Citroen Berlingo XL Flair: long-term test review

Final report: Does van-based Citroen Berlingo offer a first-class MPV experience? 

Overall Auto Express Rating

3.5 out of 5

Verdict

Charming, practical and decent to drive, there really is an awful lot to like about the Citroen Berlingo. But because it has its roots in a van, it bring difficulties that simply are not present in other cars. 

Mileage: 8,727  Economy: 44.5mpg

I’ll admit that it’s a cheap joke, but when finished in Passion Red my departing Citroen Berlingo XL bears more than a passing resemblance to a post van. Not that there’s anything wrong with post vans, of course, but there’s no denying that the Berlingo is a van-based MPV, with all the advantages and disadvantages that brings.

Starting with the positives, that heritage means the Berlingo is absolutely massive inside. It can easily accommodate seven adults and still have space for luggage, while the sheer length of its load bay – coupled with a middle row and a front passenger seat with backrests that fold flat – means loading long items like last year’s vast Christmas tree proved a cinch. 

The car doesn’t feel that big to drive, though: the high seating position, huge windows and light steering mean negotiating London’s tight and winding streets posed no difficulty, while the smooth torque- converter gearbox and soft suspension deal with the city’s gridlocked traffic and pockmarked tarmac better than most cars. 

The only time the Berlingo felt its size was when reversing, partly because of how far forward you sit in the cab, partly because the rear window is flush with its back, and partly because the top-down camera often shows a greyed-out view until you drive over an area – a shortcoming that rather misses the point of such a system. 

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto – which are standard across the Berlingo range – work well, though, even if the £100 wireless charging pad seems pointless given that using these systems requires plugging in; my smartphone became worryingly hot while charging in the cubby, too.

Away from town and out on dual carriageways and motorways, the Berlingo is a pleasing road-trip companion. The seat squabs are a little too short for my legs to be truly comfortable, but once I got used to perching rather than relaxing into my normal driving position, the punchy 1.5-litre diesel engine made light work of long journeys, and I was impressed with the fact it almost matched its official economy. The Berlingo is also a pretty refined cruiser and not unengaging on a winding road, although I turned off the intrusive lane-keep assist system every time I drove the car.

Those positive driving characteristics are a big part of why the Berlingo appeals, but there are still elements that are carried over from the Citroen being based on a van. The top-hinged boot, for instance, requires masses of room to be opened; you need to nose into most spaces if you want it to clear its surroundings. And while the sliding rear doors are great for access, they’re heavy and carry a lot of inertia when closing; I never got over the fear one of my children would trap a hand when closing them.

Then there’s the boot; it must be one of the biggest on sale, but making use of all that space requires removing the heavy rear seats and finding somewhere to store them. If you don’t need all that capacity you can always fold the seats up, but it would be nice to see a more elegant solution for this than a pair of easy-to-lose elastic bungees.

None of these gripes negate the Berlingo’s charm, though; I’m glad it exists and it adds to the new-car landscape. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wonder what it said about me. 

Did other people think that I place practicality above all other considerations? That I couldn’t give two hoots about my image? Well, I enjoy many aspects of the Berlingo, and still maintain it’s one of the few big cars that’s genuinely enjoyable to drive around central London. But just as for the majority of drivers, and as shallow as it makes me, image plays at least a small part when I’m choosing a car, and the Berlingo and I never have really hit it off in this area. Also, it’s interesting to note that Citroen no longer offers it in post-van red.

Citroen Berlingo XL Flair: second report

The secret is out: the Citroen Berlingo doesn’t look very exciting, but it offers so much for the money that we just can’t stay quiet about it. Few cars are as spacious and comfortable at the same time.

Mileage: 5,461  Economy: 43.3mpg

Looks, we are always told, can be deceptive. Take the building you see behind me, for example. From the outside it’s a fairly ordinary-looking townhouse. But behind the nondescript facade hides the Groucho Club, one of London’s more exclusive private members’ clubs, where deals are done and conversations had that shape the world of art, media and publishing.

