This past summer, I visited London and Paris. Most travelers look for something quintessentially European in the food, language, or other cultural markers of the countries they visit. I was more interested in the cars.
There are many differences between the cars Londoners drive and the ones in the United States. Most of them are diesel powered and a Buick Regal is called a Vauxhall Insignia, for example. One thing I didn’t realize, though is how different their commercial vehicles are.
On the first day in London, I walked out of my hotel and saw this little bugger. It’s a Peugeot Bipper, a tiny van with a 1.4 liter engine and a manual transmission. Fiat and Citroen make identical versions, and Renault has a similar-sized offering of its own.
The Bipper (whose idea was that?) is about the size of a small hatchback; it seems like it’s too small to be of any use. Nonetheless, London and Paris are crawling with these things. Top Gear may have declared the larger Ford Transit king of British commercial vehicles, but I didn’t see nearly as many of them.
That makes sense, too, because European streets are tiny. London’s streets are only about half as wide as the ones in an American city, and they are constantly jammed with traffic. A compact, nimble vehicle is the only way to get around; I wouldn’t want to drive through central London in a Ford E-Series. Paris is even worse: most streets are barely wide enough to park on.
That isn’t the case in the U.S., and that’s why tiny vans like the Bipper were so novel to me. Other than the Ford Transit Connect and minivan-based Ram Cargo Van, American vans only come in one size: big. The standard size involves V-8 power and enough room in back for a medium-sized person to stand up.
However, big size means big inefficiency. In these times of austerity and environmental awareness, Americans might want to take a page from Peugeot and company. When your electrician leaves for work, is his E-Series filled to the brim with tools? When your local bakery delivers a wedding cake, does it fill an entire Chevy Express?
Probably not, and that’s where compact vans come in. Ford had the right idea when it introduced the Transit Connect: buyers deserve more choice. A full-size van could be overkill sometimes, and they’re still pretty difficult to maneuver through city streets.
Fiat makes a copy of the Bipper, called the Fiorino. Since the Italian company is allied with Chrysler, and back in the U.S., maybe we’ll be able to buy these micro-vans soon. They could really save money and generate CAFE points.