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Small vans at small prices – that’s the mantra for this test, with three value-focused compact cargo carriers going against each other to find out which is the best small van you can get.

The three vans we have here may not be household names to the majority of passenger car buyers, but if you own a small business – say you’re a florist, plumber, painter, baker or any number of other professions – there’s a chance you know the Citroen Berlingo, Fiat Doblo and Volkswagen Caddy.

The latter is the best-known by buyers when it comes to the three short-wheelbase vans here, with Volkswagen‘s smallest van accounting for nearly half of all small van sales year to date.

We desperately wanted to include the second-best-selling van in the segment, the Renault Kangoo – which was updated earlier in 2017 to critical acclaim – but despite our best efforts and months of notice, Renault Australia couldn’t manage to supply us with a vehicle. Disappointing, we know, but rest assured we’ll aim to get into a Kangoo SWB when possible.

The Citroen Berlingo is the French brand’s big seller – yep, a little van outsells everything else the French brand has going for it, even that cute Cactus gizmo. It is the fourth-biggest seller in the segment, surprisingly behind the Suzuki APV (that’s what a sharp price will do for you!). They didn’t have one of those on fleet, but you can see how it fared in our light van comparison.

The other van here isn’t on many buyers’ lists, partly because no-one knows about it. Fiat quietly added the facelifted Doblo in late 2015, and just a handful of customers have bought one since then. We wanted to see if it deserves more attention than it gets, so what better way than to put it against two seasoned small vans.

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No matter the time of year, you’re bound to find deals on commercial vehicles like these, and with the end of financial year fast approaching, you can expect dealers’ pencils to be sharpened even further. Indeed, the VW is a limited run model, and specials on it are expected to cease on June 30.

Better get to it!


Pricing and equipment

All three of these vans are the short-wheelbase, petrol variants, and each has variations on the theme available – you can get a long-wheelbase petrol Caddy, and VW recently expanded the Caddy range so now it, along with the other two models, have long-wheelbase diesel versions available.

And because one of the main notions for gathering these three was to get the most affordable versions possible, each of them has a manual transmission. You can get a petrol auto Caddy for quite a bit more ($29,390 plus on-roads), and if you’re insistent on a petrol-auto drivetrain, it’s your only option (aside from the Renault, which received a new petrol-auto option as part of that update, and that’s why we wanted to get it… but I digress).

This has no bearing on the result, but here’s where each of these vans is built: Citroen – France (of course); Fiat – Turkey; Volkswagen – Poland. Interesting, hey? Again, let’s get back on topic.

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The Caddy we have is the Runner edition, a budget-focused model aimed at lowering the price of entry by coming in with a detuned turbocharged engine with a five-speed ‘box. It is a $24,990 drive-away proposition (VW hasn’t listed a plus on-road costs price).

It is, believe it or not, the most expensive of the three vans here… well, if you forget on-road costs.

The Fiat Doblo is the most affordable, with a list price of just $22,000 plus on-road costs, and while we have seen drive-away deals at that price point and even well below it – we’re talking $18,900 drive-away for 2015 and 2016 plate versions! Plus, the Italian company is officially offering a free service plan (three years).

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Next up is the Citroen Berlingo, at $22,990 plus on-road costs, but you’ll find dealers offering it at that price, drive-away.

As for standard equipment, there are some make-or-break elements that could sway your decision before we even get to how each of these vans drives.

The Citroen, for example, is the only van on this test with Apple CarPlay, which is integrated into its new PSA media system (not the old aftermarket one they used to have). That screen is similar to the one seen in a Peugeot 208.

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The Citroen’s touchscreen is a 7.0-inch unit, where the VW has a 5.0-inch colour screen, and the Fiat still has a dodgy old analogue radio/CD player. All three have Bluetooth phone and audio streaming varying from easy to confusing to connect to (more on that later). All three have USB connectivity, too, and 12-volt outlets up front to keep things on charge.