So where are the parallels with our Citroen Berlingo? Well, they’re not as tenuous as you might think. From the outside, let’s be honest, the Citroen looks like a van. It is, in fact, based on a van, but with five added windows for extra light, and the rear seats that turn the model into a useful MPV. But being based on a van is no bad thing, especially when that van is actually a rather sophisticated bit of kit. All versions of the Berlingo, van or MPV, sit on the same EMP2 platform that underpins everything from the Peugeot 3008 to the DS 7 Crossback. 

That car-based architecture means the Berlingo is remarkably refined and up-to-date under the skin, with systems such as the adaptive cruise control taking the strain out of my regular 300-mile round trips to Somerset to visit family. And the French MPV is remarkably civilised when I’m bombing along for hours at the motorway speed limit.

The Berlingo is also one of the few cars that’s actively enjoyable to drive in London, as I found out on my trip to the Groucho Club. Constant stop-start traffic, average speeds of 7mph, pothole-ridden roads and driver behaviour that challenges conventions meant I fully expected this journey to beone I would endure rather than enjoy. But the Citroen’s soft suspension, lofty driving position and fingertip-light steering made it a genuine pleasure to drive.

As proven by Auto Express’s editor-in-chief Steve Fowler in our last update, the Berlingo is more than adept at carrying seven occupants, too. Plus I’ve lost count of the number of colleagues who have borrowed the Berlingo to move sofas and mattresses, made possible by the fact that when you remove the rearmost seats and fold the middle ones, you’ve got close-to as much space as you’d find in a bona-fide van. That combination of around-town comfort, family-friendly seating set-up and cavernous cargo capacity is a winning one, and it echoes our point about looks being deceptive. 

That’s because if you’re happy with its styling, the Berlingo is one of the most capable vehicles on the market today. Running the Citroen gives the impression, almost, of being a member of a secret, exclusive club, with fellow Berlingo drivers being similarly canny owners who are willing to look below the surface to find hidden benefits, and who aren’t worried about their car’s badge or image.

I’m reminded of when the Renault Espace came to the UK in the mid-eighties. It was such an unusual car, and buyers were so slow to realise its charms, that owners formed an unofficial club, with an Espace-owning family friend waving at fellow owners, who waved back. I’m not quite waving at fellow Berlingo drivers yet, but the instinct is there.

We have had one minor glitch with our Citroen, with an error message informing us we were overdue a service, despite the car only being registered in February and having covered just 5,461 miles so far. It transpires the service computer had been configured slightly incorrectly, with the error easily and efficiently rectified by EMG Citroen in Croydon, where staff also applied a recall fix to the securing mechanism of the catches for the rearmost seats. 

The only other mild niggle to report is that I haven’t been driving my Berlingo that much of late. Flying off for my summer holidays, combined with the number of colleagues requesting to borrow it, mean it’s been about a month since I’ve got behind the wheel. Staff members have been moving big items and family members around, and everyone who has driven the Citroen has been very complimentary about it. 

But the Berlingo’s keys are firmly back in my hands now; anyone who wants to borrow them needs to join my club.

Citroen Berlingo XL Flair: First report

We find inner peace with our Citroen Berlingo XL Flair people carrier

Mileage: 514  Economy: 41.2mpg

“It's a van.” “No, it’s a car.” Arguments with six-year-old children rarely go well, but as soon as my eldest son climbed into our Citroen Berlingo, he had nothing but enthusiasm for the new MPV on our fleet.

I had a similar experience on my first encounter with the car, being immediately struck by its sheer size, exaggerated by the close confines of Auto Express’ underground car park. There’s no disguising the model’s slab-sidedness, either, partly because I’ve got the seven-seater XL version which, as well as having an extra two seats, is 35cm longer than its ‘M’-sized counterpart.

But any reservations about the Berlingo’s size or class disappeared as soon as I started it up and moved off, because there can be few cars on sale today that are easier or more relaxing to drive than the Citroen.

The first thing that helps this laid-back vibe is the visibility from the driver’s seat, aided by the upright seating position, the vast windows and the SUV-esque ride height. Then there’s the steering, which is so light that manoeuvring in and out of parking spaces and car parks is a doddle, not least because our Berlingo is fitted with the £800 City Park pack. In addition to a self-parking system, this brings all-round parking sensors, plus top-down and conventional reversing cameras. There’s almost nothing around the car I can’t see.

