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A family car for peanuts

Fiat Ulysse (2001)

07/02/2014 09:57 |  Comments: 

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Well-known in Totalcar-circles for being able to draft in huge wads of dough in impossible times, we all tolerate Tibby’s sick jokes and horribly nasty remarks day to day. On better days he doubles as a writer too, but his articles always guarantee a hoard of trolls arriving. Never being able to decide between Citroens and Merc’s, presently he owns a Merc. And a BMW. And he bombs us with ads of hydropneumatic Citroens daily. Has a wife and two small children.

Kids grow up, bicycles multiply, grandparents feel like joining us for the holidays. We have managed these challenges through the fine art of improvisation. Sometimes we would take two or more cars, on other occasions half of the troupe would hop on the train and ride with the bikes. But one day I had enough. I set the search parameters to any brand, any model, less than €1700, six seats, Euro2 or better, A/C and ABS and SRS, valid domestic registration. It also had to be under 4.75 meters.

Do you know what I was hoping for? A specimen of the Galaxy-Alhambra-Sharan triplet, a MB Vito – that kind of stuff. But these either cost a lot more than my limit, or were used beyond recognition, perhaps came with a foreign registration. No go, then. But somewhere half way down Page One I encountered a vehicle I had never even considered the first 38 years of my life - the Eurovan 1.

No vehicle has ever been sold by that name though. You could find it as a Fiat Ulysse, a Lancia Zeta, a Peugeot 806 or a Citroën Evasion. And that's only the people movers; this vehicle was also available as a load carrier, dubbed Peugeot Expert, Fiat Scudo and Citroën Jumpy with a slightly raised roof and a two-piece rear door replacing the tailgate. All of these vehicles are related though and were manufactured in France at the factory of Sever Nord.

The Eurovan 1 was equipped with PSA engines. Petrol powertrains included the 99 PS 1.8-litre, the 121 PS 2.0 8V, the 132 PS 2.0 16V and finally the 147 PS 2.0 8V Turbo. The diesel line-up is far more exciting. At first you had the 90 PS 1.9-litre and the 109 PS 2.1-litre, both turbodiesels; then entered the HDI engines, weighing in at 109 PS, with 8 or 16 valves. All engines came with a five-speed manual, with an automatic option for the 2.0 16V petrol engine.

This car appealed to me for various reasons. At a footprint marginally wider than of the MB 190 you get seven individual seats, with the front two rotating 180 degrees. All other seats have armrests and can be either removed or relocated, giving you more legroom in the second row at the expense of the third. For my purposes I envisioned the Eurovan 1 as a six-seater in a 2-2-2 configuration, leaving one seat at home and plenty of room for longer items in the car. This will also put children out of fighting range and seat both grandparents in comfort.

The availability of this model is scarce. Typically you will find worthless pieces of junk that the dealer picked up as a bonus along with other purchases; these are generally sold at surreally high prices with the odo clocked back. Sound examples are bought as soon as they are advertised, unless they are petrol powered. Most vehicles are offered for sale by bogus owners. I have been looking for half a year and have only found a single car that was being sold by its original owner. This vehicle cost about three times as much as anything on the market and was picked up within hours. Many cars come from Austria, most of them heavily corroded for some reason.

You need to make sure the body is intact. If the left side rocker panel is spongy with corrosion, especially on the trailing edge, walk away and never look back. This is where the gunk deposited between the fuel tank filler pipe and the body panel can cause some serious damage. Another critical zone is the cradle. If the engine is fine with no excessive oil leaks or heavy smoke, and especially if it's one of the newer HDI models instead of the old dosing pump units, you really cannot go wrong except for a few minor issues. One of these is the interior which has a tendency to disintegrate in ways hitherto unknown to mankind, with plastic parts in utter disarray; or the sunroof that is bound to leak.

If you see seats with different shades the car has probably had a rough life with several owners. Skewed weather strips are relatively inexpensive to repair and usually occur on cars which frequented automated car washes. Sunroofs have a tendency to leak so try to pick up a car without one. At about 200K km the plastic side cover begins to separate from the driver's seat – if you see that happening the vehicle has probably run 300, possibly 400+ thousand kilometres

Both sliding doors have plastic opening mechanisms. Once these break the doors will only open from the inside, or not at all. Worse yet: they may not close. You can remove the door panels and remedy this yourself, though.

While Lancia Zeta versions are better equipped, their Alcantara upholstery can really get mucked up after all these years. Another issue with the Lancia is the unique rear combination lamp, including the housing. Miss a reverse manoeuvre and you are looking at significant expenses.

