THEY might not be the most fashionable vehicles on the planet ... but they are the most practical.

The so-called ‘leisure activity’ type of vehicle is essentially a van, with seats and windows and most usually have sliding rear doors which makes getting in and out easy – especially for the ageing farming brigade with dodgy knees and hips!

In this feature, we take a look at the most popular vehicles in this sector – the Citroen Berlingo and its ‘sister’ models, the award-winning Peugeot Rifter and Vauxhall Combo-Life, plus the Ford Tourneo Courier.

All of these are different in their own little ways, but all have tonnes of space inside them and despite their boxy appearance, can also tramp on and handle quite well. It’s a wonder not more people buy these ...

‘Bingo’ does it all

THE DADDY of this sector – which can also be called the multi-purpose vehicle (MPV) – is the Citroen Berlingo. Known as the Bingo.

This started it all and remains the top of the sales charts by some margin. Citroen, however, has felt some of the other makers snapping at its heels and has substantially changed it with the recent introduction of a third generation model.

One of the biggest changes is that the usual five-seater version – which is about 4.4m long – has been augmented by a new seven-seater that’s 35cm longer.

Actually, though it shares the same chassis as the Peugeot Rifter and Vauxhall Combo Life, it does feel that much bigger than those. Citroen in this instance has achieved the remarkable feat of finding more space within the same basic box than its siblings.

There’s a range of engines available, including catering for the current trend away from diesels back to petrol. But the test vehicle came with the now pretty ubiquitous 101bhp, 1.5-litre diesel version matched to a five-speed manual gearbox.

That doesn’t sound like a lot of power, but it actually felt better than that, though the 0-62mph timed run is a fairly leisurely 12.3 seconds. It is, however, very economical and you can expect to get 60mpg out of it comfortably.

The five-seater version certainly makes you feel quite comfy in its van-like interior. There’s also a useful 775-litre space for luggage in the rear, with access via a fairly monstrous single top hinged door – and a real boon would be to specify an electrically opened and shut version.

There’s also a fair scattering of cubby holes and storage space within the cabin and these are quite good for ‘hiding’ more valuable items. This totals up to almost 200 litres of storage.

This third-gen is quite easily seen to be different from predecessors, and the latest Flair versions – which have hoovered up 60% of sales in the UK – take this to a new level with funky coloured light trims making them stand out from the crowd.

A new edition – Flair XTR – features an exclusive new trim level for the UK to top the new Berlingo range.

Flair XTR versions have up to 28 ingenious interior storage spaces, boot capacity of up to 775 litres for the M size and 1050 litres for the XL (seven seater). In addition, the Flair XTR trim will now have as standard trim the Modutop Roof – a panoramic glass roof – a handy opening rear tailgate window; plus the ability turn the three rear individual seats into a flat floor space for easy loading.

Powered by a choice of petrol or diesel engines in a variety of outputs, the standard Berlingo is priced from £18,850 to £24,000 and with manual or automatic gearbox. Meanwhile the two versions of the Flair XTR cost £23,630 or £25,330, respectively for the five/seven seaters.

The Peugeot Rifter

NOT THE best of names for this ... ahem! Burp!

But, this is another practical boxy, van-based bus for hoomans.

Again, what you get is a leisure activity vehicle with the choice of five or seven seats, tonnes of passenger and stowage, plus a high driving position. And, it was good enough to scoop the MPV award at this year’s Scottish Car of the Year awards ceremony.

And, yet again, what it lacks in ‘handsome-ness’ it makes up for in droves with top-notch safety and infotainment spec’, including adaptive cruise control, active lane departure warning system (my personal hate, but you can switch it aff), blind spot monitoring and the optional ‘Visiopark’ 180° colour reversing camera.

There’s the ubiquitous two sliding side doors, an opening rear tailgate window, three folding rear seats with a ‘flat’ function and a panoramic roof.

Depending on which one you choose, the luggage area has a loading capacity of 775 litres under the shelf,but up to a van-like 4000 litres under ceiling storage. There’s also a wee refrigerated space of up to 186 litres – beer anyone? (in the back ... obviously!).

