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What’s the cheapest way to get into a new van? Here are four examples, from four different nations, for your consideration.

For about the price of an entry-level small-segment hatchback, you can clamber into a new Italian Fiat Doblo (actually made in Turkey), French Renault Kangoo or German Volkswagen Caddy (Polish built).

Throwing a spanner in the works is the even cheaper Japanese Suzuki APV (in fact made in Indonesia), a light commercial that takes the more car-like layout of the Euro trio and tosses it out the window.

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None of these vans are pitched as heavy duty haulers — all have a payload under 800kg — but rather as inner-city load luggers, perfect tools for couriers and their ilk.

Right off the bat, it is clear there is a sizeable line of separation between what we will from now call the three Europeans and the APV, which remains a defiantly traditional van in shape — if not size — rendering it as something of a standalone proposition.

It is the Volkswagen Caddy which is far and away the biggest seller here, chalking up 1855 sales in 2014 to take 56 per cent market share. Between it and the Renault Kangoo (664 sales and 20 per cent share) you have three-quarters of the light van segment’s sales accounted for. Add the Suzuki APV’s 15 per cent share and that’s almost the whole segment covered.

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The new kid on the block, and therefore the model with the weight of expectations on its slabby shoulders, is the Fiat Doblo, launched in December last year as the third member of the burgeoning Fiat Professional range in Australia. As with its passenger car range, serious growth in sales is expected and demanded.

Note: we were unable to source a Citroen Berlingo for this test, the other notable player in the market.

Here we decided to test base petrol-powered versions, which are the price leaders of each range (the Suzuki only comes in one grade). In the case of the Renault, petrol versions account for about two-thirds of sales, though it is notably less so with the Volkswagen.

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All but the APV can be had with punchier diesel engines, which we’d recommend if you want some extra gusto.

Cheapest here as you’d expect is the Suzuki, which retails for $18,990 plus on-road costs, though which is regularly priced at $17,990 drive-away.

Next is the Kangoo, which is a sharp $19,990 plus on-roads in manual guise (we could only get the $3000-pricier auto for this test, unfortunately).

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The Fiat is priced at $22,000 plus on-road costs, while the Volkswagen is nominally the priciest at $22,690 — though the company is currently doing a campaign on Caddy Runner models for $22,990 drive-away.

Let’s break it down, starting with the work space, aka the cabins.

Each van here comes with Bluetooth connectivity. The Caddy misses out on a USB port included on the others, though it offers an AUX plugin and is the only one to come with cruise control. Hat tip there. (The VW we tested was an older iteration identical to the current car mechanically but lacking the two aforementioned creature comforts).

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The Fiat and Renault offer audio controls as standard on either the front of the steering wheel (Doblo) or behind it (Kangoo), unlike the Volkswagen and Suzuki. They can be optioned on the Caddy. A trip computer is standard on the Euros and not offered on the APV.

Other features standard on all three Euros include electric windows, power mirrors, remote central locking and steel wheels. The APV gets central locking and steelies, but positively quaint winding windows, as well as manual mirror adjustment.

Crucial for all couriers is cabin storage, which the Fiat caters for with a closed glovebox (though no proper centre console), excellent overhead storage bins and various areas dotting the fascia for phones and the like, though the cupholders and door pockets aren’t the biggest here. There’s also a hidden area inside the flip-up passenger seat base.

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The Volkswagen’s storage options extend to good dashtop cubbies, including a partitioned area above the centre stack. You also get four cupholders, a large glovebox (albeit one that doesn’t close), overhead storage bins, a drawer under the seats and deep door pockets. It might just be the winner here, though it’s a tight call.

The Kangoo lacks the under-seat storage and overhead cubbies found on the Fiat and VW, but it does offer a vast centre console, closing glovebox, large bottle-holders in the doors, and a sizeable storage pod mounted atop the dash.

Back of the pack here is the APV, which has no door pockets, overhead bins or cupholders.

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Both the Fiat and VW offer steering wheel reach/rake adjustment, while the Renault is rake only, though it does offer seatbelt-height adjustment. The Suzuki’s wheel has no adjustment either way. The Fiat and APV both lack seat-height adjustment. Each Euro has large sun-visors, while the APV’s feel like vinyl-covered strips of cardboard.

In terms of design, the Doblo is the freshest here with its glossy inserts and speckled plastics, but the trimming on the steering wheel and some of the plastics surrounding the gearstick and light fittings are the worst of the group.

