Drop in sales of light commercial vans reflects Brexit economic fears

Vans and small trucks are a bellwether of economic activity, and sales of them have fallen 13.4%, says Brian Byrne.

THE uncertainty caused by Brexit and a general unease about global economic and political issues are negatively affecting buyer sentiment in the Irish motor trade.

Light commercial vehicles (LCVs), which have been steadier than cars in the last couple of years, are now feeling the pinch, too.

LCV sales for the first two months of 2019 are down 13.4%, to 8,132. The LCV sector has always been a bell-wether for the economy, and the downward shift is reflecting worry across the wider business community and is adding to the angst of government and politicians.

In LCV brand sales so far in 2019, Ford has the lead, with 1,791 units registered in the first two months. This means the blue oval is getting one in five of all registered LCVs. Arch-rival, Volkswagen, is next, with 1,533 units, followed by Renault, with 1,052.

Drop in sales of light commercial vans reflects Brexit economic fears

All three are showing a loss of sales in the order of 20%, which is more than the overall LCV sales’ dip. In fourth and sixth place, respectively, are Peugeot (689) and Citroen (564), both of which have popular new vans, shown by strong growth for Peugeot (27%) and decent progress for Citroen (8.25% more).

Between them, in fifth, Toyota has slipped a place, because of its reliance on the SUV commercials segment, which has suffered on the back of VRT changes during 2018.

Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, Opel, and Land Rover fill out the top ten.

Let’s take a look at the performance of LCV segments so far this year...

CAR VANS

With a market share of less than 4%, the car-derived van business is small anyway, but with some models not available this year, the numbers and the mix have changed. Toyota’s Auris is currently leading the segment with increased sales, from a substantially boosted interest in Opel’s Corsavan and a much-diminished VW Golf van performance. The big missing one is a Ford Focus van, which not a priority, given there is a new generation of the passenger car.

LARGE VANS

Representing just 21% of sales, the large van continues to be a key segment in the LCV universe, and, so far this year, Renault’s Master has overtaken Ford’s Transit, though not by much and anything can change as the months go on. Volkswagen’s Sprinter has held third position, with Volkswagen’s Crafter pumping up sales to snap at its heels and challenge strongly for the position. Nissan’s NV400 has slipped in sales, while Opel’s Movano is significantly improved.

LIGHT TRUCKS

A tiny part of overall sales, but important to local authority and construction operators, the light truck business is almost equally divided between Mitsubishi Fuso’s Canter and Isuzu’s N-Series.

Mitsubishi Fuso’s Canter
Mitsubishi Fuso’s Canter

MEDIUM VANS

This is the bread-and-butter segment, currently running at 29% of 2019 sales. Ford’s Transit Custom retains its leader status in a very competitive space, from Renault’s Trafic and Volkswagen’s Transporter, either of whom could change position with just a few extra units sold or not. The other significant players, in order, are Nissan’s NV300, Toyota’s Proace, Peugeot’s Expert, and Opel’s Vivaro (below).

Drop in sales of light commercial vans reflects Brexit economic fears

PICK-UPS

It’s only a 7% market share, but there’s profit in pick-ups and it is a hotly contested segment. With increasing overall sales. Ford’s Ranger is comfortably ahead of Toyota’s Hilux and Nissan’s Navara, with VW’s Amarok getting a decent boost on the back of strong revisions.

The others in the field are Isuzu’s D-MAX, Mitsubishi’s L200 (suffering from run-out, pending a new generation), the Mercedes-Benz X-Class, and Fiat’s Fullback.

The Ford Ranger
The Ford Ranger

SMALL VANS

The other key volume-and-profit centre in the LCV business, currently accounting for three in ten vans sold, this is a hotly contested segment, with the old faithful, Volkswagen Caddy, taking a strong lead for 2019, to date. Fighting out between them, for second and third place, are, respectively, Peugeot’s new Partner and the Citroen Berlingo, siblings under the skin.

Ford’s Transit Connect is next, with Renault’s Kangoo the other significant player.

Volkswagen Caddy
Volkswagen Caddy

SUV COMMERCIALS

This was a major high-margin segment for key makers, but changes in the VRT rules, in the middle of last year, have made the genre less attractive, except for those who really need them.

There really are only three serious entrants out of a total field of 23, led, as always, by Toyota’s Land Cruiser commercial (but with sales halved compared to the same period last year), followed by Ford’s Kuga.

It has been a good start to the year for the Discovery commercial, which only became part of the new- generation Discovery variants later last year, but it looks like the old Disco commercial owners are back in the game.

