Is there a place for petrol in our light commercial vehicles, Citroen thinks its Dispatch 2.0i can carve out a niche with a little help. Steve Walker reports.
Ten Second Review
Citroen's Dispatch is one of the leading small panel vans with its diesel engines doing the legwork. With petrol power installed, it's slightly less adept. Citroen has taken major steps to address this with a dual fuel conversion for its Dispatch 1000 L1H1 2.0i 140 model. Available at a big discount over the non-dual fuel version, this model also offers potential 40% savings in fuel costs and exemption form congestion charging. For some operators it could be a real money spinner.
Petrol is almost a dirty word in the UK light commercial vehicle market. Many manufacturers don't even offer versions of their vans that run on unleaded and the petrol models that there are tend to be token efforts aimed at the contrary minority who, for inexplicable reasons of their own, won't touch diesel. Citroen is one manufacturer that's persevering with the juice from the green-handles pumps but its Dispatch 2.0i 140 model will need a few tricks up its sleeve to convince the doubters. The reasons for diesel's dominance in the van sector aren't hard to pinpoint. The things that diesel does best also happen to be the things that most van operators look for. Basically, it boils down to good fuel economy and lots of low down torque for hauling weighty loads. By contrast, the qualities that draw passenger car customers to petrol-like refinement and free-revving performance don't carry much weight in a working vehicle. So how does Citroen intend to sell its 2.0-litre Dispatch? For starters, it's cheap - which is the one relevant advantage that petrol engined vans have over diesel ones. Secondly, it's got a lot of power for the price and most importantly, it's available with a Dual Fuel conversion enabling it to run on Liquid Petroleum Gas.
The petrol powerplant fitted to the Dispatch is the 2.0-litre 16-valve unit that crops up across the manufacturer's passenger car range. With 140bhp as its peak power output, it's the most powerful engine that Citroen offers with this vehicle but the all-important torque rating of 180Nm looks a little feeble next to the 320Nm available from the 2.0-litre 136bhp diesel. The entry-level 1.6 HDi diesel engine matches the petrol's torque output but produces its muscle far lower in the rev range where it's easier for drivers to exploit. Citroen's diesel engines are amongst the more refined on the market but the petrol unit will be smoother and more refined. On the whole, the Dispatch is one of the better drivers' vans of its size out there. The steering is a little on the light side for high speed travel but well-weighted for urban driving. The firm suspension tackles corners adeptly and body-roll is well controlled. The gear change would be sharper in an ideal world but in general, the Dispatch serves up a polished experience for whoever's behind the wheel, aided by a driver's seat with height, reach, rake and lumbar adjustments.
Design and Build
In profile, the large front overhang of the Dispatch is highlighted and this contributes to a turning circle that, at 12.2m, is nearly a metre greater than a Vauxhall Vivaro of equivalent capacity. The Dispatch, however, hits back on height or more accurately, lack of it. Citroen is at pains to point out that the standard roof H1 versions are just 1,942mm tall and drop to 1,894mm when the optional pneumatic suspension is specified. This means that they'll be able to squeeze under height restrictors on urban car parks that would deny entry to most other panel vans. The sliding side door on each flank is a further boon in situations where space is tight and operators need to access their load. These open wide enough to accommodate a Euro pallet and benefit from a low loading height of 562mm which can be cut by 71mm if you splash out on that self-levelling suspension. The frontal styling borrows quite substantially from the current Citroen passenger car range and, indeed, from recent Peugeot models. The Dispatch, for the uninitiated, is the product of a partnership between PSA Peugeot Citroen and Fiat which has also spawned the identical Peugeot Expert and Fiat Scudo models. The grille displays the Citroen double chevrons as upward kinks knocked into parallel chrome bars and below the multi-part bumper juts forward imposingly. A deep swage line runs from the lower edge of the large, elongated headlamps into the window line, continuing down the flanks. The design is undeniably distinctive but where it looks modern from some angles it's a little gawky from others.
Market and Model
Citroen isn't expecting a massive rush for petrol powered Dispatch models. It's going to be a niche market product but one that the manufacturer is confident will hold strong appeal for a select group of operators. The root of this confidence lies in the Dual Fuel conversion that is being offered on the vehicle. As part of the successful Ready To Run programme which offers specialised versions of Citroen vans with high quality conversions done by third party experts, the Dispatch Dual Fuel is heavily discounted and actually comes in at £2,600 below the standard Dispatch 1000 L1H1 2.0i 140 that it's based upon. Suddenly, operators who had written off the prospect of a petrol van might be showing a spark of interest. The petrol Dispatch is only available in the smallest L1H1 Dispatch bodystyle which gives it a 988kg payload capacity. The vehicle comes with a five speed manual gearbox as standard and gets some other choice extras such as air-conditioning and heated door mirrors. Standard kit on every Dispatch variant runs to twin sliding side doors, remote central locking and electric front windows.
Practicalities and Costs
The costs associated with the Dispatch 2.0i will be crucial in determining its fortunes in sales terms. It's likely that the overwhelming majority of buyers will specify the Dual Fuel version with its high quality conversion carried out by Nicholson McLaren Engines. It features a 77-litre tank for LPG mounted in place of the spare wheel with a nozzle for filling with LPG located alongside the petrol filler cap. Performance is the same whether the vehicle is running on LPG or petrol but it's estimated that owners will save approximately 40% on fuel costs when in LPG mode because of the lower price of that fuel. A further significant advantage comes in the exemption form congestion charging that the Dispatch Dual Fuel is eligible for. Citroen claim that a driver going into London every day could save nearly £1,700 per year in congestion charge fees. The cab area of the Dispatch has been thoughtfully designed with firm, supportive seating and a respectable amount of storage space to keep oddments in check. A three-seat capacity is claimed but, as is so often the case in small panel vans, the legroom for the middle berth is severely restricted by the dash-mounted gear lever. In the Dispatch, the shifter occupies the space where the middle passenger's knee should be so unless the third member of your work crew happens to be Heather Mills-McCartney or Long John Silver, it may be better to make other arrangements.
The UK's roads won't be overrun with petrol-powered commercial vehicles in the foreseeable future but Citroen's confidence that a small but significant market exists for its Dispatch 2.0i panel van looks to be well-founded. The proposition hinges on the manufacturer's LPG conversion which is heavily discounted and has the potential to shave a big chunk off running costs. More still can be saved by the driver who regularly ventures into the Capital's congestion charging zone, so the sums add up but that doesn't change the fact that petrol is inherently less adept than diesel in commercial vehicle applications.