The Kangoo’s cabin is a practical place to work with an interesting layout — that upper dash expanse is vast — and the best seats, though like the Fiat there are some sub-par plastics. It has the easiest infotainment system with the fastest Bluetooth re-pairing.

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The Caddy’s overall build quality feels better than its Euro rivals, and its dash layout, which might be a little dull to some, nevertheless provides supreme ergonomics.

The APV’s presentation is rather old hat and everything feels built to a price, albeit a well-screwed-together variety of ‘cheap’.

Where the APV shines is in the area of outward visibility. You sit much higher, even if you’re perched on those thin seats. You also get windows running all the way down both sides — you can option side windows on the others, if they suit your needs — meaning you have unparalleled vision of what’s happening around you.

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Backing out of a parking spot in the others is just guesswork, especially given the lack of sensors. The Doblo is second to the APV overall in this area, because its side mirrors are larger and have a smaller lower panel that focuses on parking lines.

In terms of safety, the newly launched Fiat looks to have the edge, exclusively offering four airbags as standard. The other trio get dual-front airbags, while you can option-up to get side airbags on the Kangoo and Caddy. The Suzuki also lacks stability control, which the three Euros all get.

ANCAP has previously given the Renault and VW four-star results, in 2009 and 2008 respectively, and the APV three stars, in 2008. The Doblo is unrated. But kudos goes to Fiat for making side head- and chest-protecting airbags standard fare, and a kicking goes to the others for not.

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Here we see some interesting diversions beginning to occur. The Renault offers what we think is the most comfortable cabin with the best media system, but the Volkswagen feels better made than any and is the only one to offer cruise control standard, while you’ll feel safest in the Fiat. The Suzuki feels its age in all areas, really, but it does offer the best outward visibility of anything here.

What about their respective cargo areas?

If you go off supplied data, it’s the rear-drive Suzuki with its 785kg payload that edges out the Caddy (770kg), Doblo (750kg) and Kangoo (611kg). But given it also has the least engine torque — more on that later — much of that becomes academic.

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2015-january-small-vans-comparison-11Above: Fiat Doblo (top); Volkswagen Caddy (bottom).  

Officially, the Doblo and APV have the largest cargo capacities at 3.4 cubic-metres, ahead of the Caddy (3.2) and Kangoo (3.0).

By our measuring tape, it’s the APV with the deepest cargo area (2.1 metres from tailgate to front chairs), ahead of the Volkswagen and Fiat at a touch over 1.7m and the Kangoo at 1.65m. This is despite the APV being the shortest overall van here at 4.15m due to its cab-over design.

The Renault was widest between the wheel arches at 1.22m, ahead of the Fiat (1.2m), Volkswagen (1.17m) and Suzuki (1.13m), which somewhat belies its much narrower stance due to its non-intrusive arches.

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Above: Suzuki APV (top); Renault Kangoo (bottom).

The Doblo offers highest cargo area at 1.3m, ahead of the Caddy (1.24m), APV (1.22m) and Kangoo (1.21m).

All bar the Volkswagen also come with two parallel side doors to access the cargo area, whereas the Caddy only has a left-side rear door (you can option a right-hand door too). All models have openings of around 650mm. The side doors on the three Euros slide, while they open from side hinges on the Suzuki, making them harder to access.

The Fiat, Renault and Volkswagen come with barn-style back doors that open out at 180-degrees if you ‘unlock’ their hinges (the Renault’s handle-operated system is the best here, and saves your hands from getting greasy like they do on the Caddy).

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By comparison, the APV’s top-hinged design is less forklift-friendly — not that it matters, given the APV is the only one without sufficient space between the arches to squeeze a standard pallet. You can option a lifting tailgate on the VW, too.

Each of the Euros gets six tie-down points and a plethora of rope-holes to help hold down your stuff.

The Renault also adds four handy tie-downs along the side panels too, though it has more notable intrusion from its roof beams. The Caddy gets nifty segmented storage under the seats, and is alone in offering a 12V adaptor in the rear. The APV offers nifty winding rear windows, but loses points for its flimsy vinyl roof-lining and the complete lack of tie-downs. Its loading floor also tilts slightly up as it nears the seats.

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2015-january-small-vans-comparison-49Above: Fiat Doblo (top); Renault Kangoo (bottom).

It’s the Doblo that is the real star here, given it comes standard with a PVC load compartment mat (not extra cost) and a hefty protective ladder/divider behind the driver’s head that is the closest thing here to a proper bulkhead. The Kangoo also comes with a (less sizeable) protecting divider behind the driver.

