The recent upturn in the light van sector is an indication that the economic gloom may at last be beginning to lift.

According to the SMMT, sales of vans weighing from 2.0-tonnes to 2.5-tonnes, in which group most light vans sit, grew by a healthy 26.5% year-on-year in June to 3712 and were up 23% in the first half-year to more than 19,700.

This encouraging news was offset slightly by an 8.6% year-on-year fall in June in the sub-2.0-tonne van category, which covers a minority of light vans, to 3461 units.

However, this sector was up 5% in the year-to-date to 21,437.

One reason for the upturn could be that large fleets and small businesses are finally replacing the vans they have held onto for longer than usual during the recession.

SMMT’s CV boss Nigel Base concurs with this view:

“Looking ahead to the rest of 2013, we expect the van market to remain stable with a return to a more normal replacement cycle sustaining the market,” he said.

A model that’s sure to be high on the wish list of many operators when it arrives in showrooms in the final quarter of the year is Ford’s new Connect.

The van is a considerably sleeker beast than its boxy “Postman Pat” predecessor, a factor that is high on the agenda of operators, according to Ford design manager Paul Wraith, although, he says, they rarely admit to it.

Customer focus groups invariably cite fuel economy, cost of ownership, reliability and payload as the most important considerations. “They never say style,” Wraith says, “but when they see the design they like it. So you need style and practicality.”

He claims the development of the new model has not been compromised because the Connect is a Ford-only van, unlike, for example, the Fiat Doblo Cargo and Vauxhall Combo that share a platform.

The Connect line-up will be priced from £13,921 to £19,130, excluding VAT, and will be powered by Ford’s 1.0-litre Ecoboost petrol engine as well as a 1.6-litre TDCi diesel with outputs of 75 and 95hp. Ford claims the 95hp Econetic version of the diesel unit delivers class-leading fuel consumption of 70.6mpg coupled with emissions of 105g/km.

Payload capacities range from 608kg to just over a tonne and a choice of load features are up for grabs such as a load-through hatch in the bulkhead and a fold-up front passenger seat.

With a full bulkhead fitted load volumes go from 2.9m3 for the short-wheelbase (L1) to 3.6m3 for the long-wheelbase (L2) model. Without the full bulkhead and with the front loadspace included volumes increase to 3.7m3 and 4.4m3 respectively.

The load through hatch enables long items of 3.0m to be stowed in the L1, increasing to 3.4m in the L2.

Ford claims the L2 breaks new ground in the light van sector with its ability to swallow a Europallet through its nearside sliding door.

Although the new Connect will be available in two wheelbases it will only have one roof height. The brand maintains there is not enough demand for a high roof version, a view that Fiat for one, with its 5.0m3 load volume Doblo XL, would disagree with.

Fiat has further extended its Doblo portfolio with a Doblo Maxi Crew Van and has added SX 1.3 and 1.6-litre Tecnico derivatives to the Doblo Cargo range with extra standard kit such as air conditioning, Blue&Me with steering wheel controls, TomTom predisposition on the dashboard, B&M TomTom Live navigator plus cradle,start/stop, reverse parking sensors and Ecodrive Professional software.

Meanwhile, during a first half year in which Fiat Professional claims to have boosted sales by 50% year-on-year, Glasgow city council enlisted 31 Doblo Work-up dropsides onto its fleet.

VW’s Caddy also posted a strong first six months with sales up by a quarter.

The Vauxhall Combo, which is built on the Fiat Doblo platform, is now also available as a crew van. In response to demand from fleets, the manufacturer has introduced a Combo Glazed Crew Van with a tailgate window and glazed second row doors.

From July Citroen has offered all its LCVs, including the Berlingo light van, with an upgrade to Business Class package for £249, excluding VAT. It includes the cost of servicing for four years/60,000 miles and four years Citroen Assistance.