It’s rare for a whole new class of van to be created but that’s what’s happened over the past year or so. Citroën’s Nemo, Peugeot’s Bipper and Fiat’s Fiorino slot neatly between hatchback car-derived light commercials such as Peugeot’s 207 Van and Citroën’s C2 Enterprise and pukka high-cube vans such as Vauxhall’s Combo and Ford’s short-wheelbase Transit Connect. Perhaps not surprisingly, the three newcomers have waltzed off with our Light Van of the Year accolade and have between them won our Van of the Year award for 2008 too.
The fruits of a joint venture between PSA, Peugeot and Citroën’s parent company, Fiat and Turkish manufacturer Tofas, and little more than 3.8m long, the vans are made in Turkey.
They’re all pretty much identical apart from their badges, although Fiorino uses a 75hp 1.3-litre diesel rather than the 70hp 1.4-litre HDi diesel found in the other two. A 73hp 1.4-litre petrol lump is also available and would be suitable for a gaseous fuel conversion — Citroën already offers one under its Ready to Run programme — and each of the vans can be ordered with a semi-automatic gearbox although we wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. An electric Fiorino has been developed by Micro-Vett of Italy.
Nemo/Bipper/Fiorino’s front suspension employs MacPherson struts while an independent trailing arm set-up helps support the rear. You’ll find anti-roll bars front and back and the little load lugger sits on 14in wheels.
Power-assisted steering is provided with 2.8 turns lock-to-lock and offering a 9.95m kerb-to-kerb turning circle. Ventilated disc brakes are fitted at the front, drums provide the braking effort at the back, and ABS comes as standard.
A modest gross weight means that Nemo, Bipper and Fiorino are subject to car speed limits instead of the higher ones imposed on commercial vehicles. Payload capacity is 610kg
Rear entry to the cargo bay is by means of asymmetric twin doors with the narrower of the two on the offside. They swing open through 90° and through 170° if you release the easy-to-unlatch door stays. The doors conceal a compact yet practical 2.5m3 load box. Six load tie-down rings are provided — a lot for a van of this size — and sliding doors can be specified for one or both sides of the cargo area.
Maximum load bay length is 1,523mm. Maximum width is 1,473mm, narrowing to 1,046mm between the wheel boxes, while maximum height is 1,205mm. Rear loading height is 533mm. The usefully-square rear door aperture is 1,067mm high and 1,140 mm wide while the dimensions for the side door aperture, assuming a side door is fitted, are 1,041mm and 644mm respectively.
One of the big surprises when you hop into the cab is how roomy it is given the vehicle’s compact dimensions. Admittedly What Van? is populated by dwarves along with the odd hobbit, but even sensibly-sized people should have few problems with head, leg and shoulder room.
The driver’s seat is comfortable and a deep windscreen and deep door windows aid vision ahead and to either side.
Storage space includes a spacious, lidded but not lockable glovebox plus bins in each of the doors with a moulding that will clasp a soft drink can or a small bottle of water. You’ll find trays for your small change in each door, another change tray to the right of the steering column and a tray for your pens directly in front of the gearstick.
There are a couple of cup-holders between the seats plus a 12v power point and the prominent hazard warning lights button on the facia is a welcome touch. A passenger seat that folds into the floor can be specified. It extends the length of the cargo area to a handy 2,491mm.
The availability of remote central locking with deadlocks allows you to lock the load bay separately and all the doors lock automatically anyway once the van is in motion.
Even when heavily laden, the diesel Nemo/Bipper/Fiorino is an eager performer. A slick gearchange and a nice chunky gearstick enabled us to get the best out of a willing engine which, to our surprise, seemed as at home on the motorway as it is around town. That’s as true of the diesel fitted to the Fiat as it is of the one fitted to its two stablemates.
The 1.3-litre has the edge over the 1.4-litre so far as on-the-road performance is concerned, although if we’re honest there’s very little in it. Fuel economy is a dead heat; we averaged 55mpg, no matter which diesel was under the bonnet, without really trying. That’s good news for your bank balance and for CO2 emissions too. At 119 g/km they’re the same for both diesels.
With plenty of feedback from the responsive steering, the handling proved to be better than we expected it to be. Noise levels seemed well controlled for such a small vehicle, but the little van’s ultra-short wheelbase contributed to a lively ride. Even with a bit of weight in the back it at times proved just that bit too bouncy for us; but that’s the only significant drawback of what is an otherwise superb, cost-effective, package.
Whether you choose the Citroën, the Peugeot or the Fiat is likely to depend on price in the current tough climate, and on the competence of the local dealer. No matter which model you pick, however, we doubt you’ll be disappointed; and with impressive fuel economy and low running costs, it’s an icon for today’s grim times.
Residual values should be healthy too and the same can be said about Volkswagen’s Caddy. With impressive diesel engines, rock-solid built quality, and a remarkably good dealer network, it wins our highly commended award.