I was looking for a car from the model year 2000/2001. These already had HDI engines. Although relatively young, these vehicles are not immune to the proverbial ghost in the (French) machine. Expect to replace the heater core and the A/C condenser - these may come handy as you are waiting for the roadside assistance to bring you some fuel after the faulty fuel gauge has left you stranded. These vehicles came with an optional parking heater, but in reality this was nothing more than an auxiliary heater. Converting it to a proper parking heater will require labour extensive and costly work (such as replacing the control unit and the pump)

Also, 2001 is the last model year before the new generation models were introduced. These new cars - Citroën C8, Lancia Phedra, Peugeot 807, Fiat Ulysse II - are far superior as vehicles, more passenger car-like to drive, they offer a 136 PS 2.2 HDI and a V6 petrol engine, and are on the whole far more civilised. But they fail my criteria by being much longer, almost 5 m at length, and costing a lot more: decent copies cost at least €5000.

The Eurovan 1 has no natural competitors. The Galaxy-Alhambra-Sharan triplet is far more costly and offers no luggage room when uses as seven-seaters, unlike this one. The Vito and the Transporter are a full size up from the Eurovan, the Renault Espace is cheap but relatively rare to find. American family vans are gas guzzlers and anyway, they are, well, American. Let's do a quick math. Full registration of an imported car costs something like €800, so a car on sale here for €3000 is probably marked up from a purchase price of half that much. All of which means the Eurovan 1 is the optimum solution for me. I'll pick one up as soon as I can afford to; until then I keep browsing.

But I would hate to leave you without hands-on impressions so please find below a report on a work crew vehicle with a mileage of 300K km.

The car looks worse for wear in the pictures. It has been carrying rusty pieces of metal from to and from a scrap yard, hauling oily stuff around and serving as a last ditch passenger car for whoever needed a beater car while their own vehicle was being repaired. It has never been babied. Once in a while its efforts are rewarded by being loaded up with six or seven people and their surf boards, canoes and whatnots, and dashing down to the waterfront. On such occasions it makes do with less than 8 litres / 100 km, and this figure comes from a credible man. It is covered in spots and dings. It has welded up rocker panels. Broken chrome stripes all around. A depressing sight, really.

Way back, before it turned this ghastly, its owners tried to sell it. They couldn't, even though it was on the market for a full year. Then they realised that its practical value exceeded its market value by far so they kept it instead. It has been a family user ever since, a service car, a courtesy car, and probably also a dog shed.

Just looking at the car you would never guess it actually works. I used this car as a rehearsal piece to buying my own car, to see if I really liked it. And guess what: despite the hideous face both my wife and kids said they wanted a car like this.

It was a 121 PS 2.0-litre petrol model - the same engine as in my XM a decade earlier. It is not the original engine, though, but a replacement part. It is not particularly powerful or flexible at any given point but it revs to 5000 rpm as if the car didn't weigh 1.6 tons. You can shift up earlier, of course, shaving a bit off the raunchy 12 l/100km consumption. It's your call. I am sure the car drives better with a diesel engine although the petrol engine runs smoother.

The first thing that struck my eyes in the passenger compartment was a 10 kg fire extinguisher. Luckily my kids couldn't see it as the right-side sliding door was stuck. Like I said, it happens. I enquired about the extinguisher but I am not sure I liked what I heard: the car almost caught fire the other day, so this is nothing but a precautionary measure. Also, the fuel gauge is broken: when it shows half full the tank is actually empty.

The driving position is no worse than in a Twingo; the steering wheel is just a tad less upright than would be normal for a passenger car, and I did find the seating position comfortable. The door is far away so armrests are useless; the vast interior width is probably designed to take a Euro pallet.

Despite the horrid overall condition of the car there are no irregular noises coming from either the drivetrain or the chassis. Maybe it is an especially well maintained car but my guess would be that passenger versions, usually operated at no more than one third of the maximum load capacity, can simply take it better. Power steering requires some muscle flexing, half shafts wail as I fully turn the wheel. However, I cannot come to terms with the ultra soft ride. But it is a French car after all.

Operating any button or switch is like a gamble: you never know when they will come off - or set the interior ablaze. Luckily none did but we are haunted by the cheapness of 90's French car industry. Whatever you touch rattles, knocks, creaks or snaps. I suppose the interior could survive if you used it with due care but there must be a rational explanation for the half-metre plastic cover dislodged and abandoned on the boot floor. There was a warning light glowing on the instrument panel. I guess it was the ABS but I didn't brake hard enough to test it.

The rear cover of the seats is either loose or gone, the upholstery is grey with dirt but, like I said, this is a crew car. I am pretty positive it will be perfectly functional in ten years' time - except, for the Eurovan 1, this is what perfection is. This is what you get for one thousand Euros. Cars that cost €1500 or €2500 will be less dented, less discoloured, with less of the chrome stripes missing. Or they will have a diesel engine, possibly an HDI (or JTD for Fiats) which is cheaper to repair than the older units.

Some typical spare parts for an HDI Eurovan 1

Timing set - under €170 including water pump and tension roller

CV joint: €25

Dual mass flywheel : €440, or €670 paired with a clutch set

Clutch set: €200

Heater core, Nissens: €60

Radiator, Valeo: €95

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