Strap yourself in, fire up the ignition and get ready to burn rubber as we put two of the latest light panel vans through their paces.
Meet Dave stanley and Frank Fraterrigo, two regular guys living in a regular town, doing regular jobs at a regular building contractor. Until the phone call from CM, that is. We had a mission for them, and for their sins, they accepted it.
Our request was simple: for one week they were to abandon their everyday personas to become the construction industry’s equivalent of Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond (but without the former’s arrogance or the latter’s mad, bulging eyes) and road test two of the latest vans on the market.
Each would be delivered a brand new model of light commercial vehicle: Fraterrigo a Ford Transit Connect, Stanley a Volkswagen Caddy Maxi (full specs below). They would then put the vehicles through their paces, driving them on roads and motorways, loading and unloading them and testing for factors such as design, performance, handling, space and comfort. At the end of the week they would report back to us with their verdict.
Both drivers work from BAM Plant’s Wellingborough depot in Northamptonshire. Fraterrigo is a delivery driver, ferrying construction kit to BAM sites and regional offices across the south of England, while Stanley is a lifting engineer who travels the length and breadth of the country to inspect cranes, often driving distances of up to 400 miles in a day and carrying important spare parts in the back. Fraterrigo currently drives three vehicles, most often a Transit short wheelbase low top. Stanley drives a short wheelbase Transit Connect 56.
With his thick-set frame and swarthy complexion, you’d be forgiven for mistaking Fraterrigo for a mafia boss with a body in the boot (as it turns out, he is from Sicily). But spend some time with him and you realise he’s a very chilled out guy with a dry sense of humour. Stanley comes across as more of a geezer, with the gift of the gab and a real passion for cars, particularly those of the fast variety. ‘I love my cars,’ he says. ‘I had my perfect car until a while ago when I ended up putting it in a ditch. It was a two-seater Vauxhall VX 220 convertible. I’m more drawn to the looks of a car than the performance, know what I mean?’ These four words end almost every sentence Stanley utters, confirming his status as a geezer, unlike the journalist interviewing him, whose most hardcore geezer-like experience was mistakenly walking out of a supermarket with a packet of bourbon biscuits.
Things don’t start well when I meet with Fraterrigo at BAM’s depot in Wellingborough after the test drive. He’s knackered after starting early so he could get back in time to meet me. When I ask him about his first impressions of the Transit Connect the only thing he can come up with is that he thought the cup holder was in an awkward position. It’s a valid point, who wants to crash their van whilst fumbling for a can of Fanta? But I was expecting something a bit more technical.
He gets more animated when we discuss the Transit Connect’s design, however. ‘It’s nice looking, smart, compact, and I like the grey colour,’ he says. ‘Although obviously you get used to the colour after about five minutes and when you’re inside you can’t see the colour anyway.’ Oh dear.
At least Stanley is enthusiastic about the Caddy Maxi’s looks: ‘The VW is smart and stylish, especially with the alloy wheels [an extra on this model] and it’s more rounded and colour-coded than my van, which has big black bumpers and looks like a work van.’
That’s all very well, but how did the vans match up to actual work challenges? Travelling such long distances, Stanley puts driver comfort at the top of his criteria and the Caddy Maxi didn’t disappoint. ‘The driver’s seat was very comfortable, it sort of wrapped around you and allowed a lot of movement. It was very quiet inside and more like driving a car than a van. Everything was nicely carpeted and even with a few things in the back you didn’t get that echo sound you normally hear in a van.’
Motorway driving was also made less stressful by the VW’s DSG automatic transmission, which is fitted with a ‘tiptronic’ override control to allow the driver to switch to manual in situations that require greater control. ‘It’s a lot less stressful to just sit there and put your foot down,’ says Stanley.
Fraterrigo also liked the car-like feel of the Transit Connect, which he says has a more comfortable seat and a lower driving position than the larger Transit he’s used to. However, he felt the lower chassis restricted its suitability on most building sites where mud and rutted ground are often the order of the day.
Everything was nicely carpeted and even with a few things in the back you didn’t get that echo sound you normally hear in a van.
At 4.36m3 the cargo space was also insufficient to carry the loads he would normally fit in his larger Transit. ‘It was awkward for my transport manager who had to arrange for one of the other lads to take some stuff. I also move a lot of office furniture for on-site cabins, but once you’ve got a table in, that’s all the space gone,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t stand up in it either, so unless you want to cripple your back you have to load it from the outside.’
Fraterrigo is obviously about as hard to impress as Simon Cowell on a bad hair day, but he does get very excited about the Transit Connect’s twin sliding doors. ‘These were the best feature of all, I’ve never seen sliding doors on both sides of a van before. It means you don’t have to worry about turning the van round because you can approach the loading bay at any angle. They are also useful if you have to shift things around in the back.’ The rear doors on the Connect also fold right back to the sides of the van to greatly improve access, unlike Fraterrigo’s current Transit rear doors, which only fold back 90 degrees.
Space isn’t such a big issue for Stanley, as long as he can accommodate his largest item, a 1m2 crane outrigger mat, which the VW’s 4.2m3 cargo space accommodated easily.
This vehicle also has twin sliding doors, but far more important for him is speed and manoeuvrability. ‘My current van’s not slow, but the Caddy Maxi’s six-speed, 1.9-litre turbodiesel engine was faster when I needed it. In automatic mode, when I floored the accelerator it would quickly drop down a couple of gears and give me the power I needed to overtake,’ he said.
Keen to test Stanley’s geezer credentials I ask if he ever thrashed the engine. ‘I stuck within the speed limits, but cruising at about 70mph on motorways the engine was hardly trying and barely went above 2,000 revs, so it could manage a lot more. My current van usually tops 3,500 revs at that speed,’ he says. ‘Fuel-wise that makes it a lot more economical, I’d effectively be using half the fuel based on that rev-count.’
Fraterrigo didn’t really test the Transit Connect’s engine either: ‘Driving around London at 3mph in rush hour traffic isn’t very exciting. There’s not much opportunity to go fast.’ Ok Frank, surely it’s not that bad?
‘The pick-up on it is excellent though, as well as the manoeuvring and road holding,’ he adds. ‘Even with a full load I wasn’t carrying that much weight, maybe 200kg, but it handled okay. On one occasion, when I had an empty load, it was very windy and I had to slow down because the vehicle was swaying about a bit.’
On handling, Stanley gives the VW a good report. ‘My current van doesn’t handle well at all, it slides around on bends sometimes. But the Caddy Maxi was very responsive, giving plenty of feedback through the steering wheel about what was happening on the road. The braking was also a lot better.’
A man without a gadget is like baked beans without cheese on top, unthinkable. So which hi-tech features grabbed our testers’ attention? Both liked the steering wheel-based controls for the radio, so they could keep their eyes on the road. And it sounds like Stanley spent most of the week annoying his neighbours: ‘The VW’s stereo was great, you could pump it right up and there was no distortion.’
The Transit Connect’s aircon was also a hit with Fraterrigo: ‘When you’ve built up a sweat hauling stuff out of the back, you can just whack on the aircon and you’ve got cold air blowing in your face.’ Nice. But he would like to have seen a built-in satnav system included instead of having to carry a Tom Tom around.
So that’s it, both vehicles were a hit with our testers, but as you can see from the ratings here, Stanley’s Caddy Maxi was just ahead overall. The journey over, we could all return to normality, unless, of course, there’s a new Maserati that desperately needs road testing for the pages of CM. Now that’s something to get excited about. Know what I mean?
Photography: Ed Tyler