Motoring: It's the funky Pope mobile
This week, our readers road-test the new Citroen Berlingo Multispace. Will it prove infallible?
Saturday 29 August 1998
of Citroens I go all girly and can sometimes
even swoon. The Traction Avant and DS, those most revolutionary of cars, are still enough to stop me in my tracks, if I see them on the road. And if I catch a glimpse of an SM, the overpoweringly sexy Maserati-engined supercar of the Seventies, smelling salts are required. So, in my book, Citroen stands for defiantly radical design innovation, lateral thinking and sculptural sublimity. It does not stand for funky Pope mobiles. Until now.
I've never been able to grasp the recent trend for very tall cars. But there's a simple explanation for the height of Citroen's latest, the Berlingo Multispace, shown here in all its Bora Bora green splendour; the Multispace is essentially the common-or-garden Berlingo van, with rear windows, a full-length electric sunroof and an interior that looks like a bingo hall's been hastily tacked on.
This, you may imagine, is not the official line. "Multispace is fun and affordable [pounds 12,020], comfortable and practical. Multispace is functional," says the brochure. All of which is true, but I can't help feeling not quite in the spirit of the marque. You know you're in trouble, for instance, when a car's USP is the "World's biggest sunroof".
On the move, it is more promising. The steering is its best feature - quick, direct, light and reassuring. The brakes, too, are pin-sharp, and it accelerates pacily enough to beat most challengers away from the lights. But, as the speed builds, the engine noise rises, and the delivery van underpinnings are revealed. With the rear seats folded down it's capacious, sure, but to allow for its vast load potential the Berlingo's suspension is stiffer than most saloons, making the ride either surprisingly sporty, or uncomfortably bumpy, depending on your mood.
The Multispace's pretensions are truly exposed by the interior. While the dashboard is exactly the same stretch of relentless, and alarmingly brittle, black plastic that countless lost invoices, discarded tabloids, and flasks of sugary tea will call home in the van version, the seats, carpets and colour-coded safety belts would look more at home in one of those silly limited editions manufacturers use to prolong the life of a knackered hatchback. The two styles simply don't match. That Citroen felt the need to tart the car up for the British market tells you a great deal about its perception of our tastes - in France, where the more basic Berlingo Combi, as it's known, is closer to the 2CV in spirit, it sells like hot brioche.
On the plus side, the Multispace is roomy, and the sunroof is "fun" (though it billows like a sail when closed and can create an eardrum-bashing air- pressure effect if you open it with the windows wound up).
But, as with many products that attempt to serve two purposes, the Berlingo Multispace doesn't excel at either (a shampoo and conditioner in one? No thanks). As a workhorse it's too camp, as a camper it's too cramped, and as a family saloon it's too trade. Where the 2CV's spartan utilitarianism charmed, the Berlingo's pretension disappoints
Philip Sulter: 21, from Cape Town, South Africa, devoted surfer and assistant at London sports retailers Ocean and Leisure. Currently drives a Toyota Corolla
The Berlingo's promotional material depicts cavorting surf dudes, so we thought we'd ask the genuine article for his opinion. "Really I'd like a VW Camper van but they're too old to be practical. I'd definitely buy one of these, though, if I had the money," says Philip. But is it really cool enough to cut it at Newquay or Bondi? "Oh yeah, surfers don't worry about trendiness, we just want somewhere to put our boards and stick the wet suit; this would be perfect." Phillip found the Berlingo's clutch tricky but reckons the interior, which the others thought looked flimsy, could cope with anything a surfer would throw at it. "It would be great to load it up with friends, stick the boards on the roof rack and my beast [his dog] in the back and head for the beach."
Astrid Zala: 30, from London, director of design and communications company Jam. Currently drives a Leyland Daf van
"At the moment, I have a van which is a bit large for what I need so this might be good for me. It's not too big, great for driving around the city, and it's nice and quiet, so it would be fine for going away in for a weekend. You could stick your windsurfer in the back," commented Astrid. "But I really think they've missed that young, trendy style they were obviously going for with the design. I don't think it's funky enough to catch a young crowd. The wheels are too small and the bonnet is out of proportion. Maybe if you were Mr Average with your own business and a family it could serve a purpose, but I suppose that as a designer I'm quite style conscious. Perhaps if it was in black ... "
John Rico: 37, from London, DJ. Currently drives a Fiat Punto
"Not having four doors is a bit silly," observes John, "if you look around you can spot it's a converted van, a mini Transit with windows, the styling is awful. I feel sorry for Citroen because they've done some really beautiful cars in the past. This is a tragedy." John's opinion softened when I told him the price. "That is cheap for a car that can do all this one can - a family could easily tour up to Scotland in it, but it is really quite bland. Maybe it will appeal to middle England but there's no way I'd ever buy anything like this, because it's just not what I'm looking for in a car. The sunroof is probably the best thing about it."
Wendy Chamberlain: 46, from Penge. Makes cut-price replacement canvas roofs for Citroen 2CVs. Currently drives a Citroen BX
As an expert coach-trimmer, Wendy has a few stern words
about the Berlingo's finish: "The sunroof material is the same as the 2CV's - so it rips, and this seam is also not straight,"she says, pointing to some iffy stitching on the driver's seat."I don't find it an appealing shape at all. In fact, it's plug-ugly. I like the nice, bright interior cloth. The power steering is certainly an improvement over the 2CV, and I suppose, as I have to transport children, materials and dogs, it might be quite practical. But it seems to me that you either buy a van with vinyl seats so you can chuck things around and get it mucky, or you buy a nice car with a nice interior."
The verdict If you would like to take part in a test drive, write to The Independent Magazine, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, giving a contact phone number, your address and details of the type of vehicle, if any, you currently drive. Participants must be over 26 for most vehicles, and have a clean driving licence.
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