The What Van? Road Test: DFSK Loadhopper
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Why buy a van made by a manufacturer hardly anybody in this country has ever heard of, whose products have been on sale here for barely five minutes, and which originates in China, a country whose light commercials have yet to make any serious impact in Britain?
Because it’s the only one of its type you can purchase new nowadays, that’s why.
Go back a few years and you could barely move for dealers marketing microvans, with Daihatsu dealers promoting the Hijet (Daihatsu has now vanished from the UK), Suzuki’s dealers marketing the Carry, and Piaggio’s extolling the virtues of the Porter. Piaggio was the last manufacturer to offer micros in the UK, and with its sudden withdrawal, microvan fans were left with nowhere to shop unless they wanted to buy used: until DFSK rocked up with the Loadhopper.
A big volume manufacturer on its home turf, DFSK is selling its line-up in Britain through Swindon-based Vestatec Automotive Distribution. Former managing director of Mitsubishi Motors in the UK, Jim Tyrrell, is the chairman, and it is worth noting that Vestatec is also a leading automotive parts manufacturer and distributor.
As well as being on sale as a microvan (Vestatec seems to favour the term ‘minivan’), the Loadhopper is on offer as both a single- and a double-cab pick-up, and as a single-cab tipper.
In line with microvan tradition, the Loadhopper’s easy-to-access cab is somewhat spartan (although less so than the cabs of some microvans we can recall) and, if you happen to be tall and heftily built, rather cramped. Neither the driver’s seat nor the steering column is height-adjustable. But most people will find the accommodation is fine for short, local journeys – the sort of work the vehicle is likely to be on – and that the storage space for all the bits and pieces drivers have to carry around with them is adequate too. For your money you get a lidded glove box with a shelf above it, a bin in each of the doors and a coin tray to the right of the instrument binnacle.
While Loadhopper is well put together overall, the quality of the plastics used in the cab and the standard of finish leave something to be desired. Vestatec may care to point out to the factory that there is room for improvement.
Access to the 3.2m³ cargo area is by means of a hatch-type rear door plus a sliding door on each side. All the door apertures are of a respectable size given the overall dimensions of the vehicle.
You’ll search in vain for any load tie-down points, but a hefty-looking full-height steel grille-type bulkhead protects the cab’s occupants from anything that might come hurtling forwards. Its only drawback is that it cants backwards into the load bay, stealing some space and slightly obstructing the side doors, although it allows the cab seats to be slid and tilted back just that bit further.
Maximum load length is 1940mm. Maximum width is 1300mm narrowing to 1030mm between the doll’s house-scale wheel boxes, while maximum height is 1340mm. Rear loading height is 590mm. Maximum rear door aperture height is 1250mm while maximum width is 1100mm. Side door dimensions are 1120mm and 600mm respectively. Gross payload capacity is 548kg while maximum towing capacity is 750kg.
It’s good to see that the floor and sides were ply-lined for an extra £130 (all prices quoted here exclude VAT). But it’s not quite so good to see that the window in the rear door lacks a heater and a wash/wipe system.
Diesel fans will have a while to wait before a compression-ignition Loadhopper makes its debut. In the meantime, customers will have to be content with a 1.3-litre four-cylinder 16-valve petrol engine married to a five-speed manual gearbox. Top power is 77hp at 6000rpm while maximum torque is 102Nm at 3000rpm. Drive is to the rear wheels.
Chassis and steering
It has been goodness knows how many years since we last drove a van that did not have power steering, so the Loadhopper’s lack of assistance for its rack-and-pinion set-up came as a bit of a shock.
When the little load lugger is lightly laden you do not have to put too much effort in, but manoeuvring it into a tight parking slot with its maximum payload on board is likely to feel like hard work on a hot day. On the other hand, it’s cheaper than going to the gym.
At 8.8m between kerbs increasing to 9.3m between walls, the turning circle is tight: just what you want in a busy city centre.
Turning to the suspension, MacPherson struts are fitted at the front while leaf springs help to support the rear. The Loadhopper sits on 14-inch steel wheels shod with either Tianfu or Hankook 165/70 R14 tyres. As we’ve never heard of the first, we’d suggest customers specify the latter when they place their order. There’s no difference in price.