The trio ride on steel wheels – 15-inch rims on the Citroen (with Michelin Energy Saver 195/65 rubber) and VW (oddly with Korean tyres: Nexen N Blue Premium 195/65), and 16s on the Fiat (with Goodyear Cargo Marathon 195/60 tyres).

The Citroen and VW both have cruise control, but the Fiat misses out on that highway-helping device. Only the VW has a digital speed readout (the Citroen has one that shows when you engage cruise).

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The Citroen is the only vehicle here with a rear-view camera and rear parking sensors as standard, but disappointingly it has just one airbag – for the driver – fitted as standard. You can option a passenger front airbag and side airbags for $800, but really, they should be included.

Volkswagen has forward collision warning and low-speed autonomous emergency braking as standard. That tech, more often reserved for passenger cars, will apply the brakes if it doesn’t think you’ll react in time by monitoring the road ahead. Clever stuff, and unmatched here.

Fiat and VW both have dual front and front-side airbag protection as standard, and the Caddy adds curtain airbags, too. Both of those vehicles lack a rear-view camera and parking sensors, however.

I guess it really depends what matters to you more: the convenience and safety that comes from a camera and sensors, or the peace of mind of airbag protection for both occupants. You may never plan to have a passenger on-board, but you sure as heck will be parking the car every day you drive it! Okay, that’s a bit flippant. Citroen should be ashamed for not making available life-saving airbags standard. It’s 2017, FFS.


Interior and cargo

Because you’re reading about vans, let’s start with the most van-focused stuff first in this section.

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First, you need to consider the Fiat looks a much larger van than the other two, and it is – both in terms of cabin width, and overall width. It makes the VW look tall and skinny. Here are all the vital measurements you’ll be interested in:

Citroen

Fiat

Volkswagen

External length

4380mm

4406mm

4408mm

Wheelbase length

2728mm

2755mm

2682mm

External width

1810mm

1832mm

1773mm

External height

1812mm

1845mm

1823mm

Vehicle weight

1565kg 

1371kg

1321kg

Payload

850kg

659kg 

779kg 

Towing (unbaked/braked)

670kg/1100kg

500kg/1000kg

630kg/1300kg 

Cargo height

1100mm

1305mm

1259mm

Cargo width/between wheel-arches

1554mm/1229mm

1518mm/1230mm

1556mm/1170mm

Cargo length

1800mm

1820mm

1779mm

Cargo volume 

3.3m³

3.4m³

3.2m³

Cargo area doors

Four 

Four

Three 

Floor lining

Yes

Yes

No

Tie-down hooks

Six

Six

Six

Side door width 

650mm

700mm

701mm

Side door height 

1100mm

1175mm

1097mm

Rear door width

1250mm

1231mm 

11883mm 

Rear door height

1148mm 

1250mm 

1134mm 

All three vans have rear barn doors, making them pallet friendly, and each has the option of opening them to 90 degrees, or 180 degrees to ensure easier loading of larger items. The Fiat and Citroen both have driver-protecting cargo cages, too.

Only the Volkswagen misses out on dual side doors – the Runner can’t be had with them, and indeed they are optional even on a higher-spec Caddy. The side doors aren’t much use if you’re loading big items as they have narrow apertures, but for loading boxes manually, or if you spend a lot of time in narrow alleys when delivering bits and pieces, they can be quite handy to have on both sides of the van. So that’s a downer for the VW.

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When loading with a forklift thanks to our mates at Crown Lift Trucks, we noted the loading lip at the rear of the Caddy was both a help and a hindrance – it was good to stop things moving back into the doors, but proved tricky to place a pallet in cleanly because of the drop down and the angle required on the tongue of the forklift.

