Over the past few years Toyota has missed a major opportunity in the van market. At one stage it looked as though it was going to mount a serious challenge to the existing players in the sector with the last incarnation of the Hiace. Designed to meet European tastes, it was shaping up to be a challenger to models such as VW’s Transporter and Mercedes-Benz's Vito.
Hiace’s European development was not taken any further, though, and it was allowed to die as a consequence of a lack of investment (see ‘The demise of the Hiace’, below). That left dealers with Hilux pick-up and the Dyna chassis cab: not a great platform to build big sales volumes on despite the Hilux's many fine qualities.
Toyota, however, has belatedly recognised its mistake and has decided to do something about it. The company has signed a deal with PSA – the group that owns Citroen and Peugeot – under which the two companies will collaborate in the light commercial sector until 2020. The first manifestation of this collaboration is the Proace, a rebadged version of Citroen and Peugeot's now rather-dated Dispatch/Expert vans.
As a consequence, Toyota dealers are able to sell a compact panel van with two wheelbases, two roof heights, three load cubes – 5.0, 6.0 or 7.0m3 – and a payload capacity that ranges from just north of 1000kg to a tad over 1200kg depending on the model selected. A crew van is available too.
Two engines are on offer, both diesels. Customers can pick from a 1.6-litre generating 90hp or a 2.0-litre pumping out either 128hp or 163hp. We opted to sample the L2H1 – long-wheelbase standard roof – version with 128hp on tap.
One of the oddest features of the Proace’s cab interior is the deep shelf on top of the dashboard in front of the van’s two passenger seats. It looks for all the world like a washbasin, but minus the plughole and taps.
But at least it delivers a decent amount of space for oddments.
More room is provided by a full-width shelf above the windscreen that’s split into three sections, a cubby-hole at each end of the fascia, a bin in both doors, each with a moulding to accommodate a flask or a bottle of water, and a lidded and lockable glove box. The inner face of the glove box lid features a couple of indents to hold cups plus a pen-holder. Flip the lid down, however, and you will find it comes to rest on the passengers knees.
The inboard passenger has to suffer a further inconvenience in the shape of a moulding that bulges out
of the front of the fascia and provides a home for the gear lever but severely restricts leg room as well as hampering cross-cab movement. Meanwhile, the handbrake lever is in an eccentric position. Mounted between the driver's seat and the door, it can give anybody entering and leaving the cab who happens to be wearing shorts in hot weather a nasty surprise.
On the plus side, at least the driver’s seat and the steering wheel are both height-adjustable.
Access to the cargo bay – the L2H1 offers 6.0m3 – is by means of a sliding door on each side plus twin, unglazed, back doors. The latter can be swung through 90°, then through 180° if so required if you undo the easy-to-release stays.
Eight load tie-down points are provided with a full-height unglazed steel bulkhead installed in our case to ensure that unsecured items do not slither forwards and end up in the cab. It costs an extra £125 (all prices quoted here exclude VAT).
While the doors and sides are partly protected by panelling, there is nothing to defend the wheel-boxes or the floor against the risk of being scratched and scraped.
aperture width is 1237mm with a height of 1272mm. Dimensions for the side door apertures are 924mm and 1301mm respectively.
Grossing at 2932kg, our demonstrator could handle a gross payload of 1212kg and haul a braked trailer grossing at 2000kg.
Our front-wheel drive test vehicle’s four-cylinder in-line common-rail direct-injection turbodiesel engine generates its maximum power output at 4000rpm. Top torque of 320Nm kicks in at a suitably low 2000rpm.
Opt for a 2.0-litre Toyota Proace and you get a six-speed gearbox; choose the 1.6-litre and you have to be content with five.
Chassis and steering
MacPherson-type struts are at the heart of the front suspension, with triangulated lower suspension arms and an anti-roll bar. At the back you will find an independent trailing arm set up with inclined hydraulic dampers.
Our test light commercial rode on 16-inch steel wheels shod with Michelin Agilis 51 215/60 R16 C tyres.
Power steering is a standard feature with 3.87 turns lock-to-lock and offering a 12.6m turning circle between kerbs.
With 128hp on tap there is no lack of straight-line performance and the Proace fulfils the role of a
competent motorway cruiser perfectly well. While the gear-change is not the slickest, it is by no means the most awkward either. Meanwhile, a full-height bulkhead ensures that in-cab noise levels are kept under control.
On the downside, the Toyota has difficulty coping with uneven road surfaces when lightly laden and tends to wallow into bends, with too much body roll. Some more feedback from the steering would be appreciated, but at least the vehicle is easy enough to manoeuvre into or out of a confined space.
For your money you get air- conditioning, electric windows, electrically adjustable and heated exterior mirrors with a lower wide-angle section, and a stereo radio/CD player with an aux-in socket and remote controls on the steering column. A 12V power point is also provided on the
dashboard, and the cab is Bluetooth-enabled.
Buying and running
Toyota should be praised for providing a five-year/100,000-mile warranty, although we note that a roadside rescue and recovery service is only offered for the first 12 months. A three-year paintwork warranty is included in the deal too, as is a 12-year anti-corrosion and
perforation warranty. Although we are not in favour of ultra-long service intervals on vans, at 12 months/10,000 miles the service interval is a little on the short side.
We averaged 38mpg compared with an official combined consumption figure of 44.1mpg.
Disc brakes are fitted all round and the Proace is equipped with ABS, Emergency Braking Assistance and Vehicle Stability Control. Driver and passenger airbags are fitted as well, and front fog lights come as standard.
Thieves will hopefully be frustrated by an engine immobiliser, deadlocks and an alarm. Buttons on the dashboard allow you to lock and unlock all the doors and they can be locked and unlocked remotely too.
The demise of the Hiace
In late 2011 Toyota axed the Hiace, the Proace's immediate predecessor, because the Japanese giant was not willing to spend the money to bring it into line with the latest European exhaust emission regulations. It was a mercy killing because the poor old Hiace had fallen a long way behind its rivals.
On paper its specifications did not look too bad. Grossing at either 2.8 tonnes or 3.0 tonnes it was on offer with two different body lengths and one roof height. The load cube was either 6.0m3 or 7.0m3 depending on which version you chose, while payload capacity was 1.1 to 1.2 tonnes. Up for grabs at either 95hp or 117hp, the 2.5-litre diesel that powered all Hiace derivatives was married to a five-speed gearbox.
Unfortunately, the van was let down by indifferent handling, excessive in-cab noise levels and mediocre interior styling, although the gear-change and ride were competent enough and the 117hp diesel offered a decent level of performance.
The Proace is by no means perfect, of course, but at least it means that Toyota is back in the light commercial marketplace once more.