PSA piles on keeping multivans competitive by boosting their design

Citroën Berlingo XTR, Opel Combo and Peugeot Rifter GT Line

What’s going on with multivans?

While the term “multivan” has never really caught on among car enthusiasts, the body type it represents has become increasingly popular in the market for over twenty years. Usually with dimensions similar to those of midsize station wagons, they strive to combine large cabins with easy handling. As a result, they appeal to big families as well as most companies. And this is why they offer separate trim levels for each.

In general, these models have been much more successful in the commercial guise. If you want to know why, all you have to do is look at their past — more specifically, how they looked in the past. Most models were bland to the point of being forgettable, with the only exceptions being the visual weirdness seen on the first Fiat Doblò and Renault Kangoo. It was hard to convince families to buy them, especially instead of minivans.

Peugeot Rifter, Citroën Berlingo, Opel Combo

How have companies dealt with that?

Back then, the design of their fleet cars was irrelevant to many companies, so multivans sold rather well at the cargo trims mostly because of their capacity. Automakers were bothered by the slow sales of the family trims, but investing much in redesigns would make the vans too expensive. By the mid-2000s, all they did was to apply mid-cycle facelifts which made them look much better, but still far from ideal.

Things truly changed for the best in the beginning of the 2010s. All available models reached the second generation using newer platforms, more efficient mechanics and a thoroughly improved design. Such move was made possible because most projects were co-developed: Citroën and Peugeot made Berlingo and Partner, Fiat and Opel made Doblò and Combo, and Renault and Mercedes-Benz made Kangoo and Citan.

Peugeot Rifter, Opel Combo Life and Citroën Berlingo XTR

Nice. But was it enough?

No. The thing is, multivans face very strong competition in the urban market. Compared to them, minivans are often more stylish and can be fancier, while crossovers can easily add some sportiness to all that. Over the past few years, the number of variations multivans were given (trim, size, powertrain…) hints at automakers attempting to figure out what market niches would be good to explore with these cars.

It was already known that families appreciate well-designed cars. However, the past few years saw companies shifting towards the same. Many of them began to invest in their image as a whole, so as to send a consistent message to the public, and this concern has finally reached their fleet cars. Both facts mean that the demand for bigger concern with their design and overall character started to increase.

Opel Combo Life, Peugeot Rifter and Citroën Berlingo Multispace

Is that the highlight of the new multivans?

Exactly. The quartet featured here is particularly special to PSA because it comes from the first joint project developed after the acquisition of Opel and Vauxhall. The outgoing Combo came to life from the rib of the current Fiat Doblò, while PSA used to co-develop its larger vans with the same maker. While its two exes get together, the Italian company turned to RAM in North America and to Renault in Europe.

PSA’s latest concoctions differ mostly at front design and trim options; in this case, investing in anything else would be more expensive and less effective. A key design solution was to make a short hood and cover the entire front fascia with the bumper: by being made of plastic, it’s much cheaper to redesign than the steel parts. That made possible to apply completely different appearances to each of them, with few common parts.

Citroën Berlingo Multispace XL and Peugeot Rifter Long

Design freedom is always desirable, indeed

Peugeot chose a very aggressive style whose preference for horizontal shapes manage to remind of the latest 508’s. Citroën repeated the blocky shapes and split headlights which compose its current design identity. Opel/Vauxhall, in turn, used organic elements with smoother outlines and more neutral results. On the sides, the Berlingo stands out with another iteration of the Airbumps which debuted on the C4 Cactus.

The rest of the body is pretty much the same for all models; the only other variation regards the tail lights: the cargo trims use shorter ones in order to accomodate the side hinges of the split door. Inside, they only differ at color and material, not to mention the logos. Regarding trim levels, only the Rifter offers the sporty GT Line, while only the Berlingo features the outdoorsy XTR. The Combo, in turn, remains work-centered.

Opel Combo, Peugeot Partner and Citroën Berlingo Van

Among the common parts, anything interesting?

For the standard of multivans, yes. The rear windows are closed on the cargo versions, but their outline was preserved: that creates great spots on which to apply banners, such as containing information of your company. Body options remain urban five or seven-seater, cargo five-seater with rearmost section dedicated to cargo and all-cargo. It’s also possible to choose long wheelbase, which takes us to the next point…

…the hideous-design curse has been broken! Since both body options were designed together, the extension affect fender and window designs in a much more discreet way than at the previous generations of these cars — which is another nod to the increasing demand for well-designed commercial models. Then again, if you found the mid-2000s examples ugly, you should probably stay away from the extended Kangoo.

Opel Combo, Citroën Berlingo Van and Peugeot Partner

What can we learn from PSA’s multivan venture?

It’s a glimpse of the future of this body type. Some of its main characteristics will be maintained, like the boxy exterior, the intermediate size, access to the same technologies available on urban models of similar price, trim levels for family and work purposes, and a no-frills conception capable of keeping their prices suitable with the overall intention of making them rational alternatives to the latest minivans and crossovers.

Everything else, in turn, will change. There will be more degrees of freedom when it comes to design, so as to avoid workaround solutions and bring each model of a joint project closer to the others of its respective brand, and more attention to trim options to better suit the wishes of urban drivers. Instead of being the purely rational counterpart of those body types, multivans might end up being cooler than them.

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Content writer and engineer-to-be who aspires to work in car design. If you like cars but not the stereotypes that surround them, give my articles a try.

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Danillo Almeida

Danillo Almeida

Content writer and engineer-to-be who aspires to work in car design. If you like cars but not the stereotypes that surround them, give my articles a try.

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