LIGHT van buyers, both in the UK and overseas, are opting increasingly for vehicles of a high-cube design derived from cars. In the UK, high- cube vans, such as Fords Fiesta-based Courier and Vauxhalls Corsa-based model, accounted for 38 per cent of the light commercial vehicle market last year an increase of 5.4 per cent on 1994.
On the Continent, the figure rises to 52 per cent of the light van sector. Ford is among the leaders, selling 50,000 such vans a year in Europe.
Such lighter vans are no longer the preserve of florists and couriers; they are appearing in the fleets of a growing spread of customers.
Fords commercial vehicle manager, Mike Platts, says: I believe well see more and more of these high cube vehicles in the building trade, where the Escort has always been well used.
To satisfy this fast-growing demand, Ford has updated its Courier van, in line with improvements seen on the Fiesta car range at the end of last year. And, for the first time in the UK, Ford will be offering the Courier- based Kombi, with rear seats and windows in the van body.
Outwardly, the Courier has changed little. There is the corporate grinning grille and smoother lines, but little to indicate the transformation that has taken place under the skin.
Mr Platts says: The Courier restyle is substantially underpinned by hidden improvements.
Looking at the spec. sheet alone, it is still difficult to find the changes: power from a choice of 1.3 petrol and 1.8 diesel engines; five-speed gearbox; and front-wheel drive. But both engines have been revised, as has the rest of the running gear.
The Endura-D is more than just an updated 1.8 diesel from the old van. At its heart, the diesel, and the Endura-E petrol unit, are now controlled by Fords EEC-V engine management system (the same unit is used in Fords Formula One racing programme). This helps the engine to push out 60 PS of power while offering a 5.6 per cent improvement in urban fuel consumption, now up to 6.25 litres/100 km (44.8 mpg).
But the most impressive changes to the engine are in the elusive noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) areas. Ford has introduced silent belt drives for the injection pump, revisions to the injection equipment and combustion system, torque-roll axis engine mounts with two hydraulic mountings, a tuned exhaust system and additional sound-deadening material.
The result is impressive. Not only is the diesel-powered Courier just about the quietest diesel van I have ever driven, it is also less audible than many petrols I have experienced.
The gearbox, too, is a delight to use. Ratios have been reworked to improve the gradation of change; the Courier can pull away on a 24 per cent slope; and driver effort is reduced with new double cone synchronisers to aid gear selection.
However, while I realise the Courier was never meant to be a racer, some of the gear ratio gaps are a bit large. Fords test route among the mountains of the Sierra Nevada was impressively harsh on the vehicles and it exposed the need to rev hard between second and third, and third to fourth, to maintain acceleration in the hillier parts.
More serious, perhaps, was the vans motorway hill climbing ability. Unless you go into the hill with plenty of steam up, you will be reaching for fourth, and even third, before long.
Away from the fast lane, the Couriers combination of steering and suspension are spot on. The front end is supported by a much heavier duty sub frame, with stronger bushes and a bigger anti-roll bar.
The front brake discs are enlarged and ventilated to improve stopping performance, and anti-lock is an option. The ABS also features an electronic brake distribution system that takes into account varying payloads in the rear of the van.
Inside, driver and passenger are well cared for with comfortable cloth- covered seats (vinyl is an option) and a drivers airbag as standard.
But the lack of noise from the front end does show up just how much road noise is generated in an empty metal box at the rear. And no amount of styling is going to remove those boxy sides, which generate a fair bit of wind noise at the rear.
Ford has also looked long and hard at safety and security, with side impact bars, anti-submarining seats and heavy reinforcement in the pillars.
Ford dominates the UK van market, both in the medium sector, in which Transit has been market leader since 1966, and in the light arena, in which Fiesta and Escort together captured 45 per cent of the market last year. If the market does want to move slightly away from Escort to high- cube vans, Ford has it well covered.