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Citroen's boxy, slightly quirky van-based car returns to top form in only its third iteration in more than two decades

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A little over two decades and 1.7 million vehicles ago, Citroën invented a brand new class of affordable van-based MPV called Berlingo.

It was compact, simple and flexible, designed to utilise plentiful small hatch components to control cost and complexity while having so much cabin space that it outshone all other forms of family car.

It rides quietly and softly, assuming a 'strolling' motion reminiscent of the original model but far better controlled

Pretty soon everyone had something like it, with two sliding rear doors, five spacious seats and a huge rectangular prism of carrying space in the rear capable of swallowing a mighty stash of family luggage and a kitchen sink as well. It became so successful that there have only been two iterations in 22 years.

Now, the third-generation Berlingo is upon us in two versions: a familiarly sized 4.4-metre, five-seat model and a new seven-seat version that's 35cm longer. It shares a platform with two other PSA Group siblings, the Peugeot Rifter and Vauxhall Combo Life.

Best news for Berlingo lovers is that, with this thoroughly modern product, Citroën has deliberately moved to recapture the look and spirit of the admired original, admitting in private that the second-gen car, while successful, wasn’t its best design work.

What Berlingo models are heading to the UK?

Production of the new model is already in full swing in Spain and Portugal for first deliveries in August or September. Hacks were allowed a first drive in the car predicted to be the UK’s best seller: the five-seater Berlingo Flair, powered by a 109bhp version of PSA Group’s already-ubiquitous Puretech 1.2-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol engine, with a six-speed manual gearbox.

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Also offered in the UK will be several versions of PSA’s new and efficient 1.5-litre four-pot diesel, the most enticing of which, the 128bhp option, we were also allowed briefly to drive, equipped with an eight-speed Aisin automatic 'box.

Equipment is impressively dense in any new UK Berlingo — even the Feel model that opens the UK range, starting at around £19,000 for the lowest-spec 75bhp diesel and reaching £25,000 for the best-equipped diesel auto. (The French, who buy poverty models more readily than we do, can get a stripped-out entry-level model called Touch).

The top-end Flair we drove — with options — had equipment almost worthy of a luxury saloon; an 8.0in central screen, dual-zone climate control, a head-up instrument display, a 360deg manoeuvring camera, top-spec interactive navigation, sophisticated connectivity on four different levels, complete with wireless smartphone charging, and a so-called Modutop system consisting of panoramic glass roof panels - plus all manner of shelves, gadget compartments and a kind of light show above occupants’ heads.

Buyers are also offered an XTR styling pack on top of Flair spec, complete with bigger wheels, skid-plates, roof rails and some orange design touches on its frontal details.

What's the Berlingo like inside the cabin?

The standard Berlingo interior has no fewer than 28 gadget compartments totalling 186 litres of storage. The boot swallows a mighty 775 litres of 'stuff' — 100 litres more than last time.

On the roof are rails reminiscent of the C4 Cactus that can carry all manner of holiday loads and there’s a vast, square-backed tailgate (which opens to reveal the usual ultra-low Berlingo loading lip) made just for bike racks.

Better still, the Berlingo has a huge people-carrying interior that is much bigger than its new, rather neat exterior seems to promise. With the front seats set for your tall and overfed humble servant, there is space — including vast head room — for another the same size behind. The boot behind could swallow an armchair. The three rear seats can fold individually and the front passenger seat also jack-knifes forward on itself, allowing an owner to carry timber beams around three metres long.

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The seven-seater has five decently spacious seats behind the front pair, yet still with enough room (but less than in the five-door) for a decent collection of bags.

Does the Berlingo drive more like a car or a van on the road?

The Berlingo impresses instantly by being quite different from the average saloon and all the better for it. It rides quietly and softly, assuming a 'strolling' motion reminiscent of the original model but far better controlled by its compliant dampers. It smooths ripples and copes brilliantly with high-frequency bumps.

The steering is accurate and the car is easy to manoeuvre, but there’s a mild feeling of 'stiction' around the straight ahead that it could do without. There’s a special, lighter parking setting for the steering at low speed that we could have done without. When driven briskly, the car understeers mildly but corners with surprisingly little roll given its tall body and soft suspension, and grips well, too.

The Puretech engine is brilliant; smooth even when pulling below 2000rpm in higher gears and surprisingly strong in the 3000-4000rpm range, although outright performance is nothing special and there’s little point in revving the meaty little turbo engine beyond 5500rpm. The diesel with the eight-speed auto seemed strong and smooth, but decent impressions will have to await a longer drive.

So, should you buy one? For sure, if you like the slightly eccentric Berlingo way of driving things.

This new model is versatile and roomy, but feels a bit strange in the way it combines strait-laced simplicity with luxury car equipment. You can even get top models with a manually configured traction system called Grip Control and a hill descent speed control system — something few owners are likely to need. It appears to have the edge over the Vauxhall Combo Life and Peugeot Rifter in terms of styling, too, although that only goes so far in a van-based MPV.

Mainly, this all-new 2018 edition feels and looks like a proper Berlingo, judged by the standards of the high-achieving original, and that — as the car’s creators acknowledge — is a major achievement.

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Steve Cropley

Steve Cropley Autocar
Title: Editor-in-chief

Steve Cropley is the oldest of Autocar’s editorial team, or the most experienced if you want to be polite about it. He joined over 30 years ago, and has driven many cars and interviewed many people in half a century in the business. 

Cropley, who regards himself as the magazine’s “long stop”, has seen many changes since Autocar was a print-only affair, but claims that in such a fast moving environment he has little appetite for looking back. 

He has been surprised and delighted by the generous reception afforded the My Week In Cars podcast he makes with long suffering colleague Matt Prior, and calls it the most enjoyable part of his working week.