The Fiat’s lashing hooks were the least conveniently placed, too far in-board, where the other two have hooks set a little wider in the cargo space. But the Doblo and Berlingo had better load-in openings and there is a standard-fit floor protection coating that is both good for saving the paintwork, and great at insulating the cabin from noise. The Caddy proved noisiest at low speeds, and it was the only van in which you could hear the fuel slushing around in the tank.

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The Citroen has three internal door handles in the cargo area, meaning that if a door gets shut on you, you can make an easy escape. The other two vans don’t have those handles. And the Citroen and VW both have 12-volt outlets in the cargo zone, which could be handy to keep devices charged.

The Caddy makes up for its cargo area shortcomings by offering the most comfortable and supportive seats of these three, and the most ergonomically smart cabin layout. The buttons are better placed, the leather-lined, flat-bottomed steering wheel is actually really nice to hold and to look at, and as one of our testers put it, “it feels like you’re driving a Golf with a tall roof”.

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The Volkswagen’s media system is simple to use and ultra easy to connect to, while the Citroen’s takes a little bit more learning in terms of menu placement and how to jump from screen to screen. Once connected, it’s a fairly easy thing, but we found just hooking up to CarPlay the user-friendliest way, anyway.

As for the Fiat? The lack of a phone button on the media interface is confusing to begin with, and then just when you think you’ve got it figured out – the phone icon on the steering wheel! – you’ll be flummoxed once more. You have to use menus on the driver information screen: it’s simple once you know how.

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Storage in-cabin is where small vans stand tall, with each of them having large overhead folder compartments, not to mention big door pockets and dashtop storage – the Citroen with a clever, deep opening section in front of the driver for keeping your wallet, phone et cetera.

The Citroen also has a huge centre storage bin, ideal for holding a laptop, clipboards and more, but its cup-holders are small. It does have a clever shopping bag hook in the passenger-side foot-well, though.

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There are some logical shortcomings in terms of pocket placement, however the Citroen has lots of storage on the dash, but the placement of the USB port is dumb – down in the passenger-side foot-well near that hook (see the red USB cable above).

The Fiat lacks logical USB placement, too, with its port down between the seats behind the handbrake. Only the VW nails where the port should be – in front of the gear selector, and there’s a smartphone-friendly pocket nearby, too.

Indeed, everything about the VW’s cabin makes it feel more car-like, but that could be good and bad. It has the most supportive seats, and the nicest steering wheel, but it lacks covered centre storage and doesn’t have a driver’s armrest. It does have the largest door pockets in terms of openness, though.

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Pictured above: Fiat Doblo (top); Citroen Berlingo (middle); Volkswagen Caddy (bottom)

The Fiat doesn’t have covered centre storage either, but it has a handy shelf on the dashboard for loose items, and good dashtop storage as well. It has a lift up section on the passenger seat to hide valuables like wallets, tablets and the like.

While vans may not be the domain of those who wish to look their spiffy best when they show up to work, it’s worth noting the Citroen has dual vanity mirrors, the Fiat has a single mirror in the passenger visor, and the VW has none. Maybe that says something about the vain nature of the three nations from which these brands hail…?


Drivetrain

These three all have small output petrol engines, but one of them has a distinct differentiator.

The Volkswagen Caddy is the only one of this trio with a turbocharged engine: it packs a tiny 1.2-litre four-cylinder with 62kW (at 4800rpm) and 160Nm (at 3500rpm) under its bonnet, and like the other two, it’s front-wheel drive.

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The Doblo has a 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol with 70kW of power (at 6000rpm) and 127Nm of torque (at 4500rpm). Yeah, that high in the rev range!

The Berlingo has the largest engine in terms of capacity, a 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol with 72kW of power (at 6000rpm) and 152Nm of torque (at 3500rpm).

The Caddy may have a lower peak power output than its rivals, but it has more torque in spite of its displacement detriment. And its turbocharged engine helps it claim the lowest fuel use of these three, at just 5.9 litres per 100 kilometres. The Berlingo claims 7.1L/100km, and the Doblo 7.3L/100km.

