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All about vans

What is a van?

A van is a commercial vehicle with an enclosed load or cargo space.

Vans – what types are there?

Forward control vans – as typified by the Japanese Toyota Hiace – are work horses through-and-through, offering a pleasant driving environment but virtually no driving pleasure. Yet it absolutely dominates the van scene in Australia.

Meanwhile, the Europeans have made great inroads in recent years with their small-car derived front-wheel drive ‘bread van’ style vans, with their tall bodies, car-like cabins, and very sprightly and manoeuvrable driving characteristics.

The Holden Combo from Germany, Citroen Berlingo and Renault Kangoo from France, and – more recently – the Volkswagen Caddy – also from Germany – have led the way. Their compact size and low running costs make them ideal city and suburban workhorses.

Finally there are the full-sized front-engined vans, as personified by the FWD front-wheel drive Volkswagen Transporter and Ford Transit, as well as the RWD rear-wheel drive Mercedes-Benz Vito and Sprinter series. Hyundai has also cracked this market with the super-keenly priced iLOAD van.

Vans – what’s underneath?

Diesel engines are pretty much the standard fare in vans these days, thanks to efficient, economical, powerful and resilient turbo-diesel technology.

The other choices are petrol-powered vans, but – like the overwhelming number of diesel engined vans – they too use four-cylinders, and increasingly tied to an automatic gearbox, although five-speed manuals are still the norm.

Vans as recreation

In the 1970s, as panel vans, vans had a phenomenal rise in popularity as recreational vehicles, becoming a sort of motoring rite of passage for many young Australians of that generation.

Holden’s vans led the way with the Sandman – a name which has been immortalised in popular culture – while Ford and Chrysler were not far behind with the Falcon-based Sundowner and the Valiant-derived Drifter. In fact, in 1978, Ford added a Sundowner pack to its imported Escort panel van and Transit van.

However, with the increasing popularity of forward control vans from Japan in the 1980s, the panel van as an Australian icon ceased to exist.

Holden’s decision to pull out of the locally made large-car-based panel van market in 1984 with the WB van sounded the death knell of this uniquely Aussie motoring icon.

Are there any environmental vans?

Hybrid vans are offered abroad, but not yet in Australia.

Diesel vans are economical, powerful and efficient, with reduced CO2 carbon dioxide emissions compared to most of their petrol-powered counterparts, but the resulting increase in NOX Nitrogen Oxide is a real sore point.

Basically, the smallest turbo-diesel vans as exemplified by the VW Caddy and Peugeot Partner are the greenest way to go.

Van advantages

Vans are tough, versatile and relatively cheap to buy and run.

Most vans are now refined and capable enough to be used as weekend runabouts.

Vans come in a bewildering number of shapes and sizes – there will be one to fit your needs.

Vans provide better and enclosed security for work items like tools.

Vans can be used for recreational purposes, such as weekend-away trips.

Van disavantages

Crosswinds can affect vans.

Most vans are no style icons.

Some vans still lack the same levels of safety and refinement as regular passenger vehicles.

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