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Europe may be known for its culture, history and stunning scenery, but there’s another thing the Continent is renowned for – small white vans.

They’re an everyday sighting – be it scurrying between picturesque villages in the French countryside or plonked nonchalantly in the middle of busy sidewalks in Rome.

And while Australia hasn’t yet taken to these compact load-luggers in huge numbers, there are new players arriving regularly to stake their claim to a piece of the pie. Two such contenders are the Citroen Berlingo and Fiat Doblo.

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Italian manufacturer Fiat recently introduced the Doblo range under its commercial arm, Fiat Professional, as the smallest van in its line-up, slotting below the Scudo and Ducato.

The aim, according to Fiat Chrysler Australia, is to grow the brand’s presence in the commercial vehicle segment, and going about setting “a new benchmark” for professional drivers.

Citroen – the French brand with a history of producing quirky cars – has the Berlingo as the mainstay of its work vehicle range, with the small van the only commercial model it has in the market.

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Good thing it does, though, as the Berlingo was the best-selling Citroen in 2014: sales rose 57 per cent, but remained measly at just 280 vehicles.

Indeed, this market is a small one: only 3318 compact (sub 2.5-tonne) vans were sold in 2014, with the Volkswagen Caddy Van and Renault Kangoo making up more than 75 per cent of all sales.

The majority of vehicles sold in the segment are diesel-powered, so we decided to pit the diesel versions of the Fiat and Citroen up against one another to find out which is the better buy.

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Powering the $27,000 (plus on-road costs) Fiat is a 1.6-litre turbo diesel four-cylinder engine producing 77kW of power and 290Nm of torque. The grunt goes to the front wheels through a standard six-speed manual gearbox, though buyers who don’t want shift gears themselves can opt for a five-speed “Comfort-matic” semi-auto transmission, which adds $2000 to the price.

To buy the auto Fiat would put it on near-level pegging with the Citroen Berlingo we tested (the L2 ETG) which is priced at $28,990 plus on-roads. For that, buyers get a 1.6-litre turbo diesel four-cylinder with 66kW of power and 215Nm of torque, but with the power sent to the fronts via a six-speed electronic automated gearbox.

Once again, buyers can choose a manual (priced at $26,990) but we took the auto model as it’s the newest member of the Berlingo range, and it was also the only one the brand could get us.

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While you’ll see these compact commercials on country roads on the Continent, Australian sales centre in urban areas, and so we spent the majority of our time in these vans tootling around the suburbs of Sydney.

Both offer superb levels of suspension composure that put some luxury vehicles to shame. Over myriad ruts and potholes, not to mention speedhumps and road-joins aplenty, both the Doblo and Berlingo offered excellent body control and comfort for the driver and passenger.

Both vans have coil spring rear suspension to help keep their loads level and stable, but the Berlingo felt marginally more comfortable on the whole despite offering a stiff enough ride to ensure it never felt floppy or loose.

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Both have city-friendly steering that is light and makes for smooth manoeuvring with decent, near equal turning circles. There’s really not that much difference in the everyday drivability between the two, other than the fact the plastic used on the steering wheel and gear-knob in the Fiat is coarse and uncomfortable to grip for long periods of time.

When parking, the Doblo’s standard reversing sensors make life easy, while its double-angle side mirrors allow better visibility than the Citroen, which has single-pane mirrors and optional reversing sensors ($500).

Neither van can be had with glazed side doors, which would make it even simpler to see out. Reversing from driveways at an angle remains something of a guessing game, as over-shoulder vision is poor – verging on non-existent – in both vehicles due to the solid rear panels.

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In terms of power, the Doblo’s on-paper advantage is noticeable in urban driving, with the little four-cylinder offering a decent amount of shove between gearshifts.

The modest little engine revs nicely, with torque on tap from 1500rpm. It offers linear power delivery, with only a slight hint of lag from take-off, and enough torque to allow you to leave it in third or fourth gear to amble along in traffic.

The Citroen never feels short of puff in comparison, though we noticed the auto could exacerbate the amount of low-rev lag. Still, as with the Doblo, the oiler has a nice clean-revving nature and feels willing enough to lug a large load – and never felt troubled when it had heavy items on board.

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That auto gearbox is a relatively smooth operating unit once you’re travelling with any speed on board, and it’s one of the better small output diesels we’ve tested in terms of refinement.

The auto even has paddleshifters as standard, and they work smoothly enough. They seem a bit silly, and both Trent and myself doubted whether they would be any smoother or more efficient in swapping cogs, but we reckon they could come in handy with a big load.

Citroen’s Euro 5-compliant e-HDi oiler has an official claim of just 4.7L/100km with the auto ‘box, a full 1.0L/100km more efficient than the similarly specified manual, mostly due to the fact it has engine stop-start that cuts the fuel churn at idle (and even as you cruise to a stop at low speeds).

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The Fiat’s claimed fuel consumption for the 1.6-litre diesel manual is just 5.4 litres per 100 kilometres, though buyers of the dearer automated version get claimed consumption of just 4.9L/100km due in part to the engine stop-start system used in the Comfort-matic model.

It was intriguing, then, that over our mainly urban drive loop spanning about 250km in each vehicle we saw an average of 6.4L/100km on the trip computer for the Fiat, while the Berlingo used a full litre more on test, at 7.4L/100km.

No matter which version appeals more, those are some decent numbers for vehicles capable of out-hauling the average Commodore ute.

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The gross vehicle mass (GVM) of the Fiat is 2070 kilograms with a (dry) tare weight of just 1301kg, while the Citroen has a higher GVM of 2150kg but has a kerb weight (including driver and fluids) of 1611kg.

