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Soft, strong and not that long

Wednesday, 13th November, 2019 4:39pm

When the French set out to make a family car, they generally end up making the best ones.

Leave to the Germans the big, stentorian, executive saloon, or to the Italians the hyperactive, atomic-doorstop supercars.

What the French have always done best is the useful family car. Think back to the likes of the Renault 16 (not the first hatchback, but the best first hatchback), the Espace, the Peugeot 205, and of course that icon of minimal motoring, the 2CV.

I’m not going to trot out the tired old cliche that the new Citroen Berlingo is the true spiritual successor to that original roly-poly 2CV, but equally I’m not going to not do so. You can draw your own conclusions when it comes to Citroen creating an affordable, frugal, practical, softly-sprung car that has a frisson of quirky style about it.

Of course, the new Berlingo is not a 2CV because when the original 2CV was launched, it changed the motoring world utterly, altering at a stroke our very perceptions of what a small, cheap car could be.

The Berlingo doesn’t do that, primarily because it’s not a new concept. Citroen created the idea of a roomy, practical, affordable, family car based on a van more than two decades ago, and this new version is simply the latest and most carefully honed.

In fact, you’d have to argue that the new Berlingo isn’t really based on a van at all. I mean, yes, clearly the bodywork is donated by the hard-working Berlingo panel van, but underneath it rides on the same EMP2 platform as the posher C5 Aircross SUV and the C4 SpaceTourer MPV, so there are passenger car genes within the Berlingo’s makeup.

However, as soon as you crack open a door, you can soon see that the Berlingo’s idea of what makes a practical family car is some way ahead of its two EMP2 platform cousins.

First off, those two rear side doors slide, which is of inestimable benefits when parking in tight places (have you seen how narrow the spaces are in Merchant’s Quay these days?) and so getting people in and out of the back is just so much easier.

There are also three individual seats in the back. Now that’s something that, in fairness, the C5 Aircross and C4 SpaceTourer also offer, but it puts Citroen ahead of most of the competition when it comes to carrying kids around. It’s just so much easier to sort out booster seats and baby seats when there’s a proper, full-sized pew in the centre of the rear.

Up front, there’s a relatively simple dashboard that is the biggest clue as to the Berlingo’s van origins.

You can tell that the plastics used are of a cheaper and lower grade than those of the passenger car range. You could take that as a criticism, but then a Berlingo such as this is very definitely going to be bought as a family car, so perhaps having some plastics that you just don’t care about as much is not a bad thing. After all, if your kids/dogs are going to destroy them anyway…

You do get some creature comforts, though. There’s a big touchscreen infotainment system, which includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and the steering wheel is pinched from the C3 hatchback, and feels good to hold. Then there are the seats, which use Citroen’s Advanced Comfort design to be as restful as possible.

Now, I love a good, squashy, armchair-like seat, but I have issues with these Citroen perches. For some reason, they just don’t agree with my back, and both these and the similar seats in the C5 Aircross left me with aches and pains all down my spine.

To be fair, the also-similar seats in the C3 were fine for me, and you might find the Berlingo entirely comfy, but I’d suggest taking a lengthy test drive to be sure.

Speaking of length, you can have a longer Berlingo than this. Our test car was the ‘M’ for medium sized version, 4.4 metres long, with five seats, and a massive 775 litre boot. You can get a longer 4.75 metre version, which comes with seven seats and a boot that measures a colossal 1,050 litres. Worth remembering the next time you start thinking that an SUV makes for a practical family car…

Of course, to drive, the Berlingo can’t quite measure up to its more car-like siblings, but it’s not as far off the mark as you might expect. The steering is light, and a touch long-winded, but as long as you give it a chance to roll and settle itself for a given corner, it gets about alright.

The ride quality is actually a major highlight — it’s soft, without allowing the Berlingo to be excessively floppy nor floaty, and is particularly good at soothing away urban road scars. Given the Berlingo’s nimble turning circle and good visibility, it’s tempting to call it an ideal urban car.

Power comes from a 100hp 1.5 litre BlueHDI diesel, and it’s a decent engine — a touch noisy at times, but frugal and with decent poke.

So, a French-designed and made car, based on a van, with masses of space, lots of seats (and flexible seating options), sliding side doors, and a frugal engine. Yup, the French really do have this whole family car thing down pat.

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