Options on the various models include crash barriers, wall protectors and non-slip floor coverings. Vans can be customised readily, though kudos to Fiat especially for making more of this stuff standard than the others.

As mentioned, each of the cars tested here came with a base petrol engine.

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2015-january-small-vans-comparison-54Above: Suzuki APV (top); Volkswagen Caddy (bottom).

The Renault’s 1.6-litre unit has the most power here with 79kW at 6000rpm and 148Nm of torque at 3750rpm, but it’s the Caddy’s 63kW (at 4800rpm) 1.2-litre turbo with the most torque at 160Nm, available between 1500rpm and 3500rpm. The Fiat’s 1.4-litre unit has 70kW at 4000rpm but only 127Nm at 4500rpm — the same exact figure as the APV, which also squeezes 68kW at 5750rpm from its 1.6 (not that it has a tachometer!).

All come at base level with a five-speed manual gearbox — though our Renault tester had an optional four-speed auto — driving power through the front wheels in the case of the European trio, and the rear wheels in the case of the Suzuki. Only Renault gets the option of an auto, the others being manual-only.

The Volkswagen’s reservoir of torque, available from right down low in the rev band, gives the Caddy the best off-the-mark dash here. Given the type of driving these cars are used for, the 0-60km/h time is a crucial figure.

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2015-january-small-vans-comparison-23Above: Fiat Doblo (top); Renault Kangoo (bottom).

Unladen, we recorded that dash in the Caddy in 5.3 seconds, compared with 7.6s for the Doblo and 7.7s for the APV. Given the Renault as tested was an auto, we couldn’t get a like-for-like measure; safe to say it was punchier than all bar the VW even with its old school self-shifter.

Ultimately the Caddy’s engine is the least stressed and thereby the most refined. The Fiat’s 1.4 is disappointing, with a thrashy nature and the sloppiest gearbox action here (of the manuals, though past experience tells us the Kangoo’s ‘box is also better).

The Renault’s engine is punchy but noisier than the Caddy, while the little Suzuki tries hard but is the noisiest here. The APV’s transmission clunks and whines are very old school, though the shift action is actually quite good. It’s geared in such a way that your left hand will be busy. At freeways speeds, the APV feels downright uncomfortable and buzzy. It’s not the car’s happy place, whereas the European trio, designed for speeds way above our paltry limits, cruise along ticking over at 2500-3000rpm.

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2015-january-small-vans-comparison-24Above: Suzuki APV (top); Volkswagen Caddy (bottom).

In terms of fuel economy, the Volkswagen’s official combined-cycle figure is 6.9 litres per 100km, ahead of the Fiat’s 7.3L/100km, the Kangoo’s 7.7L/100km (manual, 8.2L/100km as an auto) and the APV’s 8.2L/100km.

In reality, you’ll use the least in the Volkswagen, given its de-stressed torque delivery — we had a variety of tests, in a variety of conditions, and both with/without loads, so getting a fixed consistent figure is tough here.

We managed mid-8.0s for the VW’s fuel use, but again, take that with a grain of salt. The Renault was low 9s, quite impressive given it was an auto, while the Fiat was high 8s to low 9s, largely because it needs to be worked. Because the APV is geared shorter in order to address the lack of low-down huff, it tends to chew. We used about 10.0L/100km.

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Generally it’s the Caddy that feels the most car-like in its dynamics. It has the best steering here, and the best body control with the least roll and quickest turn-in. The Kangoo’s steering is quick and light, though not as sharp as the Caddy, while the Fiat is lightest of all, which comes in handy for car-park twirling.

It’s the Suzuki that kills the others for its turning circle, which it lists as 9.8m. Renault’s claim is 10.7m, while the VW’s is 11.1m. Fiat’s figures are hard to find, though in our testing it was equal largest.

The Caddy also feels the most settled and composed over speed humps. That said, it’s ride errs on firm for the class even when unladen (it’s more notable with a 350kg-plus weight), with both the Fiat and Renault exhibiting a softer ride generally. That said, none of this trio feels overtly choppy or unsettled, even without a load. The VW is the ‘sportiest’ and the Renault narrowly the most comfortable.

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The same can’t be said for the APV on its 14-inch wheels (an inch smaller than the Euros), which skits about restlessly and wallows about mid-corner by comparison, while its hydraulically-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is heavier than the others, though feelsome. That said, a load settles it down nicely, even if the engine strains and struggles.

