This month contributing editor Steve Banner met up with Richard Gavan, light commercial vehicle product and pricing manager, for Peugeot in the UK.
Demand for vans fell heavily last year in the wake of the credit crunch. How did Peugeot fare in what was an extremely tough trading climate?
Our volume fell from 15,800 in 2008 to 13,500. However, we managed to increase our share of what was an admittedly-smaller market from 5.5 per cent to 7.0 per cent so our performance wasn’t too bad given the circumstances. Most of the increase was a consequence of the demand for the smaller vans in our range; Bipper and Partner in particular. We sold 2,473 Bippers in 2009 compared with 1,337 in the previous year, although to be fair we didn’t have Bipper available for the whole of 2008. Partner sales remained pretty steady from one year to the next; 5,339 last year compared with 5,365 in 2008, so it held its own. These vans are proving popular partly because customers are increasingly focusing on running costs and the environmental impact of their vehicles. I also believe that more and more of them are thinking very carefully about what they really need a van for rather than simply buying what they’ve always bought.
Do you think some of them are downsizing?
Yes, without a doubt. I think they’re moving away from the practice of always running a large van because they occasionally need to shift a big load, even though they don’t use its full capacity from one week to the next. Instead, they’re homing in on how they use their van for the majority of the time and purchasing a vehicle accordingly. Remember that smaller vans are much more flexible than they used to be what with the availability of twin sliding side doors and the ability to fold down passenger seats completely if you need to carry longer loads. Partner of course can be ordered in two different lengths — L1 and L2 — although the short-wheelbase version dominates sales. It can make sense for a customer who only needs a large van from time to time to hire one as and when it’s needed. In this context Peugeot will be launching an in-house rental scheme already trialled in France called Mu (it means mobility in Greek) later this year.
Is the 207 Van suffering as a result of Bipper’s popularity and is its future in doubt?
We sold 437 of our 207 Vans in 2009 compared with 970 the year before, and I think it’s fair to say that some customers have switched to Bipper. However, 207 Van will continue for the foreseeable future. It appeals to people who do not need to carry bulky items and who like its car-like features.
What does the future hold for the old-style Partner, the Origin, which remains in your range despite the arrival of the new model?
It depends on whether we decide to equip it with an engine that meets the tougher Euro 5 exhaust emission requirements. Discussions are still taking place. As things stand there’s still a definite market for it and it’s available in Professional as well as base specification. That means it is equipped with BlueTooth, air conditioning and a side loading door. Aimed primarily at owner-drivers and smaller companies, Professional versions of our vans represent a key part of our marketing strategy.
Any changes to the newer Partner?
Aside from making it available in two different lengths, we’ve recently introduced a five-seater Crew Van version. Treated as a commercial vehicle from a tax viewpoint, it’s appealing to big companies that regularly need to transport a crew of workers who do not necessarily need to carry a huge amount of tools and equipment with them.
With the rear seats in place you’ve still got a load area at the back and even more carrying space if you fold them down. Do you see it appealing to self-employed business people who want to save money by getting rid of their car and their existing light commercial and run one vehicle instead?
People I’ve talked to have told me that Crew Van is the ideal solution if that’s what you want to do. From a personal viewpoint, I do a lot of mountain biking, and Crew Van allows me to carry three or four bikes plus three or four people at the weekend. It brings the cost of going away down a bit if you can fit everything and everybody into one vehicle.
Is Partner stealing sales from its larger Expert stablemate?
Some people are looking to use smaller vehicles, as I said earlier, and while we sold 2,276 Experts in 2009 as opposed to just over 4,000 in 2008, Partner sales remained buoyant. On the other hand Expert can carry more weight than Partner; so if payload capacity is important to an Expert owner, then he’s going to find it difficult to downsize.
Which Expert is the most popular?
The L1H1 with the 90hp diesel engine. Expert can be ordered with Professional specifications — it gets air conditioning, BlueTooth and a bulkhead — and we sell quite a few with that level of equipment.
Do you think there is a gradual drift upwards in terms of van specifications and the richness of the mix of options that customers specify?
Yes, and it’s in part influenced by safety and Duty of Care considerations. From that viewpoint BlueTooth is popular, although some firms feel that from a safety standpoint drivers should not be using phones even with BlueTooth in place.
What’s happening with Boxer?
We sold 2,969 Boxers last year compared with just over 4,000 in 2008, so registrations stood up reasonably well given the economic circumstances.
How many Boxers end up being converted into motor homes?
A total of 1,587 last year compared with 1,998 the year before. We’re one of the leading players in the motor caravan sector.
Has the reversing problem that plagued Boxer and primarily affected motor homes been sorted out? Owners were complaining of clutch judder whenever they tried to back their vehicle up an incline.
Yes. It was solved by installing a lower-ratio reverse gear; the original reverse gear was a higher ratio than first gear. That’s now being done on the production line and we’ve come up with a lower-reverse-gear kit that resolves the difficulty on existing vehicles. It too is now being fitted by Peugeot dealers.
Are you planning to offer chassis cab versions of Boxer with ready-to-go-to-work dropside, tipper and Luton bodywork?
Yes. We’ll be launching a conversion programme later this year and the line-up is also likely to include refrigerated vehicles.
Bipper is available with a 2-tronic semi-automatic gearbox. Are you planning to offer a semi-auto ’box on any other models?
We’ll be offering a 2-tronic on Partner in 2011 along with a full automatic on Expert. Boxer will get a semi-auto ’box a little later.
We’ve recently driven extra traction two-wheel drive XTR+ versions of Citroën’s Berlingo and Dispatch. Aimed at customers who need to venture up muddy tracks occasionally, they’re fitted with multi-plate limited slip differentials that can automatically apportion up to 75 per cent of the engine’s torque between the two driven front wheels. If one wheel starts to spin then torque instantly shifts to the one with greater grip. Other modifications include a higher ride height. Does Peugeot offer equivalent models?
We offer an optional electronic Grip Control package on Partner. It optimises the grip of both front wheels by means of a traction control system incorporated within the Electronic Stability Programme’s ECU. One of its big advantages is that it if necessary it can put as much as 95 per cent of the torque into one wheel. It’s also totally software based.
Does Dangel still carry out 4x4 conversions to Peugeot light commercials?
It does, but they’re not marketed in the UK.
Aside from introducing Euro 5 powerplants, what are you doing to make your vehicles more environmentally-friendly?
We’ll be offering stop-start technology on Bipper. It will appear this summer along with the introduction of Euro 5 engines. Partner will be getting stop-start in 2011. (Stop-start systems kill the engine if it’s left idling and thus burning fuel for more than a few seconds when the driver is waiting at the lights or stationery in a traffic jam. Typically the driver restarts the engine by dipping the clutch – ed).
What about alternative fuels?
Group-wide we’re developing electric and diesel hybrid vehicles and those technologies may well be used in light commercials sold in Britain.
What do you think will happen to the overall van market this year?
It’s difficult for anybody to predict what’s going to happen accurately, but I think we’re already starting to see signs of recovery. People who would otherwise have changed their vans have held on to them instead over the last year, and in certain demanding industries you can only hang on to your vans for so long before they start costing you money. So we’re budgeting for growth; and we aim to increase our market share.