"If you had a 7.4-metre wide scale replica of a sixpence, this microvan could turn on it"
The Porter has been around for a good few years and for much of its life it existed in the modest shadow of the Daihatsu Hijet. The Hijet was a rebadged version of the Porter built by Piaggio themselves in Italy and it always enjoyed a higher profile than the model it shared a production line with. Part of the reason for this was the Porter's UK distribution through the Reliant dealer network with its limited capacity and three-wheeler connotations, while the Hijet was sold directly through the more respectable face of Daihatsu franchised showrooms. This microvan status quo shifted when Daihatsu took the interesting step of replacing the Hijet with the Extol - a more modern microvan with styling that can best be described as challenging. Faced with the Extol's oversize flimsy plastic bumpers, Piaggio saw their chance. The deal with Reliant had ended in 2003 and they began importing the Porter to the UK themselves. Some slight alterations for the 2005 model year and today's Porter was on the scene, ready to do battle for leadership of the microvan sector. The UK microvan sector is extremely small in terms of total sales. It will barely register on the marketing radars of the big light commercial vehicle producers but the very fact that Microvans continue to be offered in this country shows that it's a market that can sustain itself. Buyers choose from the Piaggio Porter, the Daihatsu Extol or Suzuki's Carry and in this company, the Porter makes a strong case for itself.
The little Piaggio displays all the key microvan attributes. Most importantly, it's small. At just 1,395mm wide and 3,370mm long, the panel van derivative is nearly 550mm shorter and 29mm narrower than a Ford Fiesta van. Despite these tiny dimensions, it can cope with a surprising payload of between 560 and 575kg - that's over 80kg more than the Fiesta van. The tall, narrow shape of the Porter, along with the twin sliding side doors and rear tailgate, helps make the 3m3 load area easily accessible without the need for much bending or stretching. The space is uniformly shaped with only slight intrusion by the wheelarches and the engine, which sits under the floor behind the seats. You can also get a surprising amount inside, certainly much more than the average supermini derived van can manage - the load volume of our friend the Fiesta van is a mere 1m3. Aside from the loadbay, manoeuvrability is the Porter's other key strength. If you had a 7.4-metre wide scale replica of a sixpence, this microvan could turn on it. This ultra-compact turning circle and the Porter's negligible dimensions tell you a lot about its potential for nipping through gaps in traffic, manoeuvring in tight situations and claiming apparently impossible parking spaces. The driver sits smack bang on top of the front axel, which is ahead of the engine, so there's a great view out of the front to see exactly how much space there is to play with. Large side mirrors help with visibility down the flanks. All of these good points are compromised somewhat by the unassisted rack and pinion steering set-up which is much heavier than you'd expect, given the Porter's size. Seated behind the wheel you're left in no doubt that this would be the ideal commercial vehicle to cure Gulliver of any homesickness on his return from Lilliput. You're faced with a basic and unremarkable panel van interior but shrunken. The flatly-mounted wheel would resemble that of an HGV were it not half the size, while the dinky ventilation controls and the instrument cluster all look standard until you reach out to touch them and experience a giant hand optical illusion. The plastics used feel durable and the controls are easy to use but there's no storage space aside from a decent-sized glovebox and a small vinyl pocket in the driver's door. After the initial surprise, you realise that the driving position is reasonably comfortable and even six footers shouldn't feel too cramped. Add a passenger and it does get a bit cosy in the cabin but on short trips there should be no problem. Even moderately brisk movements by the occupants rock the Porter from side to on its suspension and there's always the nagging concern that a poorly distributed load or a big weight disparity between driver and passenger could result in a nasty tipping-over incident under hard cornering. There's probably no chance of this happening as, with its engine under the floor, the Porter always feels well planted on the road. There's plenty of grip too and the van is actually quite good fun to punt about urban areas. The steering is very loose around the straight ahead but that heaviness at low speeds turns into a nicely weighted feel for normal driving and the gearchange, although a little clunky, is smooth enough. The power from the engine is directed to the rear wheels and the whiny 1.3-litre petrol unit in the model we tried revs freely while also giving a decent amount of punch off the line. If you really try to make progress, the Porter runs into its rev-limiter violently but you soon learn to change-up well before that happens. You do feel a little exposed while at the wheel, with your nose a foot or so from the windscreen and only a few inches of metal and plastic bumper between your knees and the fresh air in front of the vehicle. Given the choice, the Porter isn't a vehicle that I would choose to have a shunt in. Piaggio offer an extensive range of variations on the Porter theme with three power options and a comprehensive line-up of bodystyles. We tried the 64bhp 1.3-litre petrol engine that can return 34mpg fully-loaded at a steady 56mph but there's a 1.4-litre diesel with 38bhp that will give you 38mpg under the same conditions. Otherwise, there's an all-electric model with an 85-mile maximum range. Bodystyles include the panel van, a window van, a pick-up and a tipper with heavy-duty Maxxi models featuring twin rear wheels and 4x4 variants also offered. Standard specification is about as basic as it gets but at prices starting from only £5,995, most buyers won't mind dipping into the options list for electric windows, a CD stereo or even air-conditioning. Overall, the Piaggio Porter is a specialised product that won't suit everyone, especially not larger-framed individuals or anyone who is deterred by the dated design. It does, however, have undeniable strengths in terms of its size, manoeuvrability and relative payload capacity. For short distance, urban work, it's extremely practical and may be just the job.
Facts at a Glance
Facts At A Glance VAN: Piaggio Porter range PRICE: From £6,495 - £8,995 ENGINES: 1.3-Litre 16-valve Petrol, 1.4 SOHC diesel, 96v Electric PAYLOAD: 560-1,100kg WILL IT FIT IN YOUR GARAGE?: (panel van) length/width/heightmm 3370/1395/1870mm