Sector Analysis: 4x4 vans

Date: Wednesday, July 25, 2012

It’s a niche sector, but 4x4 vans cater for both those who need a true off-road warrior when venturing away from paved surfaces, and those for whom a 4x4 van fits the bill. James Dallas reports
Not everyone looking for a 4x4 van is in the market for a heavy-duty pick-up truck that can negotiate steep inclines, cruise through shallow rivers or tackle deeply rutted terrain.
Many operators just need the reassurance that they can cope with some less demanding off-roading and keep moving in snowy or icy conditions without having to wait for the gritters to arrive.
Volkswagen is one manufacturer that caters for this demand. Its Caddy Maxi 4Motion scooped the What Van? 4x4 Van of the Year Award for 2012.
Previously only available in mainland Europe, the 4Motion made its debut in the UK last year. Most of the time the van runs in front-wheel drive, but if a rural-based plumber starts to
lose grip when traveling over a slippery field, the system kicks in automatically to transmit power to the wheels with the most purchase.
The van offers no extra ground clearance, but this shouldn’t be a hindrance, given the uses to which it is likely to be put.
No other manufacturer in the sector offers a genuine 4x4 alternative although grip control technology in front-wheel drive mode is becoming more commonplace, with Citroen, Peugeot and Fiat leading the way.
Scottish Water was quick to recognise the worth of Volkswagen’s Caddy Maxi 4Motion, enlisting 25 into its fleet.
The van is powered by a 2.0-litre 110hp diesel married to a six-speed manual gearbox. While it drives just like a 4x2 on road, it can tow a trailer grossing up to 1500kg if called upon.
VW introduced a 4Motion version of its updated Transporter back in March 2010 and it is now considering launching its big brother, the Crafter 4Motion in the UK. The 163hp vehicle was developed with Austrian four-wheel drive specialist Achleitner and offers permanent all-wheel drive evenly distributed to both axles with a differential lock in the transfer gearbox and on the rear axle.
CV boss Alex Smith says: “We think there’s a market for the 4x4 Crafter – it can do a great job for a limited number of customers.”
Mercedes-Benz has recently been making more noise about its 4x4 Sprinter, deciding it didn’t want its “best kept secret” to be a secret anymore.
The van has ground clearance of up to 95mm, slightly more than the rear-wheel drive version. Its engageable all-wheel drive transfers power to all four wheels simultaneously with a 35/65 split between front and rear axles. Gear reduction comes as standard to maximise performance in more extreme off-road conditions, and there are no mechanical differential locks but an automatic electronic system, which Mercedes says relieves driver strain. The system engages to optimise grip when one or more wheels starts to spin. It breaks them automatically and increases torque to the wheels with most grip.
The true stalwart of the 4x4 commercial vehicle sector is Land Rover’s Defender. Not wanting to rush into anything, Land Rover has promised a new generation of the Defender in production form in 2015 having revealed a concept version of the vehicle at the Frankfurt Motor show in September last year.
The new model is expected to be available in a host of wheelbase lengths and bodystyles.
Land Rover gave the current Defender a Euro5 2.2-litre diesel engine last November to replace the previous 2.4 unit. It also introduced two options packs: the £1650 comfort pack with air-conditioning, CD player, electric windows and remote central locking, and the £1500 off-road pack with ABS, heavy duty wheel rims with off-road tyres, toe ball and under-ride protection bar.
Nissan, meanwhile, has quietly dropped the Pathfinder van from its UK portfolio.


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