With small businesses remaining under the economic cosh, light van manufacturers are likely to be bracing themselves for another tough year as prospective customers put off replacing their existing vehicles or maybe try to pick up something cheap second-hand.
According to the SMMT, sales of vans in the 2.0-2.5t category, into which most light vans fall – albeit at the lighter end of that scale – dropped by 8.5% last year to a shade over 31,000. Sales in the sub-2.0-tonne bracket, which hoovers up the rest, were down by more than 11% to 40,400.
One headline event in the sector this year will be the long-trailed arrival of the Mercedes Citan, which has the big-selling VW Caddy – the byword for quality in the sector – in its sights.
But VW’s UK commercial vehicle boss Alex Smith is keeping his cool.
“When the competition targets you, you know you’ve got great product,” he says.
Smith admits the Citan is a natural rival but points out the Caddy has built its reputation over 30 years, meaning customers trust the product and its residual value potential.
Mercedes believes the demographic shift of people into cities is expanding the natural market for smaller vans like the Citan and claims the light van sector is the fastest growing in Europe – accounting for 700,000 sales annually. It adds that the boom in online shopping has also driven up demand for delivery vans.
 “For the first time, the Mercedes-Benz portfolio of vans features a dedicated delivery vehicle for the urban environment,” says the manufacturer.

Attracting downsizers

Fiat reckons the high load volume and payload capacities of its Doblo Cargo will persuade operators, who have previously preferred larger vans, to downsize, in order to cut costs and lighten their environmental footprints. The Doblo Cargo, which has won the What Van? Light Van Award for three years running, although this year it shared the prize with its DNA twin the Vauxhall Combo, has a range of load volumes going up to 4.2m3 and a top weight payload of one tonne.
As well as introducing the Doblo Work Up, a compact two-seat dropside pick-up, Fiat has supplemented its light van line-up with the high-roof Doblo XL, which boasts a 5.0m3 load volume.
“It has the performance of a big van but the cost of a smaller one,” says UK boss Sebastiano Fedrigo.
Towards the end of the year Ford will continue its LCV product onslaught with the launch of the second-generation Transit Connect, which promises a step up in sophistication and style compared with its predecessor, which was something of an ugly duckling – albeit a practical, hardworking one.
Ford claims the new Connect will deliver best-in-class economy, CO2 emissions, whole-life costs and security. It will come in short- and long-wheelbase versions.
Chief engineer Darren Goddard adds: “The cost of repairs will be low due to the design.”
As an example he cites the tail lights, which he claims have been designed and positioned to suffer less impact during a rear-end shunt and are cheap and easy to replace.
Midway through the year PSA brands Peugeot and Citroen will launch the electric light vans they revealed at the Hanover CV show in 2012. Built on the same platform, the Partner Electric and Electric Berlingo retain the load-carrying capacities of their diesel siblings due to the two-part battery pack being installed under the flat load deck.
Both have load volumes of up to 4.1m3, but while the Berlingo has a maximum payload of 675kg Peugeot claims the Partner can handle 685kg.
Nissan, meanwhile, is set to enter the electric van market with the launch of its e-NV200 in 2014.