One of the biggest launches in the van world takes place at the end of 2018 with the arrival of the new Citroen Berlingo, Peugeot Partner and the first Vauxhall to be created since PSA bought Opel/Vauxhall – the new Combo.
Vauxhall being under new ownership means that we are likely to see a lot more of this group of manufacturers producing similar-but-different vans in the coming years; the next Vivaro is expected to sit on the EMP2 platform that currently underpins the Citroen Dispatch, Peugeot Expert and several passenger car models from the PSA Group.
However, this will also mean that Vauxhall is no longer part of the Renault/Nissan and Fiat alliance under which the Vivaro shared its fundamental structure with the Renault Trafic, Nissan NV300 and Fiat Talento.
This has brought the idea of platform sharing and differentiation to the fore. With multiple manufacturers competing for the same buyers, the challenge is for brands to stand out against their rivals from other companies, but also the competition from within their partnerships.
Working with other brands can be challenging from the off, with restrictions in a partnership making it hard to stand out visually and from a technological point of view.
Renault’s corporate design director, Laurens van den Acker, voiced his feelings at the IAA Commercial Vehicles show, saying: “It can be frustrating, to be honest, because, depending on the partner, they give us more or less flexibility.”
To counter this, Renault says that it aims to build in an inherent level of design differentiation that makes its models stand out from rivals.
Van den Acker said: “We have the advantage that in principle we design the vehicle as a Renault first and, depending on the contract, they negotiate increasing amounts of differentiation. So, from a design perspective, I try my best to make it uniquely Renault and you see this in the hood [bonnet] for instance with the cut out and we say that whatever partner comes in cannot use this identity.”
The Berlingo/Partner/Combo trio face a similar challenge, with all three sharing engines, dimensions and technology such as the new overloading sensor.
Peugeot is looking to appeal on the basis of its cabin comfort and its unique cockpit layout, which has been taken from the passenger car range.
“The customers are very pragmatic, if they have a good experience with a brand they stay with the new models of a brand, they are loyal,” explained Peugeot Partner brand product manager Caroline Damey. “With this new model we hope, and we want, to have new customers that expect more comfort as a passenger, so the iCockpit and the driver-assistance systems of the latest generation are in this new model, as in a passenger car.”
This doesn’t work with all customers, though, as van den Acker admits that some bigger fleets are not bothered by the visual differences between different models.
“There are two clients on commercial vehicles,” he said. “You have the fleets and the big companies and they are interested in payload and space and cost. I don’t want to say they couldn’t care less about design but it is pretty close.”
However, at the other end, there is the customer for whom the visuals are key. “You have also the small business owners, the hand crafters, the plumbers, the tradesmen and for them the car is more than that – it is also their image, their workspace and they are very interested in the image that the trucks display,” adds van den Acker.
This is where the slightly homogeneous nature of the van market falls short, and with many small companies having to rely solely on branding and colourful wraps to differentiate their vehicles and their business from other identically shaped vehicles, there is a gap in the market.
The Volkswagen ID Buzz Cargo, shown at the 2018 IAA Commercial Vehicles show is one model that hints at a more interesting and varied future.
Carl zu Dohna, director of Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles, reckons that, even though it is a similar size to the Transporter van, the two can sit alongside each other, and that more variety in the LCV market is likely in years to come.
“I think it is something we will see more and more, with product portfolios being much more clustered, much more diverse to make really sure that you have an offering for every customer,” he said. “The demand and how they operate is different. I think you will have many more different concepts in the future than you do now.”
Volkswagen points out that the MEB platform on which the ID Buzz Cargo is based means that it can put more than one body on the top of the same base without having to alter the underneath.
Despite the similarities between the PSA trio, the suggestion is that the future could bring more choice, rather than less.