Trying to be different, the Rifter does look different, with its all-round side mouldings and wheel arch protectors. Didn’t really have the capacity to test it, but is also has the brand’s Advanced Grip Control, mud and snow tyres and Hill Assist Descent Control, which does help in ‘medium’ off-road conditions.

The BlueHDi 100 unit is the favourite power pack, capable of an impressive official ‘Combined’ figure of 65.7mpg – though, as ever, pinch of salt thrown over the shoulder! That said, mid 50s should be achievable.

The 129bhp version of the turbocharged 1500cc four-cylinder HDi diesel was the one on test and this was again a vehicle which gave a sense of ‘solidity’ and confidence.

The GT Line spec’ gave it a ‘luxury’ feel to the van-like interior and, again, there’s an abundance of in-cab storage up top and under your seats.

Prices start at a tad more than £20,000, but the GT-Line came with a £24k+ price tag, but it would be worth paying the £700 extra to get the Park Assist and Vis system, given that this is a ‘big’ vehicle to park.

Unique to Peugeot is its trademark i-Cockpit, with a compact sports steering wheel which adds extra agility to its driving experience.

Vauxhall Combo

Life XL, 1.5L

The Combo Life from Vauxhall is a pretty no-nonsense – and highly practical – family car.

At the risk of being sexist, like its ‘brethren’ there’s tonnes of space and with the various seating configurations, there’s lots of versatility.

But why would you buy the Vauxhall, over the rest of the competition? Well, that’s down to being a little smarter, ourside and in, and with the 4.75m XL (extra long) version (as tested) there’s the seven-seats available against the five-seat 4.4m long one.

The vehicle I had came with the 1.5 litre TDi Blue injection unit and this was rated at just under 100 bhp, but like the rest of the ‘family, there’s the option of the more preferable 130 bhp version, plus two petrol engines to choose from. And, again, there’s the complication of selecting between the five-speed, six-speed or an eight-speed automatic, which is only included on the top of the range Combo Life.

It does, however, induce quite a relaxed driving style and so its lack of power never seems to be that much of a drawback. The stats say a 65 mpg average, but again getting in to the mid-50 is probably more achievable.

If you opt for the petrol models, however – both choices are based on a 1.2-litre engine – there’s a similar 110 and 130 bhp outputs but with poorer fuel economy.

Yet again, you can expect prices to begin about £20,000.

Ford Tourneo Courier 1.5 diesel

ONE OF Ford’s latest takes on the compact activity vehicle is the Tourneo Courier – which basically replaces the B-Max, which has now been discontinued.

Again, it’s based on a van – the Courier – and while it might not be in the same size bracket as the others tested here, it does come in slightly cheaper, with prices starting at £14,815.

The tiny Tourneo comes with either a 1.0-litre EcoBoost engine or a pretty decent 1.5-litre diesel – both are rated at 99bhp, so it’s probably only the better fuel economy of the diesel that will attract and it will do about 50mpg. Both have a six-speed manual gearbox between those engines and the front driving wheels.

From the rest of those on test, it does take the ‘dull’ appearance of a van with windaes to a new level! It’s also a bit tighter on space inside and that’s a cause of being based on a Fiesta chassis. But while it might not be fancy on the outside, it does pack a punch inside, even on the only available spec’ level, the Zetec, there’s electric windows in the front, heated windscreen, DAB radio plus air conditioning.

Again, you can seriously increase its load capacity by dropping the 60:40 split rear seating arrangement and access is also easier via the sliding rear doors and a big single rear door.

Of course, if the wee Courier is not big enough for you, then Ford also makes the pretty gargantuan Tourneo Custom, a derivative of the Transit.

An earlier test on a top of the range Titanium model confirmed just why the Trannie is Britain’s best selling van. It comes with up to nine seats and in a selection of lengths to accommodate a fairly versatile range of seating set-ups.

And, for such a large vehicle, it handles well – however, with 168bhp available from the two-litre EcoBlue diesel, it needs to handle well. This is no slouch off the mark, yet it still gives well into the mid-40s mpg.