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The art of van engineering

09 October 2014 #Features & Interviews #News #Van

Take your brand-new Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van along an exposed stretch of motorway and into a howling cross-wind and you shouldn’t feel a thing.

That’s because it is fitted with Cross Wind Assist. It reacts to prevent the vehicle being wafted into an adjacent lane – and potentially into the path of another driver – if it is caught in a sudden gale.

Underlining the massive impact of electronics on modern van engineering, this standard feature is woven into a raft of safety measures spun off from the van’s Electronic Stability Control (ESC) system.

The line-up of electronic programmes includes Hill Start Assist, Load Adaptive Control, Emergency Brake Assist, Roll-Over Mitigation and Curve Control. The last function automatically slows Sprinter down if the driver tries to take a bend too quickly.

While Mercedes-Benz is well-known for its emphasis on accident prevention, Sprinter is by no means unique in featuring such a sophisticated safety package. A similar collection of devices can be found on the new Ford Transit.

Recognising that even the cleverest safety system cannot prevent another driver from pulling out from a side road and driving into you, it also offers Ford SYNC with Emergency Assistance. This helps summon the emergency services if you are in a crash serious enough to trigger an airbag.

So why all the safety devices?

A cursory glance at Britain’s congested roads and the risks they present to light commercial drivers should provide sufficient explanation. There is growing pressure on businesses to provide employees with the safest-possible working environment and, in this context, a van’s cab counts as a workplace.

Legislation provides a further imperative. Electronic Stability Control (ESC) for example will be standard on all newly-registered light commercials from 1 November onwards.

Another reason why manufacturers are making all these systems available is because they can. Once a van is fitted with ESC – and ABS, which is now universal – then further refinements can be added relatively easily.

Something else manufacturers can do is install a speed limiter, partly as a safety device, but also to cut fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. “We’re seeing a lot more interest in Acceleration Control and Adaptive Cruise Control with Active Speed Limiter,” says Ford Product Manager, Dave Petts.

Something else that is becoming increasingly popular is a start-stop system which kills the engine if it is allowed to idle in a traffic jam or at the traffic lights. To re-start it all you need to do is dip the clutch.

An ECO button can be added on the gearshift console. Press the one that can be found on the latest Trafic, says Renault, and you improve your fuel economy by up to 10% by reducing engine torque and power and altering the response from the accelerator pedal.

Most manufacturers offer low-CO2 ¬versions of each of the models in their ranges, with stop-start systems and ECO buttons supplemented by low-rolling-resistance tyres and various aerodynamic tweaks. They offer operators a route to environmental respectability without having to switch to electric vans with their continued range limitations.

Useful extra-cost options need not cost a fortune, as Trafic and Vauxhall’s British-built Vivaro – both models share the same basic design – neatly illustrate. Standard on most models and only costing an extra £50 in cases where it isn’t, a big convex mirror on the passenger sun visor enables the driver to spot anything that happens to be sitting in the nearside blind spot.

If you want a similar facility on Sprinter then it will cost you a further £1,570 although it should immediately be stressed that the comparison is an outrageously unfair one. For that sort of outlay you get Highbeam Assist to prevent dazzling other drivers at night, Lane Keeping Assist which issues a wake-up call if you nod off at the wheel and drift into an adjacent lane and Blind Spot Assist.

Blind Spot Assist causes a red triangle to illuminate in either the nearside or offside rear-view mirror as appropriate if a motorcyclist, for example, happens to be sitting in the van’s blind spot. Ignore it and indicate that you are going to pull out or turn anyway and the triangle will flash to the accompaniment of a buzzer.

On top of all that you get radar-based Collision Prevention Assist. Travel too fast towards the rear of slow-moving traffic and forget to apply the brakes and it will alert you to the danger you face. When you then brake, Adaptive Brake Assist will cut in to ensure the brakes are applied to maximum effect.

Selling extra-cost packages such as this can be a challenge – even the most safety-conscious operator is likely to be cash-conscious too – but Volker Mornhinweg, Mercedes-Benz’s Worldwide Head of Vans, says that the demand among Sprinter buyers is high. “We’re getting an uptake that’s 20% greater than we expected,” he reports.

There is another side to the coin, however, with some companies reluctant to spend money if they do not have to. “Some fleets want as much as they can stripped out of the vehicle to save on the purchase price, even though such an approach can affect residual values,” Petts observes.

These companies may be more interested in the variety of packages that can be specified to turn vans into practical load carriers.

Ford’s new Transit Courier, for instance, can be ordered with a passenger seat that folds completely flat with a section of bulkhead directly behind it that can be swung through 90 degrees and latched into place next to the driver’s seat. This extends the cargo bed and the repositioned bulkhead ensures that whatever is placed on the extension does not drop into the driver’s lap.
Van cabs are increasingly being transformed into mobile offices, with flip-down desks and accommodation for laptops. Some models will allow you to operate the most popular MP3 players, Bluetooth-enabled phones and USB drives with simple voice commands as part of an onboard system that will read you your incoming text messages, too. Satellite navigation is widely available – destinations can be entered verbally in some cases – and the dashboard-mounted display screen will show you exactly what is behind when you engage reverse if your van is fitted with a rear-mounted camera as well as reversing sensors.

If you hit the rear bumper nevertheless, then it is unlikely to cost you a fortune because it will probably be a multi-piece one. The Transit is a case in point. As a consequence only the damaged section will have to be replaced if it is damaged.

While airbags, air-conditioning, a stiffer body structure and a number of other refinements have all contributed to making the lives of van drivers safer and a lot more comfortable, they have one drawback. Cumulatively, they add weight.

As a consequence while a carefully specified 3.5-tonner of 25 years ago could transport up to 1.8 tonnes, its counterpart of today may struggle to handle a 1.5-tonne payload. Greater comfort and safety, enhanced performance and reduced environmental impact all come at a price.

The use of high-strength boron steels and the smaller engines now being introduced by some van manufacturers may help to redress the balance without compromising performance, although the imminent arrival of Euro-6 and an AdBlue tank mean the pounds could be piled back on again. The latest Trafic and Vivaro take 1.6-litre diesels rather than the 2.0 and 2.5 engines fitted to their predecessors but can still pump out up to 140bhp.

Big or small, it’s possible that those engines will be married to a straightforward manual gearbox. While automated manual boxes and Volkswagen’s twin-clutch automated Direct Shift Gearbox in particular have made some headway, most van operators are traditionalists when it comes to swapping cogs. The eight-speed fully-automatic Hi-Matic box now being offered on Iveco’s Daily as an option could be a minority taste.

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