ONE FOR THE LOAD
Citroen's latest Dispatch squares up to some heavy hitters in the small panel van sector but they underestimate it at their peril.
Citroen knows better than anyone how to sell vans in the UK marketplace
For a long time, Citroen's Dispatch van resisted classification in the UK's light commercial vehicle marketplace. It was bigger than the crop of compact vans but not so big as to impinge on the territory of the panel vans in the class above. As a relatively unique compromise between manoeuvrability and carrying capacity, it enjoyed considerable success. Today's model is easier to pin down, going head to head with vehicles at the more petite end of the panel van spectrum. It's a tougher gig but there's confidence at Citroen that the Dispatch is up to the challenge.
The 3m3 load volume of the original Dispatch left a glaring hole in the Citroen light commercial vehicle Range. The littlest version of the Relay panel van could carry 8m3 and this left a 5m3 window in which rivals like Vauxhall's Vivaro and Volkswagen's Transporter could make hay. Today's Dispatch plugs that gap, nestling up beneath the Relay model Range with a variety of load volumes ranging from 5m3 to 7m3. Payload options of 1,000kg and 1,200kg ensure that the Dispatch can cope with more weight than before as well, while the Range has taken on a far greater level of diversity thanks to two load lengths (L1 and L2), two roof heights (H1 and H2) and three engine options. On top of that little lot, buyers also get the choice of panel van, window van, platform cab and Combi bodystyles.
The modern Citroen Dispatch Range has the mix and match potential that operators expect in the panel van sector but a key factor behind the success of the original Dispatch was the way operators found it compact and wieldy in the manner of smaller, more car-like vans from the class below. Citroen was obviously acutely aware of this and rather than cloning the look and feel of the leading small panel van rivals, this Dispatch manages to remain a little bit different.
The frontal styling borrows quite substantially from the current Citroen passenger car Range and, indeed, from recent Peugeot models. The Dispatch, for the uninitiated, is the product of a partnership between PSA Peugeot Citroen and Fiat which has also spawned the identical Peugeot Expert and Fiat Scudo models. The grille displays the Citroen double chevrons as upward kinks knocked into parallel chrome bars and below the multi-part bumper juts forward imposingly. A deep swage line runs from the lower edge of the large, elongated headlamps into the window line, continuing down the flanks. The design is undeniably distinctive but where it looks modern from some angles it's a little gawky from others.
In profile, the large front overhang of the Dispatch is highlighted and this contributes to a turning circle that, at 12.2m, is nearly a metre greater than a Vauxhall Vivaro of equivalent capacity. The Dispatch, however, hits back on height or more accurately, lack of it. Citroen is at pains to point out that the standard roof H1 versions are just 1,942mm tall and drop to 1,894mm when the optional pneumatic suspension is specified. This means that they'll be able to squeeze under height restrictors on urban car parks that would deny entry to most other panel vans. The sliding side door on each flank is a further boon in situations where space is tight and operators need to access their load. These open wide enough to accommodate a Euro pallet and benefit from a low loading height of 562mm which can be cut by 71mm if you splash out on that self-levelling suspension.
Anyone jumping from another small panel van into the Dispatch will notice how much lower the driver sits in the Citroen. This makes access far simpler and ideal for delivery drivers who are constantly climbing in and out of their vans but something is lost in terms of visibility. It also can be difficult to see over that extensive bonnet when parking, especially as the driver sits a long way back from the base of the windscreen. In general driving, the Dispatch does feel compact and it's easy to thread through traffic, largely thanks to a footprint that's barely larger than a standard family saloon. The brakes respond with assurance and body roll when cornering is helped by that low centre of gravity. The gearchange, though not class-leading in its accuracy, is a sizable improvement over the old Dispatch and the suspension gives a well-judged blend of comfort and stability.
The cab area has been thoughtfully designed with firm, supportive seating and a respectable amount of storage space to keep oddments in check. A three-seat capacity is claimed but, as is so often the case in small panel vans, the legroom for the middle berth is severely restricted by the dash-mounted gear lever. In the Dispatch, the shifter occupies the space where the middle passenger's knee should be so unless the third member of your work crew happens to be Heather Mills-McCartney or Long John Silver, it may be better to make other arRangements.
The three engine options are all HDi common-rail diesels and they take some beating on grounds of fuel economy. The 90bhp 1.6-litre unit returns over 39mpg on the combined cycle and has more than enough puff to get a lightly laden Dispatch moving briskly along. The 2.0-litre engines will be a better bet in the larger models and of the two, I'd probably settle for the 120bhp option. Here you get identical fuel economy to that of the 1.6HDi but with a full 300Nm of torque at 2,000rpm. The Range-topping 136bhp engine delivers 38mpg and 320Nm of torque. It is quicker but this may not justify the price premium in the eyes of many buyers.
Equipment levels look generous with Citroen offering the headline-grabbing Smartnav satellite navigation system as standard along with ABS, EBA, a driver's airbag, a CD Stereo with wheel-mounted controls and electric windows. The LX derivatives get the self-levelling suspension along with other desirables. With these and other features taken into account, the Dispatch looks a conspicuously good value van - but what else did you expect from Citroen?
The original Dispatch, with its blend of compact van and small panel van qualities, was quite unlike anything else on the market but this model is more conformist. The extensive Range means it will appeal to more operators but it has a tougher task of convincing them of its merits because some accomplished small panel van rivals are now directly comparable to the Citroen. The Dispatch still offers a user-friendly, MPV-style driving experience but it lacks a little in terms of quality, both actual and perceived, when pitched against the very best. This may not matter. Citroen knows better than anyone how to sell vans in the UK marketplace and tight pricing along with innovations like the standard Smartnav navigation system and the inevitable cashback deals should give this impressive product the edge it needs in a closely-fought sector.