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It’s worth noting we didn’t see anything too close to those numbers in any of these three vans, and also that all of them were still in the running-in phase – we got the VW with just 38km on the clock, the Fiat with 153km and the Citroen with 337km on the odo.

Indeed, our Fiat registered 8.6L/100km, the Citroen 8.5L/100km and the VW managed a miserly 6.8L.

And look, none of them are powerhouse machines, and while none were troubled maintaining speed (unless there was a steep climb) it was the VW that offered the most effortless progress with, and without, a load.

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Its engine was best considered to be perky in comparison with its rivals, and despite having nearly no kilometres it was super smooth to drive. You didn’t need to adjust to the vehicle: the shift action is solid yet slinky, the clutch well weighted and nicely measured. It still can run out of puff up big hills at higher speed, so don’t think it’s night-and-day against the other two…

The Fiat’s engine is short on torque, requiring you to row through the gears up hills more than you may expect – and at first, its clutch take-up point (low on the pedal stroke) was difficult to adjust to, with quite heavy weighting, but after a couple of days we got used to it as it bedded in, and it has a decent shift action.

It isn’t the most relaxing van to drive at freeway speeds, either, with the tacho sitting up near 4000rpm (Berlingo and Caddy – about 3000rpm). At least the engine isn’t too buzzy.

The Doblo’s engine is no embarrassment either. We tested all three vans in third gear from 50-80km/h with the mass on board, as well as two occupants, and while the Fiat came last, it wasn’t that slow. It gathers pace well, albeit in a gruff yet still slightly charming manner.

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The Citroen’s engine response was second best out of these vans; again, it was sluggish but no wet week, with its best performance coming in higher in the rev range.

The most annoying thing about it was its gearbox feel. Attempting to engage a gear, particularly first, is kind of like grabbing for a wooden spoon in a bowl of custard, or a baseball bat in a water tank. There’s a disconcerting sloppiness to it, and the clutch take-up is high on the pedal and quite light – that’s city-friendly, though.

If we had to live with one of these manual models in day-to-day driving, it’d be the VW, followed by the Fiat and Citroen in a tie for second.


Road manners

If you’ve never driven a small van before, you really should – you’d be amazed just how much fun they can be to drive.

I know that fun isn’t the primary focus of any of these vehicles, but they’re innately really well balanced, nice to steer and usually with great ride compliance at speed. And that makes separating these three quite an exercise.

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But there are some elements that may determine which one you choose based on your preferences.

The Citroen, for example, offers easily the best comfort in all situations. Its suspension is a touch softer than its rivals, and as a result it has better bump absorption over sharp edges like speed humps, whether loaded up or unladen.

We replicated the same speed over a series of speed humps with and without a load, and the Citroen was the only vehicle that didn’t crash down at all, empty or full. The VW clunked heavily at the front and jolted at the rear when empty, though the back end was a little better sorted with weight over the rear axle. The Fiat clunked down at the nose in both empty and full configurations, but the rear was better settled than the VW.

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When it came to higher-speed driving, the Citroen was slightly more prone to roll in corners due to its more absorption-focused chassis, where the Fiat was the opposite, feeling a touch sharper over surface changes, though never uncomfortable. The Volkswagen was the middle ground, rolling over road changes well and offering good comfort, although when empty it was a bit pitchy over bumps.

As for steering, the VW was the best on test. Its rack is quicker and offers better feel to the driver’s hands, and while it is light enough to twirl when you’re parking, it also offers good weighting at higher speeds.

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The Citroen’s steering lets it down to a degree, with a sticky feeling on centre and a vagueness that means it can feel a bit like it wants to wander on the highway because you’re seemingly adjusting it more regularly than the other vans here.

The Citroen’s brakes were softer and harder to judge. Only the VW has brake assist, and it was the best for brake performance.

