The choice is yours ...

13 July, 2007

There are dozens of options to consider when investing in a van for your business. Steve Banner explains

With a huge number of new vans launched over the past 18 months, off-licence owners in search of a light commercial vehicle could be forgiven for feeling a bit punch

drunk.

It is an era that has seen Ford launch a new version of the hugely popular Transit, Mercedes-Benz introduce a new Sprinter, and Volkswagen scrap the LT in favour of the aggressive-looking and somewhat oddly-named Crafter.

On top of all that Citro ën has pulled the wraps off a new Relay, Peugeot has unveiled a new Boxer,

and Fiat has a new Ducato to shout about. All three models share the same basic design thanks to a long-standing joint venture between Fiat and PSA, Citro ën and Peugeot's parent company.

At the lighter end of the scale, the joint venture has spawned a new Citro ën Dispatch, Peugeot Expert and Fiat Scudo.

While all this fresh metal is undoubtedly dazzling, anybody looking to acquire new transport should still stick to a few tried-and-tested principles.

For a kick-off, do not buy something with more power than you genuinely need. While it is perfectly possible to purchase a Transit-sized van with 170bhp on tap, that level of output is

more than any off-licence is likely to require. The consequences are likely to be a succession of speeding tickets and big fuel bills, culminating in a major accident.

Stick to 120bhp at the very most, and opt for something with a six-speed manual gearbox to keep fuel bills down if your routes include a lot of dual carriageway or motorway runs. While vans of this size are often available with optional semi or fully-automatic gearboxes, it is doubtful

the benefits claimed for them - they include reduced driver fatigue - are worth the extra several hundred pounds of outlay required, even if you do a lot of stop-start city centre work.

If you are contemplating

buying a smaller van - something the size of a Vauxhall Combo or a Renault Kangoo

- then 80bhp should be more than

enough.

When you are looking at buying a van, think carefully about how much weight you need to carry at a time and how much space your cargo takes up.

Remember that when sales people talk about a 3.5-tonner, they are referring to a van with an all-up weight of 3.5

tonnes, not to the amount of weight it can shift. The legal payload of a 3.5-tonner is in fact likely to be no more than 1.3 -1.5 tonnes.

While opting for a van with a 12 m³ to 14 m³ cargo area may seem like a good idea - look at all that lovely space - the odds are

you will be overloading it if you fill it with bottles and cans right up to the roof. A 10 m³ van makes a lot more sense.

Most Transit-sized vans come complete with a sliding nearside load area door , as well as either twin back doors or a top-hinged rear hatch.

If you opt for a smaller van, then you may have to pay an extra £300 for a side slider.

It's worth it

if you do a lot of pavement deliveries.

The vast majority of new vans these days are diesel

powered, and certain models can run on fuel containing a high percentage of biodiesel made from everything from rapeseed oil to used cooking oil. While some of the diesel sold from public forecourts has a

5 per cent biodiesel content - everything can run on that - stronger mixtures are for the moment only sold

to major fleet operators with their own bulk tanks.

Businesses anxious to avoid the London congestion charge can always think of opting for a van powered by liquefied petroleum gas, or even choosing an electric light commercial vehic le made by somebody like Smith Electric Vehicles. Remember however that electric vans have a limited range - think in terms of 60 miles between battery recharges for a vehicle doing a serious day's work - and that the weight of the batteries limits the payload.

Never neglect security

Nowadays new vans, like cars, are fitted with engine immobilisers and remote central locking.

The quality of the fitted door locks

has improved dramatically

and the rear doors are usually unglazed to protect the cargo from prying eyes. The side doors are unglazed as a matter of course.

For extra protection, however, you should specify an alarm, plus a full-height bulkhead to separate the cab from the load area. With a bulkhead in place somebody who breaks into the cab will find it impossible to get at the goodies in the back, and it will protect the driver from injury if the cargo suddenly slides forward during the journey.