But there’s more, because another option I’m lucky enough to have is Citroen’s EAT8 automatic gearbox. This conventional torque-converter suits the Berlingo’s chilled-out nature perfectly, slurring its shifts in a wonderfully smooth fashion that makes for effortless progress.

Ride is another area in which the model excels. The blend of modest 16-inch alloy wheels, high-profile tyres and soft suspension means that the speed bumps and potholes on our roads in the capital city intrude far less than they do in most cars.

All of these elements combine to make the Berlingo genuinely pleasurable to drive around my patch of south London. Sure, the top-of-the-range BlueHDi 130 diesel engine can be a little gruff when pushed, a 0-62mph time of 11.5 seconds isn’t going to set the world on fire, and that comfort-geared suspension means you’ll experience a fair degree of body roll if you go round a corner too quickly. But that’s all the more reason to take things easy when you’re behind the wheel and enjoy the space and comfort.

Speaking of space, practicality is the Berlingo’s raison d’être, and I have a feeling that I’m yet to discover all the cubbyholes. Our XL variant misses out on the M’s optional Modutop roof-storage solution, but we’re hardly wanting for space.

There’s a massive, cabin-width overhead compartment above the front seats, a lidded cubby on the right side of the dash, a drawer under the driver’s seat and a wireless charging bay (a reasonable £100 option), plus a little shelf behind the infotainment screen.

And that’s before you get to the vast boot, made even bigger if you remove the third row of seats. Yes, some friends are already buttering us up to help them out with a garden clearance, and yes, Passion Red paint does make it slightly resemble a Royal Mail van, but I do like some of the other colours available, such as the dark blue shade.

Other issues? Well, including the fitted optional extras, this is a close-to £30,000 Berlingo. That’s a lot of money for a car of this kind and, while you can have a seven-seater XL for a little over £21,000, if you want the automatic transmission you’ll need a budget of over £24,400 – partly because an auto is only offered with the top-spec diesel engine.

If we’re being really picky, the rear-view mirror is far too small to make the most of the excellent visibility provided by the huge back window, and the fact the fuel filler cap is opened with the key reminds us of the car’s commercial roots.

None of this detracts from the honest appeal of the Berlingo, though. It’s not a car for big egos, nor is it one for people with inferiority complexes. But if you put aside your prejudices about how ‘cool’ a car needs to look, the Citroen makes a strong case as the perfect antidote to the hustle and bustle of modern driving, and a car in which you can truly find inner peace among all the cubbyholes.

Oh, and my eldest son and I have settled on calling our Citroen Berlingo a people carrier, which we decided was both fair and accurate.

 Citroen Berlingo XL BlueHDi 130 EAT8 Flair
On fleet since:May 2019
Price new:£27,010
Engine:1.5-litre 4cyl,turbodiesel, 129bhp
CO2/tax:114g/km/£145
Options:Metallic paint (£545), Smartphone charging plate (£100), drive assist pack (£200), park assist pack (£700), Grip Control (£450) 
Insurance*:Group: 14 Quote: £441
Mileage/mpg:8,727/44.5mpg
Any problems?Faulty NOx sensor, rear seat recall fix

*Insurance quote from AA (0800 107 0680) for a 42-year-old in Banbury, Oxon, with three points.

Most Popular

Renault could cut UK models in no deal Brexit profit drive
News

Renault could cut UK models in no deal Brexit profit drive

Renault’s new CEO says the firm is examining the possibility of reducing the range of models it offers to UK buyers as it aims to boost profitability
20 Oct 2020
The end of 70mph motorways? Study shows huge reduction in pollution at 50mph
Speed limit to be cut to 60mph on M1
News

The end of 70mph motorways? Study shows huge reduction in pollution at 50mph

Trial on Welsh roads shows 47 per cent drop in pollution when 50mph limits were introduced; Highways England already has plans to reduce limits to tac…
10 Oct 2020
New Range Rover Evoque PHEV 2020 review
Land Rover Range Rover Evoque

New Range Rover Evoque PHEV 2020 review

Brand-new 1.5-litre three-cylinder Ingenium petrol engine makes its debut in the new Range Rover Evoque plug-in hybrid
20 Oct 2020