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The Doblo is a solid middle-ground player for its steering, which is quicker and feels zippier when you start to turn the wheel, but the actual steering wheel itself is horrible to grip: it is coarse and has a strange thumb contour, too. That said, it’s the most fun to drive: it feels a bit more nimble and exciting, with its slightly sharper chassis setup making for a more engaging drive… if that matters.

All three have remarkably good turning circles, making them perfect for city dwellers.

As mentioned, the Citroen and the Fiat were both considerably quieter than the VW, owing to its lack of floor-level sound deadening, and this was noticeable both at low speeds and on the highway.

One quirk that we found a little annoying was the fact the Fiat has such a wide cabin that you can’t rest your right arm on the windowsill, and the armrest on the door is quite low, too. There’s a fold-down armrest for the driver’s left arm in the Fiat and Citroen though, but the VW misses out on one.

If you spend a lot of time keeping an eye on the kerbs either side of you, the Fiat’s split side mirrors could be a huge advantage… but then again, so could a rear-view camera.


Ownership

Buying a business vehicle means you need to keep downtime in mind. It’s a cost you may not think of at the time of purchase, but if you’re spending days off work to get your car serviced, it can add up.

Thankfully none of these three vans requires maintenance at silly intervals.

The Caddy has a five-year capped-price service plan. It requires maintenance every 12 months or 15,000km, and the average cost over that five-year/75,000km period is $470. The warranty cover on the Caddy is three years, with no limit on kilometres, and buyers get Volkswagen roadside assistance over that period, too – but if you buy before the end of financial year, you’ll get a five-year/unlimited km plan if you finance the vehicle through VW.

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As mentioned, Fiat is offering free servicing for three years as part of a deal on its Doblo and Ducato models. Maintenance is due every 12 months or 30,000km, whichever occurs first, and the average cost over three years is $466 per annum – so that promotional deal is pretty handy. Fiat offers a three-year/150,000km roadside assist plan as part of a new-car purchase. The brand’s new-car warranty for the Doblo is three years/90,000km.

Citroen backs the Berlingo with a three-year/100,000km warranty – yep, while its passenger cars get a six-year/unlimited km plan, the commercial van misses out on that.

It is covered by a three-year roadside assist plan (other Citroens get six years!), but there’s no capped-price service plan (other Citroens get six years/90,000km at a capped-price!). The company calls the cover that applies to its passenger models Citroen Confidence – how about instilling some confidence in commercial van buyers? They’re holding the brand’s head above water, after all…

What a shame that Renault Kangoo wasn’t here. It has a three-year/200,000km warranty, three years’ roadside assist, and three years’ capped-price servicing (12 months/15,000km intervals – $349 per visit).


Verdict

This is tough.

As mentioned, which van you choose will be determined by your specific requirements for a short-wheelbase petrol manual cheapie.

In terms of sheer space for your money, the Fiat simply can’t be beaten. It has a big load space, feels big inside, and offers decent balance of control and comfort in the way it drives. If I had to buy one, this would be it – I could deal with its comparative lack of power and its lacklustre media system because it’s just a bit more fun to drive.

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The VW is a well-rounded offering, one that will attract plenty of buyer attention. It has the best long-term ownership plan of the three, and while it is short on creature comforts and its ride may be a little unsophisticated for some, it does everything it’s supposed to in an effortless fashion due to its turbocharged engine.

The Citroen is the most comfortable – its suspension is the smoothest, and it has the most driver-friendly bits: a rear-view camera, rear parking sensors and Apple CarPlay are all great items to have in your armoury. But that doesn’t mean it takes top spot, because not offering standard passenger/side airbags is just poo. Factor them in and it’s still really strong value.

So. We’ll call it pretty much even, and leave it up to you.

Thanks again to our great mates at Crown Lift Trucks for helping us out with the loading and unloading of these three vans, and allowing us to photograph them onsite, too. 

Click the Gallery tab above for more images by Sam Venn.

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