I’ve spent several months this year living with a Citroen Berlingo van, but one with a twist.
The Berlingo in question is a crew van. As you might know (or if you don’t then this might be a good place to head) a crew van has two rows of seats whereas a normal panel van usually only has one row.
This is a great thing if you work for a small firm that needs to transport a team of workers to a site but need something hardier, and bigger, than a standard estate car or similar. The seats are generally big enough to transport five adults (and sometimes six if the front row is big enough to accommodate three) and there is still plenty of space in the back for your tools or materials. In some senses they are like a big estate car but with many of the luxuries stripped out so as to keep costs down.
The lack of frills in the loading bay means that they often come with a utilitarian load lining and floor covering so there are fewer things to get damaged by tools or sharp items. A bulkhead means that those in the front will stay protected from anything that might fly forwards should you jam the brakes on in a hurry.
All this is true in my Berlingo. The middle row is a particular triumph, as they are all individual seats that fold independently of one another and have enough room for an adult. There is a great deal of head and legroom too.
As an added bonus for those that want to run their crew van as an all-purpose vehicle, fulfilling weekend family duties as well as the weekday tasks, all three of the rear seats come with Isofix points. With sliding doors on either side, this makes for a very versatile and handy vehicle when you need to squeeze small people in and out of tight gaps in supermarket car parks.
The bulkhead is another clever innovation, too. While many crew vans might offer you the ability to take the seats out and make the most of all the space in the back, this is sometimes only possible if there is no bulkhead in place, which reduces the safety levels. You often have to unhitch and lift out the heavy and cumbersome second-row seats, too, meaning that you really really have to want to fit that larger item in.
The Berlingo’s system is an ingenious one, which sees the seats fold flat, to the same level as the rear loading bay floor. This can be done with one hand, as the seats are released by a solitary lever.
The bulkhead itself can then be unsecured and slid forward, meaning that the passengers remaining in the front can still enjoy some protection. All the necessary levers are highlighted in yellow, too, so it is a really simple procedure. The presence of the seats means that the crew van’s payload isn’t as big as the equivalent panel van’s, but it is not bad at 754kg – still more than many small van rivals.
The front part of the Berlingo’s cabin might not be as luxurious as a passenger car, and there is only the one trim in the range to choose from, but it has a decent level of kit at least. The eight-inch colour touchscreen might not have satellite navigation but it comes with smartphone mirroring which means you have access to it at least. It also has air conditioning (not always a given in a van) an electronic, automatic parking brake, driver’s seat with lumbar support and cruise control mean that it has a fair few of the basics covered.
There is just the one diesel engine available in the crew van’s range, too, but that also does the job without being spectacular. It is a 100hp 1.5-litre diesel and, despite the five-speed manual gearbox, it sits happily at motorway speeds.
There is a big elephant in the room regarding the Berlingo crew van, though. If you were to close your eyes and picture the vehicle I’ve just been describing you’d probably think it had side windows for the second row of seats. In fact, the vehicle in Citroen’s own brochure has side windows.
Our van, however, doesn’t have side windows, and has the same solid sliding side doors as a standard panel van. I’d wager they are totally unchanged.
This isn’t because someone has made a mistake, but is a deliberate decision. The small print on the Citroen brochure covers this, in brief, by saying: “Glazed doors on Citroen Berlingo Crew Van may change the tax status of the vehicle. Please check with your local HM Revenue & Customs office for further details.”
This all stems from a complicated tax case between Coca Cola and the tax man. In short, HMRC wanted to charge company car tax, rather than company van tax, on some crew vans that Coca Cola was running. Company car tax is calculated on CO2 emissions with higher emitting vehicles paying a lot more than smaller and more efficient ones. Vans tend to be big and not very efficient and therefore have high CO2 figures, which would result in a high tax bill if they were on the same emissions-based scale as cars.
Company van tax, however, is calculated on a set figure – the tax man reckons you only get the same benefit if you take a large Transit van home as if you take a tiny Fiesta Van. The thinking presumably being that they don’t generally have space for more than a couple of people in them, so they can’t be used as much at the weekend.
The crew van is a different matter, though. As they have space for more people, HMRC said that they were designed to carry passengers more than they were designed to carry goods and tools so they wanted to charge company car tax instead. To qualify for van tax the vehicle needs to be designed to carry things first and people second.
The addition of solid side doors is a firm statement by Citroen. This is a vehicle that is designed to carry things rather than people first and foremost – who would buy a vehicle to carry five people on a regular basis if three of them have to sit in the dark and can’t see out?
When it comes to occasional use, there is no real problem. The second row of seats is high enough that smaller passengers can see out and Isofix points on the middle seat means that they can look between the front two seats.
However, it didn’t take long for my three-year-old to start wanting to go in a car with windows, and my “Let’s play hide and seek!” suggestion was starting to wear thing after a few months with the Berlingo. It is amusing when you pull up somewhere and slide the doors open to reveal that people have been tucked away back there, but I say that as the driver rather than a passenger.
The crew van is a great and practical thing, but it is definitely a practical and working van rather than a dual-purpose vehicle that can fulfil two roles equally. And I guess that is exactly what the tax man wanted.
Model on test: Citroen Berlingo Crew Van
Price as tested: £21,360
Engine: 1.5-litre turbocharged diesel
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Current economy: 47.9mpg