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Car reviews - Citroen - Berlingo - 3-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Cabin comfort, road manners, large load area
Room for improvement
No airbag, room only for two

4 May 2001

HOLDEN has had its own way with the car-style light commercial van market since it launched the Barina-based Combo in 1996.

That is, it had its own way until Citroen importer Ateco Automotive decided to introduce the compact but not so quirky Berlingo van to Australian florists, dry cleaners, handymen and other potential light van users this year.

The Berlingo might not look as interesting as, say, the Nissan S-Cargo that exists here in small numbers thanks to the efforts of a few low-volume importers, but it does make an awful lot of sense for those with relatively modest space requirements.

The cargo area is quite voluminous with a capacity of three cubic metres and the ability to tote up to 800kg. The front passenger cabin, isolated for comfort reasons from the loading area by a plastic "curtain", is more passenger car than van with big multi-adjustable seats, loads of elbow and headroom and a well presented dash fronted by an adjustable steering wheel.

The Berlingo is not car-derived however (at least in terms of body design) so the whole thing flows smoothly from the high-roofed cabin to the rear roofline.

It does not give the impression of being a regular car chopped in half with a box added to the rear end. There is enough headroom up front to swing the proverbial cat, as well as a sense of spaciousness not found in, say, Holden's Barina-based Combo van.

But the Berlingo is car-derived in that its chassis comes from the Xsara small car, so the suspension quality is superb.

There is the requisite French long wheelbase placing the back wheels well aft of where they would normally be expected, plus a depth of suspension travel that allows the little van to ride with amazing comfort, empty or laden.

Independent trailing arms are appreciated at the rear for their smoothness and their ability to keep the Berlingo tracking straight on rough surfaces.

Surprising, considering the format of the Berlingo with its big, bare rear compartment, is the relatively quiet progress along suburban roads or freeways.

The Citroen does not batter the senses with thumping and droning noises from the back, even when unladen. The isolation curtain probably helps, but not as much as the vehicle's intrinsic quality that makes it always pleasant to live with.

In true European style, the engine is pretty no-frills apart from the fact it is all-alloy.

It is a 1.4-litre, single overhead cam four-cylinder, located transversely of course and developing a meagre 57kW. Torque is 111Nm at 3400rpm. Nothing alarming or spectacular but enough to hustle the relatively light weight, 1070kg Berlingo along quickly.

Revving the little 1.4 towards the imaginary red line (there's no tachometer) reveals a slightly sporting note and a joyous and surprising ability to be worked hard. And the brakes, discs front and drums rear with a proportioning valve to regulate pressure according to load, are up to the task.

The five-speed gearbox shifts nicely (although the cable-actuated clutch action is "sticky" and makes for difficult operation - hydraulics would be nice - engine and road noise are well muted and the power-assisted steering makes the Berlingo almost as wieldy as a regular car.

It is only when you swing the Citroen into a tight parking spot that you discover the turning circle is maybe not as tight as it could be (it is 10.7 metres, only fractionally less than a Falcon) or when tackling a roundabout at speed, that you realise this is not exactly a hot hatch and will opt for the straight-ahead position if insufficient steering lock is applied.

Yes, the basic handling characteristic is understeer and the special Michelin Agilis tyres do not seem to have very high reserves of grip - to the point the Berlingo feels as if it would benefit from a lot more rubber on the road.

But it is still difficult to think of a workhorse of similar ability that has the comfort and security so ably provided by the Citroen.

Of course it is the carrying abilities that will be of primary importance to most customers and the Berlingo looks pretty good here too.

There are two wide-opening rear doors providing an opening 1155mm high and 1270mm wide, and a load area measuring 1600mm long and 1245mm high. The floor is protected by a heavy-duty rubberised mat and there is a generous 1195mm span between the wheel arches.

Optional, but desirable surely to most, is a clever fold-up roof hatch at the rear that opens to allow tall items, too big to quite fit inside, to be stowed securely.

The rear hinges are neat, too, in that the door stays can be unlatched to allow a full 180-degree opening, while the loading height is a friendly 567mm, familiar to Citroen fans long accustomed to ultra-low floor levels and generous load areas.

Another handy feature is a front passenger seat that can act as a table/workbench - complete with cupholders - by flipping the backrest forward.

Double-fold it further forward to reveal a large, handy, concealed under-seat bin offering surprising room. This space also adds to the passenger-side rear load area, extending it from 1.7 metres to 2.1 metres.

In Europe people are adding extra seats in the rear, as well as extra side windows, to make the Berlingo more useful for carrying passengers. Apparently it is possible to acquire an ADR-compliant kit to extend the capacity of Australian cars - although it is not mentioned in the list of options.

In base trim, the Berlingo is pretty - well - basic. Manual door locking, manual windows and mirrors, and a two-speaker radio/cassette.

The sound would have been okay had not the speakers insisted on buzzing and rattling - something that could be fixed with a bit of time and a wad of foam if sound quality was important.

The seatbelts are equipped with pretensioners to hold passengers securely in a frontal impact, but a driver's airbag is listed as optional (no passenger bag is mentioned). Also optional are two types of driver compartment solid partition, air-conditioning, electric windows, remote central locking and the rear roof-loading flap.

Citroen has priced its Berlingo right on top of Holden's Combo. There is no question it is the newest kid on the block and outscores the (impressive nonetheless) little Holden on just about every count.

Given those factors, it would seem the top choice in this market segment. The Combo's main strength is it is sold through the Holden network.

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