Toyota’s Land Cruiser
Toyota’s Land Cruiser

Previously significant models no longer in the market include the VW Touareg commercial and the Mitsubishi Pajero.

NEW ON THE BLOCK

The newest vans on the Irish market are the ‘twins’ from PSA Group, the Peugeot Partner and the Citroen Berlingo. Prior to arrival here, they had won the ‘International Van of the Year’ 2018 award.

Externally, they differ only in the identity grilles and badging, though the cab area in the Peugeot is different from the Citroen by having the i-Cockpit layout familiar from the brand’s passenger vehicles. Both come with updated powertrains, primarily diesels, from what is arguably the producer of the best small diesels in the business.

Peugeot Partner
Peugeot Partner

Renault Ireland has also introduced a range of special versions of its LCV, and has brought back a van version of its Megane estate. While this last doesn’t have any VRT reduction advantage, it is targeting a niche part of the fleet business, where a car-based van is desirable.

The special versions of its vans include an adaptation of the Master designed for parcel deliveries. The cabin area only has a driver’s seat as standard, so that the operator can always exit on the offside.

A ‘jump’ seat for the passenger side is available as an extra, fully compliant, but is really only for very occasional use. The cargo area can be furnished to suit the delivery company’s own needs, with fittings in place for a variety of shelving options.

Another option is a security bulkhead with a door, so the cargo area can’t be accessed while the driver is delivering a package.

The sliding side doors are only used when loading the vehicle, and Renault say they designed the variant after consulting with the courier industry.

Three other specialist Master variants, factory-produced, include a box van, a tipper, and a dropside pickup.

Renault Master Dropside
Renault Master Dropside

All three are specified in engine choices and wheelbases to make sure they are exactly fit for purpose for each application.

The box van has a load volume of 20m³, and retails from €37,150. The tipper single cab is from €33,900 and has a load capacity of 1,100kg and can tow a suitable trailer up to 2,500kg. The dropside is also a single cab and offers a payload of up to 1,100kg, from €33,900.

Meanwhile, Ford launched strongly revised versions of its Transit Connect and Transit Custom vans late last year, with improved engines, more driver-assistance tech, and new interiors.

Transit Connect now has reduced running costs, with Ford’s latest EcoBlue and TDCi diesel and EcoBoost petrol engine technologies. Short and long wheelbase options provide load volumes up to 3.6m³; payloads are from 410kg to 900kg. Body styles are van, kombi, and double-cab-in-van.

The Transit Custom has an all-new interior and improved fuel efficiency, in two roof heights, as well as two wheelbase options. The GVW ranges from 2.6 tonnes to 3.4 tonnes, offering payloads of up to 1,450kg.

Citroen Berlingo
Citroen Berlingo

Powertrains include Ford’s EcoBlue 2.0 diesel engine (with outputs of 105hp, 130hp, and 170hp), re-engineered to offer significant new features, including the ECOnetic variant, with a 105hp engine with auto-stop-start, low-resistance tyres, Ford’s acceleration control feature, and a fixed 100km/h speed limiter.

Upcoming is a new Opel Vivaro, which gets a world premiere, under its Vauxhall brand name, at the Commercial Vehicle Show 2019 at the end of April. Replacing the previous model, which has served since 2011, the new Vivaro shares its platform with PSA sister brands, Peugeot and Citroën.

It will be available in two different lengths and three trim levels, with five engine options.

Coming to Ireland from October, it will offer up to 1,400kg payload, 2,500kg towing capacity, and 6.6m³ cargo capacity.

Ford Transit Connect
Ford Transit Connect

Pricing will be confirmed closer to the time. An electric model is expected to follow in 2020.

What’s fuelling your van?

Although there has been strong development work into electric powertrains for light commercial vehicles over a number of years, and for a long time it was suggested that the growth of EVs would be more in delivery vehicles than passenger cars, that hasn’t yet happened much in Ireland.

In Europe generally, the powertrain is being adopted significantly.

After the first seven months of 2018, for instance, nearly 11,000 electric LCVs had been registered.

The biggest seller was one of the old reliables, the Renault Kangoo ZE, which more than doubled its previous year’s sales. Next up was StreetScooter Work, a German small box van and pick-up, which we don’t have here.

And the Nissan e-NV200 came up next, but significantly down, because, paradoxically, the Nissan Leaf is so successful that there’s a shortage of the battery they share.

I mention those, because no large vans feature. But they’re coming, from Volkswagen, with the e-Crafter, and from Mercedes-Benz, with the e-Sprinter, due to join, this year, the e-Vito, already on sale in some European markets.

