The pace of joint production, design and rebadging agreements is accelerating among Europe's light commercial vehicle manufacturers.
Light commercial vehicle cooperation programs have a long history in Europe. PSA/Peugeot-Citroen and Fiat have combined light commercial vehicle design and production for almost two decades. Renault recently followed PSA's lead by creating two light commercial vehicle platforms with GM Europe.
And although Volkswagen and DaimlerChrysler generally prefer standalone light commercial vehicle products, they do share one platform.
Ford has its own light commercial vehicles for Europe but may in future adopt a more global strategy.
Defined as vans and light trucks between 2 and 3.5 tons gross vehicle weight, the European light commercial vehicle market was slightly more than 1 million units in 2000. It has grown from 716,668 units in 1996.
Car-derived light vans are a different category, but it is nearly as large. Car-derived van sales dropped 3.7 percent to 784,762 units in 2000, but are expected reach 828,000 by 2005.
The category currently includes the Citroen Berlingo, Renault Kangoo and Fiat Doblo.
But instead of booming, as most analysts expected, light commercial vehicle sales may have peaked.
'With the Internet hype slowing, light commercial vehicle users are concentrating on more efficient vehicle use rather than increasing their fleets,' said Tom de Vleesschauwer of Standard & Poor's DRI.
Online consumer orders that were expected to push home deliveries have been slow to develop. 'We expect the light commercial vehicle market to remain stable or even go down slightly,' said de Vleesschauwer.
But Jean-Martin Folz, CEO of PSA/Peugeot-Citroen, disagrees. As head of Europe's No. 1 light commercial vehicle group, with an 18.2 percent market share, he's still upbeat.
'There is a clear trend toward smaller vehicles, partly from legislation in big cities that forbids heavy trucks,' said Folz.
Rolf Bartke, head of Mercedes-Benz's van unit, said if European economic growth remains between 2.5 percent and 3 percent, demand for light commercial vehicles will continue to increase.
An integrated plan
PSA and Fiat have two light commercial vehicle joint ventures. PSA leads Sevel Nord in Lieu Saint-Amand, France. The plant builds the Peugeot 806, Citroen Evasion and Fiat Ulysse minivans plus their light commercial vehicle derivatives.
Fiat leads Sevel Sud, based in Val di Sangro, Italy. It makes the Fiat Ducato, Peugeot Boxer and Citroen Jumper. Product lines have identical styling - only the badges are unique to each brand.
Unlike cars, unique styling is not an issue for light commercial vehicles. Buyers want modularity, wheelbases of various lengths and a wide range of configurations. However, light commercial vehicles play an important role in the individual sales organizations of Citroen, Peugeot and Fiat, offering additional sales to each set of dealers.
But Mercedes-Benz won't share platforms with other D/C brands in Europe. 'We won't brand Mercedes-Benz models as Mitsubishis, for example,' said Bartke.
Mercedes-Benz has two light commercial vehicle lines: the Spanish-built, front-wheel-drive Vito (also sold as the V-class minibus) and the heavier German-built Sprinter.
'The next-generation Vito will get rear-wheel drive to bring it in line with the Sprinter. Although it makes the Vito E200 more expensive, the change from front-drive to rear-drive will offer more flexibility to configure it to user requirements,' Bartke said.
The platform for the next-generation Vito could also be used for a future Chrysler Voyager.
Mercedes-Benz produced nearly 110,000 Sprinters and 65,000 Vitos in 2000. The Sprinter platform is also used by Volkswagen, which calls its version the LT. But Mercedes-Benz and VW did not share platform development. It is a production-only joint venture running until at least 2005.
Volkswagen prefers not to share its own light commercial vehicle, the Transporter, with other brands - even sister brands Seat and Skoda.
VW may use its modular platform strategy for the next-generation Transporter, due in two or three years. The current Transporter is based on a 15-year-old platform.
VW's Microbus concept, seen at this year's Detroit and Geneva auto shows, may also provide the basis for a future light commercial vehicle.
'We even considered using the forthcoming VW Colorado/Porsche Cayenne sport-utility platform [for a future light commercial vehicle] but with our modular strategy we're no longer limited to that,' said Brune.
'With modularity we are able to offer 350 variations with just two wheelbases. That's what light commercial vehicle users want.'
Mechanically, Ford's Transit is the segment's most flexible platform, with front-wheel drive for light-duty versions and rear-wheel drive for heavy versions.
The Renault-GM joint venture, with two shared products, has become more complicated because of mergers and acquisitions. The heavier Master is a Renault-developed vehicle, also sold as the Opel and Vauxhall Movano. The Renault Trafic and GM Vivaro are a joint development led by Renault.
'It's a 50-50 joint venture, but we led the design and engineering with input from GM on production. GM is building both models at [the IBC plant in] Luton, England,' said Jean-Michel Jalinier, Renault Trafic project manager. Planned annual production is 80,000 Renault Trafics and 50,000 GM Vivaros.
Trafic does not share parts with Renault cars. 'But some of them are related,' said Jalinier. 'Trafic uses a rear axle related to that of the next Espace. And engines are de-tuned versions from our car programs.'
Jalinier said the GM joint venture isn't threatened by GM's alliance with Fiat. 'It will continue at least for the current product cycle,' he said.
Renault has also decided to launch a Nissan version of the Trafic. It will be built at Nissan's Barcelona plant from 2002. But Renault won't offer its vans as Dacias or Samsungs.