Given the list of extras most manufacturers offer, there is no reason why a van should not be just as comfortable as a car, but do not forget that adding lots of toys will bump up the final price tag.

A flick through Renault's current price list for the Trafic reveals that a pack including air-conditioning, electric front windows

and electric heated door mirrors will set you back £500 (worth it); satellite navigation will cost you £1,250 ( pricey); and 16in alloy wheels will leave you with a bill for £425 (they look great, but will end up getting badly battered if you are on big city delivery work).

You will pay extra to get your van sign-written with your name, address and phone number, of course, but proceed with caution.

These days most sign

writing is applied using pre-cut self-adhesive vinyl that can easily be removed when it is time to sell the vehicle .

But it is a moot point

whether it is such a good idea to advertise that you are carrying

alcohol.

By doing so, you are acting as a magnet for thieves , so

it may make more sense to stay anonymous.

How are you going to set about acquiring your van? Hire purchase is the traditional route for many businesses, but remember that you have to pay all the VAT upfront. Its big advantage, however, is that once you have made all the monthly payments, the vehicle is yours.

With contract hire, the monthly payments may be lower

and you do n 't have to pay the VAT in one go.

Bear in mind

that you get the use of the vehicle rather than its ownership. When the agreement comes to an end you have to return the van to the lessor, although it may be possible for

the hire to be extended.

Renting a van for several months

may be worth considering if you are

wary of considering a more permanent arrangement, and rental companies such as TLS and Northgate offer attractive long-term rental deals. The big attraction of rental of course is that you can send the van back to the rental company whenever you like.

No matter how you acquire your van, make sure it is insured, and that the load it is carrying is

too. Make sure

that you take into account two vitally important regulatory changes.

Introduced in England on July 1 - similar legislation has been in force in the rest of the UK for longer - the workplace smoking ban applies to van cabs. Failure to observe it means that both employer and employee run the risk of prosecution.

Employees who are allowed to take vans home should also be aware that on April 6, the scale charge - in other words the amount of money the tax people think the unrestricted private use of a light commercial vehicle is worth to the beneficiary - rose from £500 to £3,000.

So that is the sum they are now being taxed on.

Simply driving the van from home to work with a stop to buy a newspaper on the way is not viewed as private use. Using it to do the weekly shopping is.

Steve Banner is contributing editor of What Van? magazine

Why I

my van

Mark Johnson of Celebrations Off- licence in Offerton, Stockport, has blackboards on the side of his white Transit van advertising his special offers

"I always noticed when I was a rep that when I called into cash and carries there were millions of vans, but there was nothing on them - so when I opened, one of the key mediums I would use would be my van. We have chalk pens and write our deals on the vehicle in funky writing, and it is liveried at the top. It works absolutely fantastically well. We get no end of people coming in thinking we've got a few vans because they see it all over.

"I suppose there is a security risk in writing what goods are in the van , but we 've had no problem for three years. It is locked, it's secure and we've had no real problems

at all.

"One of the things we need to do from a professional point of

view is keep it clean, tidy and in good working order .

A scruffy van falling to bits would be a very bad advertisement."

Ben Walgate, of Brighton-based organic wine merchant Festival Wines, has named his van Ginny - and she runs  on biodiesel

"Ginny

is a regular Mercedes van with a regular diesel engine, but with a heart of gold - chip fat gold!

"The diesel engine was invented by Rudolf Diesel in 1892, he demonstrated his engine at the 1900 World Fair, where it ran exclusively on peanut oil. It was entirely renewable and emission free, but sadly none of us westerners saw the benefits at the time and adapted his engine to run on the 'petro-diesel' we have today. The great news is that any diesel engine can run on biodiesel without adaptations.

Ginny was weaned off 'evil diesel' and put on to the cleaner stuff.

"I love my van because it's a Mercedes and that's the best make of van you can buy. I also love my van because it is environmentally sound. I've travelled the length and breadth of the country in her, slept in her and she's been there since the start of my business

three years ago ."




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