On the road, the Loadhopper looks quite attractive and behaves rather like a go-kart might if you put a van body on the back. The engine revs hard and feels quite eager, and while you won’t break any records when competing in the traffic lights grand prix, you won’t come last either. To that you can add a precise gear change and surprisingly sharp handling. A lack of power assistance spells lots of feedback through the wheel with no sloppiness or wooliness, with the Loadhopper heading dutifully in whichever direction you care to point it in.
But a happy high-speed motorway cruiser it is not – noise levels get too high – but to be fair that is not what it is designed for. Nor is the ride the smoothest we’ve encountered. You feel almost every bump.
Does it need a diesel engine? Probably not – Loadhopper buyers are unlikely to be doing the sort of mileages that justify what is likely to be the extra expense of diesel power. But an electric model is another matter, and one might just appear in the future.
We averaged 34.0mpg – a lot less than you’d achieve in a Vauxhall Corsavan, but not ruinous either in the context of low-mileage usage despite the steep price of petrol. The official combined fuel consumption figure is 36.0mpg.
The Loadhopper comes with electric windows, and that’s about it so far as standard equipment is concerned. Our demonstrator was, however, fitted with an optional Clarion radio/CD player
for an extra £140. The front of it can be removed for better security – it’s been a while since we’ve come across that sort of, rather sensible, arrangement – and the radio is hooked up to an old-style manually raised external aerial; remember to extend it if you want decent reception.
Buying and running
In the process of recruiting an initial 40 dealers nationwide – 29 had been signed up at the time of writing – DFSK UK markets the Loadhopper with a three years/ 60,000-mile warranty, with no mileage limit in the first two years. A roadside assistance package is provided for the first year. Service intervals are set at one year/9000 miles. On paper that seems a little too short, but we suspect most buyers will not find it too much of an issue as they are unlikely to be high-mileage users.
If customers want roadside cover for years two and three then they can take advantage of the three-year Loadhopper Care Plan. Also covering labour costs and standard service items for the first three services, it will set you back £400.
Raise the little bonnet, which conceals the jack – the spare wheel is slung underneath the van at the rear – and you can top-up the screenwash reservoir and the radiator. If you want to get at the top of the engine, though, you have to lift the passenger seat and tilt it backwards. On our vehicle the seat was held down by a pair of fiendishly stiff catches. If that’s typical, then look forward to bruised knuckles and a great deal of swearing.
Given that the Loadhopper is most likely to be found in an urban environment, it might make sense for it to be fitted with side rubbing strips plus some protection for the wheel arches. Collecting lots of minor scrapes and dents will be bad news for both its looks and its residual value. Talking about looks, is it us or does Loadhopper’s grille look as though it has been borrowed from a BMW? Less obvious, but just as intriguing, is the design of the DFSK logo, which is oddly reminiscent of the old British Leyland emblem.
No ABS – a most unfortunate omission – and a distinct lack of devices such as Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, Electronic Brakeforce Assist or Electronic Stability Programme. All you get is a standard braking system with discs at the front and drums at the back, although at least the van is equipped with front fog lights.
Turning to security, a Visible Identification Number (VIN) is clearly visible through the windscreen to make life slightly more difficult for thieves. Remote central locking is provided and acts on all five doors, but is a £300 extra-cost dealer-fit option, as is the £120 MetaSystem reversing aid that was also installed on our van.
Pretty much the ideal budget urban hack despite the lack of power steering.
A light commercial vehicle for the age of austerity?
Back in the late 1980s no less than five manufacturers were marketing microvans. The vehicles were inexpensive, offered load area access from three sides, and seemed pretty much ideal for the burgeoning class of entrepreneurs making their presence felt in Thatcher’s Britain. EastEnders fans may recall that the odious Ian Beale once used one as transport for his mobile catering business.
But their star began to fade when manufacturers of more conventionally designed vans started to offer products with a higher standard of equipment, better performance and a pleasanter driving environment. The availability of all-round cargo bay access became more common too. Punters had to pay more, but that did not seem to be an issue.
As a consequence the availability of microvans declined steadily, with the last model to be offered – Piaggio’s Porter – disappearing four years ago. The Loadhopper’s arrival marks the return of a class of van that might prove surprisingly popular in Britain’s new age of austerity.