Steve Banner takes a look at the current measures being taken by the manufacturers to make their dealerships more van-friendly, extending service intervals and the ups and downs of gas-powered vehicles.
There’s no point in having the greatest range of vans in the world if your dealers are incapable of supporting them. Light commercial manufacturers are only too well aware of this inescapable truth and for the most part are working hard to beef up their representation.
Renault, for example, is busy expanding its Pro+ network and should have 22 dealers signed up to the concept come the summer. It opened 66 Pro+ centres in 14 countries last year and aims to have 400 in place worldwide come 2012. Pro+ sites offer extended workshop opening hours and are pledged to start diagnosing faults within an hour of a van rolling up without its owner having made an appointment.
If your vehicle has to be left with them to be worked on for sometime then they will arrange for a courtesy van to be provided that meets your needs. In other words, they won’t hand you the keys to a Kangoo Compact if you’ve left them your long-wheelbase high roof Master to service and repair. They also run larger light commercial demonstrator fleets than ordinary Renault outlets.
Not to be outdone, Citroën has been eagerly appointing some 90 dealers as business centres. They too offer a broad range of demonstrators and their workshops can carry out a wide variety of jobs while you wait.
With a network completely dedicated to light commercials, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles boasts 64 dealerships — it refers to them as Van Centres — plus 30 authorised repairers. This year should see Van Centres established in two key open points for the manufacturer; Liverpool and Stoke-on-Trent.
Around 60 per cent of Van Centres are on standalone sites, a trend VW is keen to encourage. New standalones opened in Derby (Imperial), Ashford in Kent (JCB Group) and Chelmsford in Essex (Inchcape) in 2009, with the last-named representing a £1.4m investment.
VW Commercial Vehicles director, Simon Elliott, believes that concentrating on light commercials to the exclusion of everything else is vital if a dealership is to provide customers with the service they’re looking for.
“If you’re a dealer whose main activity is selling cars, then where’s your focus going to be?” he wonders. “The fact that our dealers are totally dedicated to vans means that they can concentrate on them completely, without having to deal with any distractions.
“They learn how the van customer ticks, they get to understand the relevant legislation and what the tax rules are and they gain an in-depth knowledge of the different types of finance package that are likely to meet the van owner’s needs,” he continues. “They are not constantly looking over their shoulder to see if a car buyer is about to walk in.”
Renault Trucks, Iveco and Mercedes-Benz all argue, however, that they can provide an even better service than any of the foregoing manufacturers because their van customers can benefit from the comprehensive back-up accorded to their truck clients.
If you’re going to keep hauliers happy, then as a truck dealer you have to keep your workshop open very late indeed; probably round the clock. You have to open it over the weekend too if that’s what the customer wants and you have to be willing to book jobs in at short notice. No haulier will tolerate being told that the first slot available in the workshop is at 3.00pm on Tuesday the week after next.
As a consequence van owners can get their vehicles serviced at midnight if that’s what’s required so that they’re ready for an early morning start. They may also find that they’re benefiting from lower hourly labour rates than are charged by a typical car dealer who also happens to sell vans.
Fiat Professional has recognised the benefits of teaming up with truck dealers and a number of Daf and Iveco outlets — Iveco is of course one of the Italian manufacturer’s sister companies — now hold the Fiat light commercial franchise.
Fiat Professional is now offering what it refers to as a Value Service Plan. Its aim is to retain the loyalty of customers with vans that are more than three years old who might otherwise take their vehicles to independent non-franchised workshops.
In another attempt to retain customer loyalty and enhance the appeal of their products, a number of manufacturers now include a servicing package in the price of their vehicles. Mercedes-Benz includes three years servicing with Sprinter while Nissan’s Cabstar is available with five years servicing and five years warranty.
Hanging on to as many aftersales customers as they possible can is vitally important for manufacturers and dealers. That’s because workshop income is under severe pressure as a consequence of improved vehicle reliability and longer service intervals.
Van makers have been able to stretch the latter partially as a consequence of the availability of, admittedly very expensive, fully-synthetic engine lubricant. “It costs roughly three times more than standard oil,” VW observes.
Synthetic lubricant is in use in the new VW Transporter, permitting oil change intervals of up to 25,000 miles depending on the use to which the vehicle is put. You can specify that standard lubricant must be poured in instead before you take delivery of your new vehicle. If you do, however, then the change interval shortens to no more than 12,500 miles.
Aside from having your van spend less time in the workshop, VW points to two further advantages of employing a synthetic. “Operators can expect an average 2.7 per cent reduction in their fuel bills as a result of using LongLife oil,” it states. “What’s more, because it lasts so long, there’s less oil to be disposed of; and that means there are clear advantages for the environment.” Fewer filters have to be purchased and disposed of too.
Anybody who switches to a gaseous fuel would be advised to bear in mind that the engine’s lubrication requirements may differ from those of a standard diesel engine.
A number of manufacturers are busy promoting the advantages in both cost and environmental terms of vans that can run on compressed natural gas (cng). Drawbacks include the lack of ready availability of the fuel — precious few publicly-accessible forecourts have cng pumps — and Iveco has raised question marks over the quality of cng available in the UK.
It believes that biomethane sourced from landfill sites may be a better bet. A Daily 65C14G 6.5-tonne cage tipper running on this fuel in service with the London Borough of Camden has demonstrated a 30 per cent monthly fuel cost saving when compared with an equivalent diesel-powered vehicle.
“What’s more, it achieved a 62 per cent saving in CO2,” says Iveco UK product director, Martin Flach. “As a consequence we’re making Daily vehicles that will run on it available to operators nationwide.”
Liquefied petroleum gas (lpg) is much more widely available on forecourts than cng; approximately 1,400 of them have lpg pumps. “Using lpg brings average fuel cost savings of 25 to 28 per cent compared with a diesel,” says John Waghorn, sales director at Nicholson McLaren Engines. It specialises in converting vehicles to run on the fuel.
A big advantage of most, though by no means all, lpg and cng conversion is that operators who opt for them can claim exemption from the iniquitous London congestion tax. Check the PowerShift register maintained by the Energy Saving Trust on behalf of Transport for London to find out which ones qualify. A conversion does, however, add to the front-end price of the vehicle. Nicholson McLaren will typically charge you around £1,825 plus VAT.
Biodiesel is yet another alternative source of power and all standard diesel now contains a small percentage of it. Some van manufacturers allow their vehicles to run on fuel containing 30 per cent biodiesel or more, however, without requiring modifications to the engine. Produced from renewable sources, it’s a fuel that has attracted a duty concession up until now; but that’s about to come to an end.
At present the duty on a litre of biodiesel is 20p lower than that on a litre of standard diesel. The concession ends on 1 April and thereafter the duty on both fuels will be levied at the same rate. The only exception will be if the biodiesel is derived from used cooking oil says Clare Wenner, head of transport biofuels at the Renewable Energy Association. “If that’s the case then you get to enjoy the 20p concession for another two years,” she says.
Pure electric and hybrid diesel-electric vans represent another fuelling option and potentially another opportunity to shrug off congestion tax liability. They’re cheaper to run per mile than diesels and their emissions are lower, but are more expensive to purchase and the range of an electric van between recharges is limited. The weight of the batteries has to be borne in mind too if your operation is payload sensitive, and eventually they’ll need replacing.
Electric vans do have the advantage, however, that they run quietly; good news if you make early morning deliveries and don’t want to disturb householders.
The ever-expanding numbers of specialist manufacturer dealerships and extended service intervals thanks to synthetic oils can only be good news.