The size difference between these vans wasn’t instantly noticeable in terms of the way they drove or their profile on the road. However, the Doblo measures 4.39 metres long, 1.83m wide and 1.84m tall with a 2.75m wheelbase, while the Citroen stretches 23 centimetres longer, is 2cm narrower and just a few millimetres shorter.

At the business end, both the Fiat and Berlingo offer up 750 kilograms of payload capacity, though the extra length offered in the cargo hold of the Berlingo means it can swallow 3.7 cubic metres (or 3700L) of cargo, while the Fiat offers a still impressive 3.4m3 of space.

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However, the trump card of the Citroen is that its passenger-side seat can be folded flat, increasing load capacity to 4.1m3 – or doubling as a handy mobile office desk with built-in cupholder.

Fiat does offer a longer-wheelbase version that betters the Citroen in terms of load-area capacity (4.2m3) and payload capacity (1000kg), but it costs $31,000 plus costs and can only be had with a manual gearbox.

Both vans come with dual side sliding doors, as well as a pair of rear barn doors to make loading easy.

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The barn doors on the Fiat feature a chunky door handle that’s easier to grab with your hands full than the Citroen’s, but both have a simple latch system that allows both rear doors to open up to 90 degrees.

If you need further room to manoeuvre your cargo in and out, the doors on both vans can open to 180 degrees – though you’ll need to be careful if you do this when its windy as there’s no mechanism to stop the doors from swinging back to their right-angled setting on either van. It was windy on the day we tested, and both Trent and myself had to stand nearby to ensure we could get some of the photography.

The measurements of the two models we tested are very similar aside from the obvious extra length of the Citroen’s cargo hold.

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The French model has a base length of 2050 millimetres, well better than the Doblo’s 1820mm; the width between the wheel-arches is identical at 1230mm – easily large enough for an Australian pallet (which measures 1165mm in both directions, while the Berlingo can fit two smaller Euro pallets); but the Italian makes up some ground in the height dimension of the load space, with 1305mm of vertical room compared to 1100mm in the Citroen.

The Doblo has niceties such as a standard PVC cargo mat acting as a bed-liner, and it betters the Citroen with six fixed tie-down points compared to its rival’s four, but the Citroen on our test also had a clever cargo blind that shielded the front cabin from the cargo hold.

Both vans have a cargo area light, as well as a standard protective ladder that’s positioned behind the driver. A metal bulkhead partition with a centre window can be optioned for $250 in the Fiat.

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Both the Berlingo and the Fiat have good load-in heights (584mm and 545mm respectively), and for our test we loaded a few hundred kilos of equipment in each to see just how easy it was. The answer? Simple.

In the driver/passenger area, both are comfortable and reasonably ergonomically friendly, with excellent ingress and egress to make clambering couriers happy. On top of that, both have good storage options for business owners or employees who spend their days behind the wheel.

Decent cupholders and reasonably large door pockets make the Fiat a useful place to get work done, and both vehicles have that ever-clever overhead storage shelf for folders, laptop bags or other loose (but not potentially harmful!) items to sit.

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The Citroen goes even further, with a very clever dash-top storage box for loose items, and a hidden under-seat sliding stowage area that keeps valuables out of sight. That aforementioned flip-down passenger seat that can double as a desk is a very nice touch, and the Citroen has more small item storage caddies than the Fiat across the dashboard.

The French model’s dashboard-mounted gear selector system takes a little learning but undoubtedly saves space, and the Citroen’s huge centre console storage bin with its roller-top cover is excellent.

In terms of safety kit, both vans have anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control. The Citroen only comes with a driver’s airbag as standard (with passenger and side airbags available at $1000), while the Doblo gets the right stuff from the start, with dual front airbags and side assemblies fitted as standard.

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Each van has a Bluetooth-capable phone system, and while each have their own idiosyncrasies in terms of connecting a new phone, the call clarity for each was impressive for such an echo chamber of a cabin. On the topic of loudness inside, the Citroen proved a little quieter than the Fiat on our road test loop, no doubt thanks in part to the curtain separating the load area from the cockpit.

Those who like to listen to tunes on the move will be impressed by the Bluetooth audio streaming in the Citroen, but the Fiat doesn’t have that tech. Both, however, have USB connectivity and steering wheel-mounted audio controls.

The Fiat gets one back in terms of driver-friendliness with an optional satellite navigation system that can be docked directly on top of the dashboard. It costs about $640.

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In terms of ownership, the Fiat has a three-year, 200,000km warranty as standard (on all Fiat Professional commercial models), but there is no capped-price service program from the Italian maker.

Citroen has a promotion running until 31 March 2015 consisting of a five-year, 200,000km warranty program (the usual one is a three-year/100,000km package that can’t match the six-year, unlimited km program offered on the brand’s passenger car range). Citroen also lacks a capped-price service program.

No matter which van you buy, you’ll be getting a good one – as Trent said on the day of testing, there really never has been a better time to be a small van buyer. And these are just two of a range of impressive small van options on the market.

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But of these two, if we had to choose on to drive day-in, day-out, it’d have to be the Citroen. Its clever storage, more driver-friendly cabin and bigger load space for the cash make it hard to ignore.

The Doblo is an impressive thing in its own right, with great load-carrying capacity, high levels of comfort and practicality, and excellent standard safety and convenience features. However, its slightly smaller load space and those harsh contact points on the interior mean it runs a close second in this test.

Click the Photos tab above for more images by Christian Barbeitos.



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