Renault Kangoo
Renault Kangoo

Also from Renault, who have just introduced an electric version of their Master, available to order in Ireland, but close to the price of a Tesla… or three times the price of a standard Master powered by diesel. It has a real-world range of 120km, and a maximum payload of 1.1 tonnes.

Why bother? Clearly, the electric version is a highly restricted and expensive option, and only suitable for city work, where, in fact, a few smaller electric vans might be more appropriate.

Well, one reason might be climate change and the responsibilities of state bodies to achieve overall emissions reductions. Doing so in their transport fleets will be important. While a private operator may have to look very hard at the cost-benefit in capital and running-cost terms, a state or local authority might need to take it from a different angle.

That’s why the electric Mitsubishi Fuso light truck demonstrator was brought to Ireland last year, in advance of the availability of the production version.

Ford, meantime, has a Transit Custom plug-in hybrid, on real-world trials in the UK and Spain, with production versions due on sale during this year. A 50km electric range and a 1.0 petrol engine, as a range extender, will keep it going for 500km at a time. A Mitsubishi Fuso Canter hybrid has been available for the last couple of years.

Renault Master
Renault Master

Volkswagen is bringing all-electric versions of its three van models to the upcoming Commercial Vehicle Show, 2019, in Birmingham, at the end of April: the e-Caddy, e-Transporter, and e-Crafter.

Expect to see them begin appearing here at some stage thereafter.

That show will also be used by LDV to launch a new little brother to the EV80 large electric van. It will be the first model launched by LDV that will be specifically designed and manufactured as a pure-electric van tailored for Europe.

Mark Barrett, general manager of LDV UK and Ireland, says investing in a fleet of EVs will cut down long-term operational costs and that there has never been a better time to make the change to emission-free fleets.

“Electric-powered vehicles will soon be the norm and this is reflected by the number of brands, both in the domestic and commercial market, that are moving their focus from fuel-dependent engines to hybrids and pure-electric models,” he adds.

All that said, the powertrain mix in Ireland, so far this year, is what it is likely to remain: 99pc diesel, 1.4pc petrol, and 0.11pc electric. A single PHEV was registered, which is a Mitsubishi Outlander SUV as a commercial, presumably as a demonstrator. That means diesel is not going away anytime soon in the LCV business here, and is likely to be the motive source of choice for quite a good few years to come. So, investing in electric light commercial vehicles will be niche until, well, until it isn’t.

In the meantime, an option that is important in other European countries, but not yet significant in Ireland, should be watched.

Compressed natural gas offers less emissions from the established internal combustion engine. Most car and van manufacturers offer the option in many of their markets.

As a realistic alternative to diesel, it may well be worth the investment by the existing fuel distributors.

BABY ELECTRIC

An intriguing new electric van has been made available from Renault in Ireland, based on the company’s little Zoe electric car.

The Zoe is, in fact, the biggest-selling electric car in Europe, and the van is a factory-built commercial, so it complies with all EU build requirements. As a two-seater car with a big luggage space, it would make perfect sense.

But it also makes sense for, perhaps, a city-based service business, or a retailer like a florist, who needs something economical and emissions-free for deliveries.

The Zoe van has a potential range of 450km or so, and, unlike its Kangoo ZE stablemate, it can be fast-charged.

A Renault Kangoo ZE being charged.
A Renault Kangoo ZE being charged.

The price, like all electric vehicles, is steep, at €34,545. For a private buyer, a €5,000 incentive grant is available, while a business operator can avail of a €3,800 reduction.

No BIK being applicable could also make it attractive for business use.

With the Master ZE, Kangoo ZE, and now Zoe ZE, Renault offer an interesting range for operators to whom emissions-free logistics are important. It will be especially so if, and when, our cities impose emissions charges on non-electrified vehicle use.

DIGITAL HUB

The commercial vehicles division of Mercedes-Benz in Ireland is providing support to Sneem Digital Hub, in its mission to reverse rural depopulation in the area.

Through the development work being done by Sneem Digital Hub, and the facilities and services it provides, the goal is to provide sustainable, long-term jobs that would attract people to live and work in Sneem, thereby ensuring the continuing viability of the village and surrounding areas.

The facility will be supplied with a new Mercedes-Benz Vito van for their exclusive use for a one-year period. The van will provide support to managers at the Hub, in transporting equipment and distributing materials, as required, and as a promotional unit, when conveying display materials to events and exhibitions.

Hub manager Aidan Murray says the van will provide a visual presence and shop window for the hub, as it travels throughout the Kerry and south-west region, and further afield.

The hub provides high-speed broadband, hot-desking for remote workers, a low-cost base for business start-ups, and options for companies seeking to expand remotely.

Video-conferencing technology and meeting rooms are also available.

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