For the first time, this year’s Light Commercial Vehicle of the Year Award is shared between three outstanding new vans.

The vehicles can be distinguished by their respective brands’ styling cues, but under the skin the Citroen Dispatch, Peugeot Expert and Toyota Proace are essentially the same product and all are equally deserving of the prize.

The trio have entered the biggest-selling sector of the UK light commercial market and one that is extremely competitive with high-quality models such as the Ford Transit Custom, Renault Trafic, Vauxhall Vivaro, Volkswagen Transporter and Mercedes Vito all vying for attention.

PSA Peugeot-Citroen builds the new Dispatch, Expert and Proace at its Sevelnord plant near Lille in northern France and the vans represent a significant step up in terms of quality, practicality and economy compared with their predecessors.

They are also crucial for all three brands if they are to realise their ambitions of establishing themselves at the top table in the LCV marketplace.

Citroen and Peugeot could argue that they already hold their own in the small, light and large van segments, but in the mid-sized category they have lagged behind.

Martin Gurney, PSA’s fleet and used vehicles director, is confident the new medium vans will deliver dramatic volume growth. He says Citroen and Peugeot hold a combined UK market share of about 17% (Peugeot 9%, Citroen 8%) but that the previous Expert and Dispatch models were only managing 8.5% between them.

“By the end of 2019 we want the [medium van] share to be in line with the 17% average,” he says, and predicts this will equate to at least 10,000 more sales a year.

As for Toyota, the new Proace is tasked with making the brand a mainstream player in panel vans again – a position it has not commanded since the withdrawal of the Hiace in 2011. It also has the difficult job in the LCV range of escaping from the long shadow cast by the near legendary Hilux pick-up truck.

Toyota entered an agreement with PSA Peugeot-Citroen five years ago, under which the two companies agreed to collaborate in the light commercial sector until 2020.

The first manifestation of this collaboration was the previous Proace, launched in 2012 as a rebadged version of Citroen and Peugeot’s then rather dated respective Dispatch and Expert vans, which had fallen well off the pace in the rapidly expanding medium van sector that was leading the way in light commercial innovation.

The PSA pair and Toyota needed to up their game – and with the new generation models they most certainly have done.

First off, the manufacturers got in a worthwhile and practical innovation of their own by breaking new ground with the introduction of a Compact derivative to the line-up. This version is 4.6m long and has a 5.1m3 loadspace, but boasts a not-to-sneezed at 1.0t payload.

The Compact also has a turning circle of 11.3m, compared with the 12.4m of the Standard and Long vans, which makes it a compelling proposition  for the urban operators at whom it is specifically targeted.
All the vans in the ranges have a height advantage. Standing at 1.9m tall – down from 1.97m in the second generation – they will comfortably negotiate the height-restrictive barriers at underground car parks and tolling gates across Europe.

Apart from the Compact, the other bodystyles in the line-up can carry a meaty and class-leading maximum of 1.4t. In terms of the competition, the Vauxhall Vivaro gets nearest to this with a maximum 1,281kg.

The top towing limit of all Proace, Dispatch and Expert derivatives has gone up from 2.0t to an impressive and joint class-leading 2.5t. The Ford Transit Custom and VW Transporter can match this but the Mercedes Vito, Renault Trafic and Vauxhall Vivaro max out at 2.0t.

The PSA vans will be available with a selection of Euro6 1.6 and 2.0 Blue HDI powertrains with outputs ranging from 95hp to 180hp. The Proace shares the same engines but goes up to a maximum output of 120hp in panel van format.

The entry-level 95hp unit comes with a five-speed manual gearbox but can also be specified with a robotised ETG6-controlled ‘box with stop/start. The 1.6-litre 115hp Stop & Start comes with a six-speed manual gearbox as do the 120hp and 150hp 2.0 S&S derivatives.

The top-of-the-range 180hp S&S gets the EAT6 automatic transmission and, like the ETG6.
All of these engines incorporate selective catalytic reduction (SCR) technology to meet the Euro6 standard and come with a 22.4-litre Adblue tank with a range of 9320 miles.

Our podium triumvirate has also raised the bar when it comes to economy. The 1.6 115hp engine is the most efficient with official fuel consumption of 55.3mpg and CO2 emissions of just 133g/km. These figures make the PSA and Toyota  models comfortably the most frugal and environmentally friendly in the sector.

The Ford Transit Custom Euro6 has a best official consumption of 49.6mpg with CO2 of 161g/km, the Renault Trafic delivers a best of 47.9mpg with CO2 of 155g/km, and the most frugal VW Transporter claims 47.9mpg with CO2 of 153g/km.

Another innovation is the Moduwork (Smart Cargo in the Proace) configurable passenger bench seat with a load-through bulkhead. This is similar to the load-through hatches Ford introduced for its Custom and Renault and Vauxhall employ in their Trafic and Vivaro ranges, and extends the load length by 1.16m, making it possible to carry longer pipes or ladders.

Sylvain Champomier, product leader for the Dispatch and Expert, says the Moduwork system differs from the Ford and Renault alternatives, which just provide a hatch in the bulkhead, by allowing the seat to fold upwards to increase load volume by 0.5m3 to 5.1m3 on Compact, 5.8m3 on standard and 6.6m3 on long versions.

An ingenious feature designed to make life easier for busy parcel delivery drivers is the hands-free sliding side door feature. This enables the driver to open and close the side door with a movement of the foot under the corner of the rear bumper, triggering a sensor, when their arms are full with packages. The driver must have the electronic key in their possession for the system to function. It also closes and locks the vehicle automatically when the driver moves away.

Highly Commended: Ford Transit Custom

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Runner-up in the 2017 Medium Van category is Ford’s highly accomplished Transit Custom – a van that raised the bar in the segment and scooped the What Van? Van of the Year Award in both 2013 and 2014.

The Custom has won plaudits for its ride, handling, on-the-road performance, innovation and excellent build quality as well as its internal and external styling and high standard of equipment. This year an already outstanding product was upgraded with the introduction of Euro6 engines. Ford has replaced the 2.2-litre TDCi engine with a 2.0-litre unit and added selective catalytic reduction (SCR) technology with a 21-litre AdBlue tank.

The core 130hp Custom L1H1 has official fuel consumption of 49.6mpg and CO2 of 161g/km – which is 13% more efficient than its 2.2-litre predecessor, according to Ford.