We opened the Berlingo hangar to find two helicopters parked inside. Citroën had chosen Shuttleworth, that gem of a Midlands airfield, to launch its new car, and along with the motoring there was going to be a bit of airborne fun too.
Julian Leyton, a senior PR man at Citroën’s UK operations, must be the world’s most ham-fisted chopper pilot. Ten seconds after take-off his machine was a wreck strewn across the grass.
No one was hurt. The helicopters were large remote-controlled models and the “hangar” was no more than the load space for the French car group’s latest take on what it describes as a budget MPV (multi-purpose vehicle). This is a market niche created by Citroën almost 10 years ago, in which only Fiat and Renault have mounted any kind of half-successful challenge.
The airfield was not an entirely inappropriate place to show off the Berlingo. Snap out the three individually reclining rear seats and it becomes enormous, a hangar-like Tardis. Envisage 3,000 litres of wine, minus the actual bottles – that is the space available, while front-seat occupants can still stretch out in relative comfort. The vehicle itself occupies no more road space than a medium-sized hatchback, such as the Ford Focus.
The aviation analogies do not end there. With all five seats and the optional “Modutop” roof-storage system, there is a visual sense of sitting in a small executive jet. The Berlingo Multispace, to give it its full name, derives its spaciousness from being almost as high as a Range Rover. Overhead there is room for a central spine of lockers and air-conditioning vents, while on either side the sky can be seen through a series of roof “portholes”.
Ingenious touches abound: the roof rails can be switched to run fore and after or across the car for load-carrying versatility. Both rear doors slide open and the seatbacks have aircraft-style trays. The centre rear seat can be folded forwards to become a picnic table. You can specify an interior roof rack to carry surfboards. The bells and whistles go on – an integrated air-freshener, a removable torch. The central console can be lifted out and stored out of sight in another rooftop locker. There are power sockets for portable electronics and umpteen storage spaces, some located secretly beneath the floor. Quite simply, there is nothing else like it on the market.
Some equipment, notably the Modutop, is optional – but in reality, this is a must-have. In its highest-specified form a Berlingo can require a cheque for £15,000, some £4,000 above that of the cheapest, entry-level model. It remains a bargain.
We leave behind the flat and unchallenging lands around Shuttleworth, bent on finding the Berlingo’s flaws which, surely, must exist. In the past, only Renault’s MPV version of its Kangoo van and Fiat’s similar version of its Doblo van offered similar, and similarly priced, competition to the original Berlingo and its Peugeot sister car, the Tepee. All, Berlingo included, were obviously vans with social pretensions. But the new Citroën-Peugeot model, now just going on sale, moves the game on markedly. It is bigger, more sophisticated, and much better specified, designed to appeal to private motorists. It is no longer an ingenious afterthought to the needs of White Van Man.
A lot of investment has gone into this MPV and it is easy to understand why. More than 50,000 buyers in the UK alone latched on to the original as economical (but definitely not stylish) everyday family transport with rugged load-carrying capacity. In Europe, it now has cumulative sales of one million.
We continue from Shuttleworth to one of my favourite car-testing haunts; the Lambourn valley and the north Berkshire downs. This part of the run confirms expectations: the Berlingo is no sports car. But it steers and rides as quietly and competently as most mainstream hatchbacks, although with a little more roll. It will cruise serenely all day at the 70mph speed limit.
High above Lambourn lies an England whose ancient bones are laid bare, almost 1,000ft above London. On a clear night, the capital’s lights can be glimpsed 40 miles away. But those lights seem to belong to another, altogether safer world. Here on these Berkshire heights broods much of Tolkien’s inspiration for the bleak and haunted Weathertop and Frodo’s first encounter with the ringwraiths.
The single-track road to beneath its summit – for the final climb must be by foot alone – is grinding, dauntingly steep and in winter downright dangerous. A car sliding off on ice is destined to tumble 200ft into the grass-covered valley below. On this dry summer evening, despite its being front-wheel not four-wheel drive, the Berlingo scales it like a goat.
Up here is a Britain ancient long before the Romans came. And above it all, crowning the highest down, is the grass-covered silhouette of the ramparts of Uffington Castle, an eight-acre bronze age hillfort. For a reason I can no longer recall, some years back I drove to its heights one wild and howling pre-Christmas night. The sense of eerie isolation was overwhelming. I beat a retreat, with increasingly unseemly haste, to the haven of the White Horse inn nestling at Woolstone in the valley far below. Frodo could not have been gladder to arrive at Rivendell.
A go-anywhere, do-anything Jeeves of a car; and bargain-basement to boot
How much: From £10,995 – approx £15,000 as tested
How fast: 0-62mph 12.5 secs, top speed 105mph (1.6 litre 110bhp diesel tested)
How thirsty: 50.4 mpg on EU urban/rural test cycle
How green: 147g CO2/km
Also consider: Fiat Doblo, Renault Kangoo
Getting there: Shuttleworth, near Biggleswade; A1(M) south, M25, M4 west to junction 14; Lambourn; Uffington; Woolstone