The Fiat-PSA large van joint venture on Thursday unveiled a fully redesigned Citroën Relay/Jumper, Peugeot Boxer and Fiat Ducato model line at the Sevel (Società Europea Veicoli Leggeri) plant in Val di Sangro, Italy, the largest light commercial vehicle plant in Europe, where a new paint plant has just been installed.

The stylish new line, dubbed X250 and costing EUR1.1bn to develop, offers easier loading and greater load capacity plus improved performance and driver comfort with lower running costs.

The new model retains its predecessors’ front wheel drive and transverse engine drivetrain layout and comes in goods transport, people-carrying and cab/chassis forms with gross vehicle weights of three (15” wheels) to four tonnes (16” wheels), payloads from 1000 to 2000 kg and with a vast choice of three wheelbases, four lengths and three heights for van versions, resulting in seven load compartment volumes from 8 to 17 m3.

The cab/chassis range offers four wheelbases and five overall lengths.

The new line offers four common rail direct-injection 16 valve turbodiesel engines (multipoint injection) with power outputs ranging from 100 to 157 bhp. The Euro 4-compliant engines are combined with five-speed manual transmissions or a new six-speeder and deliver high torque (250 to 400 Nm) at low rpm primarily to boost fuel economy.

Designers claim category-topping safety and comfort with differential crumple zones in the body, new braking systems with four-wheel disc brakes and the adoption of an ABS with EBD and a driver’s airbag as standard across the range.

Depending on market and version, the vehicles also come with ASR and ESP, window bags, side bags and a front passenger airbag plus devices designed to protect against vehicle and load theft as standard equipment or options.

The driving position is claimed to similar to that of a car and there is plenty of cabin stowage space. Other standard or optional gear includes self-levelling suspension, Bluetooth handsfree phone compatibility and a multimedia player for MP3 music files.

Speaking at the launch, Jean-Martin Folz, CEO of PSA Peugeot Citroën, said: “Dedicated cooperation ventures with other carmakers allow us to share costs and increase volumes for clearly identified projects, while enabling both partners to maintain their independence. These agreements represent an important lever for expanding the Peugeot and Citroën vehicle ranges.

“PSA Peugeot Citroën is currently involved in seven of these cooperation agreements, which cover not only vehicle bases but also mechanical sub-assemblies and represent a growing percentage of sales – approximately 20% of our total.

“Our cooperation with Fiat can be considered a textbook example of this strategy for several reasons—its longevity, its scope and its relevance.

“We could not produce such a wide range of commercial vehicles on our own. By allowing us to share skills, costs and resources, our cooperation with Fiat provides the opportunity to expand our portfolio and thus to strengthen our market position.”

Folz added that PSA had been the European market leader in the light commercial vehicle segment since 1997. In 2005, segment sales for the first time surpassed two million vehicles, of which 370,000 units were from PSA Peugeot Citroën, an 18.5% share.

“About 10 years ago, we ranked third with a 14% share but between 1995 and 2005 we grew twice as fast as the market, doubling our sales during the period,” Folz added.

Mentioning the smaller van JV with Fiat produced at Sevel Nord (Valennciennes, France), Folz added: “In the years ahead, we intend to totally revitalise our range, with the goal of strengthening our leadership in an increasingly competitive marketplace. In 2005, the average age of the models in our commercial vehicle range was 9.3 years. It will drop to 7.4 years in 2007 and 2.2 years in 2009, one of the youngest ranges in our history.”

Sergio Marchionne, chief executive officer of Fiat, noted that Fiat and PSA have been co-operating since 1978 and now have the two Sevel plants and a further joint venture with Tofas in Turkey that will build its first vehicles in 2008.

“The results that we have achieved together with PSA confirm the wisdom of our choice,” he said.

“Today, the market requires great flexibility and rapidity, which a do-it-alone approach does not always provide.”

“We will continue to pursue this approach whenever the opportunity arises.”

Marchionne said commercial vehicles have always played a key role in determining Fiat Auto’s performance.

“In 2005, we sold more than 339,000 vehicles worldwide and attained very high market shares: 40.4% in Italy and 10.4% in Europe.”

In the first four months of 2006, 117,000 Fiat commercial vehicles were sold worldwide, almost 9,000 more than in the same period last year. Sales in Europe rose 8.5%, and market share increased 10.4 to 10.8%.

Marchionne noted that over one-third of Fiat’s commercial vehicles are built in cooperation with PSA and, once production of the new minicargo model gets under way in that will rise to more than 50%.

The Sevel plant in Val di Sangro, employing 5,200 people has had a new painting system installed for the X250 vehicle line.

It is said to be one of the most advanced systems of its type in Europe in terms of technology and respect for the environment (the use of water-based enamel is one example).

The building is 330 metres long and 60 metres wide. It houses 150 workers per shift and 23 robots to apply sealant and enamel. Cataphoretic baths and drying and stoving ovens are also automated with employees responsible only for supervising the process and monitoring the result.

The preparation of surfaces for painting is also partly automated: this is done by emu feather rollers that are particularly suitable for the task because they do not become charged with static electricity created by friction.

Unlike cars, light commercial vehicle bodies are also painted inside because the surfaces of cargo versions are visible and some 65 square metres of sheet steel must be coated for each X250 model: this requires 10 kilograms of enamel and 137 metres of sealant.

The new painting system offers a well-ventilated, light and noiseless environment. This has been achieved through the use of a powerful air exchange system and vehicle conveyor lines that use rubber belts and are therefore silent.

Graeme Roberts