The Caddy is also markedly worse in its suppression of booming from the cargo area than the Fiat and Renault. Generally, we found the Fiat to be the quietest and highway speeds, narrowly ahead of the Renault. The APV us off-the-charts noisy compared to even the VW.

The Volkswagen’s brakes (280mm front and 253mm rear discs) offered the best bite, feel and effectiveness alongside the Renault’s 280mm/274mm discs, though the Doblo’s brake feel is also good despite being the only Euro with rear drums. The APV’s rear leading and ventilated drums offer less stopping force, there’s no ESC and the ABS system can be subverted — my colleague got the car to skid on under heavy exertion.

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So what can we ascertain here? In short, each Euro rides beautifully in the urban jungle, and handles more like a car than a truck. The Volkswagen offers the nicest blend of punch and zippiness, but the Renault and Fiat are notably quieter, though the latter is let down by its engine. The Suzuki, an outlier here, does none of these things to the same degree, but turns on a dime and offers unparalleled outward visibility and ease-of-parking.

All feel most comfortable in the cities they call home, and all have merits they can call their very own.

Perhaps a more vital statistic for any van buyer, be they private, small business or large-scale fleet reps, is running costs.

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Each van here is covered by a three-year warranty only, with different kilometre limits so long as they fall within the three year period. The Caddy wins with unlimited kilometres, while the Renault and Fiat are covered for up to 200,000km, and the APV for 100,000km.

Renault offers a five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty on its passenger range, but its vans all make do with the three-year/200,000km plan.

All bar the Fiat get capped-price servicing. Volkswagen covers six services from new, at intervals of 12 months/15,000km. The price of each at the time of reporting is, respectively: $385, $385, $468, $712, $385, $437. Every two years you’ll need new pollen filter and brake fluid, which add $71 and $138 apiece.

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Renault covers only the first three services, likewise with 12 month/15,000km intervals, each capped at $349. The Suzuki has only six-month/10,000km intervals, with each visit capped at either $249 or $295. Fiat’s intervals are 12-months/15,000km, and there’s no capped-price plan.

It’s also worth remembering that Fiat Professional and Renault have smaller dealer networks than Volkswagen Commercial and Suzuki, too.

So it’s the Renault that wins in this area, at least in the first (correction) 45,000km of ownership. But well done to VW for covering a longer period, and to Suzuki, though the German brand is pricier and the Japanese brand’s intervals are too short. Fiat needs to get on the capped-price wagon soon, we’d suggest. Anything that promotes openness and accountability is positive.

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So, to the verdict.

In last place, in head if not heart, is the APV. Dripping old school charm, it is nevertheless too expensive, given a Kangoo is only $1000 pricier (officially, anyway, though we dare say you could haggle on the Suzuki). It’s an old-school van in terms of its safety, presentation and handling, although if you’re a city slicker its turning circle and deep loading area may win admirers.

The Europeans are very hard to split.

The Doblo has the most safety equipment and the best cargo area given it has more driver protection than rivals and a standard protective floor. These are laudable features, but its cabin presentation and engine let the team down a bit, and it’s not covered by capped servicing.

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The Volkswagen is the best to drive here, has cruise control and feels the most robust among the Europeans. But it’s also the priciest, based on list, the noisiest and the only one that has dual rear sliding doors as an option, not standard. Still, it’s easy to understand why it dominates the sales charts, even if it’s a little pricier to service than the Kangoo.

The Renault isn’t as sharp as the Volkswagen, and feels a little lower-rent inside. It also has the lowest payload, and that alone may cross it off your list. But it’s cheaper to run, comfortable and car-like, and if your loading requirements are lower than 600kg, it’s a good option.

To finish on an important point, we hope we imparted that each European offering here has different strengths to match specific needs, and remember that they can, to differing levels, be optioned with side windows, cargo protectors, different door configurations and other specificities.

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Each of the Fiat, Renault and Volkswagen is a classy and impressive offering that would make a worthy work companion. The APV is what it is, a van with a narrow purpose that nails one brief, but ought to be cheaper still.

The Caddy is the most polished package overall, though the Fiat gets massive props for its standard driver protection, covered cargo floor and side airbags. But all that said, if after haggling you still find yourself with the chance to get the Renault for $3000 less than the Volkswagen and $2000 less than the Fiat, it’s a saving we’d take.

Go forth and cross-shop.

Click the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.

Note: Volkswagen Caddy supplied with thanks to Bayford Volkswagen.



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RENAULT KANGOO BREAKDOWN

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SUZUKI APV BREAKDOWN

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VOLKSWAGEN CADDY BREAKDOWN

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