we'll be taking a look at them later - but let's kick off this article with some history.
City Vans In The 1960s & 1970s
Fast forward a few years on from the Austin A35 & out came the Austin Mini Van which was marketed as a dedicated urban delivery vehicle. Over 500,000 were manufactured between 1960 & 1983, offering users a payload of approximately 250kgs & a gross vehicle weight of just 950kg. Ford were there too with the Thames 300E, based on their popular Anglia car. Almost 200,000 were built before its demise in 1961, but it beat the Austin with its payloads that ranged from 254kg to 356kg.
The City Van became a common sight during the 1960s & 1970s with the launch of the Bedford HA Van, based on the first version of the Viva passenger car. First launched in 1963 its popularity kept it in production for 20 years, again outselling the car it was made from. Its payload was the highest yet at 546kgs & its engines (all petrol) offered users as little as 40hp to play with.
The City Van Comes Of Age
From the 1970s to the 2000s, the City Van became an ever more familiar sight in our towns & cities, with most manufacturers continuing to develop their offerings & new vans appearing with diesel engines.
Ford not only offered a van version of their Fiesta car, they also launched the Courier - a Fiesta-based, boxy bodied vehicle providing users with a much larger load volume than previous City Vans.
Bedford (now Vauxhall) also sold van versions of their popular Astra car - the Astramax - which had some sales success, particularly in fleets. But it was the Combo van, offered in parallel to the Astramax, that was designed to compete with the Ford Courier.
Austin (who would eventually become Rover) produced a van version of the Metro. With little more load space than the car - once the rear seats were lowered - offered a modest payload & met with little success. Far more popular was the company's Maestro van - although perhaps not falling quite into the City Van sector, it featured on the shopping lists of many small businesses who needed a little more load carrying capability (thanks to its 700kg payload capability) & bigger load volume.
The French manufacturers, who also recognised that building a van version of a passenger car required much less investment than starting from scratch, brought some strong contenders to the UK. Renault marketed the Extra van, based on the Renault 5 car with some success. Citroen, having been an early producer of a city van with the 2CV - built between 1951 & 1978 - sold the C15 in the UK from 1985 to 2005. The C15 was derived from the Visa car & offered a healthy payload of up to 800kg, but proved to be no match for the immensely successful Citroen Berlingo. The Berlingo - still sold today - originally launched in 1996 & after several facelifts remains popular alongside the almost identical Peugeot Partner.
The City Vans Of Today
As you can see, the history of City Vans is rich & has shaped today's vans. There are a lot of small vans competing for your attention & money, so let's take a look at the major players by manufacturer.
PSA Group & Toyota: I'm lumping these 2 manufacturers together because they share the same robust platform across the Citroen Berlingo, Peugeot Partner, Vauxhall Combo & Toyota Proace City small vans. Each van is capable carrying whopping great payloads of up to 1000kgs, use efficient 1.5-litre Euro 6.2 diesel engines with power output up to 130PS, offer drivers official combined fuel consumption ratings as low as 55.6mpg & provide loading bay lengths of up to 4m when their smart under seat stowage & load through feature is used.
Fiat: With the excellent Fiat Fiorino) users get an excellent small van that is perfect for city use with what I would call a 'proper' loadspace. Users get payloads of up to 610kg, a smart side loading door, a well-equipped cabin with Apple CarPlay, a tight turning circle of just 10m & an incredibly combined official fuel consumption rating of 62.8mpg.
Ford: One of my personal favourites, the Ford Fiesta Van is a superb car-derived van with top-notch style inside & out. The excellent Sport model (perfect for the image conscious business driver) provides payloads of around 520kg, diesel emissions under 100g/km & the best fuel consumption rating in the category at a huge 80.7mpg.
Ford also offers the excellent Ford Courier - looking more like a proper van that the Fiesta Van, the Courier offers users a lot in a small package. You'll get a loading volume of 1.9 cubic metres, 1.6m of load length, 600kg payloads, a side door, a spacious cabin packed with tech & a 1.5-litre Euro 6.2 diesel engine with an official combined fuel consumption of 65.7mpg.
Renault, Nissan & Mercedes-Benz: Again, I'm lumping these 3 manufacturers together because the Renault Kangoo, Nissan NV250 & Mercedes-Benz Citan all share the same platform. With each of these vans, users get a choice of 2 vehicle lengths with up to 1.8m of load length. Load volumes up to 4.0cu/m are complemented by excellent payloads of 515kg up to 782kgs (depending on model) & the option of single or twin side loading doors. You will also get a choice of 3 diesel engines with official combined fuel consumption figures starting from 62.8mpg, with a fully electric version of the Renault Kangoo - the ZE - already available.
Tom's Takeaways & Which Is The Best?
It's like asking how long a piece of string is because there are some great vans on offer in the City Van category. The size of the City Van you choose will be based largely on your trade & needs, but the trades I think will benefit the most from a City Van include equipment suppliers, couriers, florists, printing companies, meter readers, civil engineers & joiners - low weight carriers who want to nip around towns & cities without running up huge fuel bills.
If I had to lay down my cards on personal picks from the list above, I'd recommend the Citroen Berlingo, Vauxhall Combo, Ford Fiesta Van & Renault Kangoo ZE. They are superb vehicles that offer real return on investment & cost savings (especially the Kangoo ZE). City Vans are here to stay, hopefully for a long while yet, & these ones are the best of the bunch in my opinion. Happy hunting!