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Bedford hopes to take the lion's share of the microvan market with its latest lightweight. On first acquaintance, Brian Weatherley reckons it could succeed
MI Its no secret that Bedford sees its salvation at the light end of the market. Considering the continuing decline in its heavy truck market share, this is hardly surprising. The extra sales won by the recently-launched Astramax and Midi ranges is already showing up in the company's sales volumes — up 23 per cent during the first three months of this year.
Adding to that success, Bedford hopes, will be the Bedford Rascal microvan. Last November, after months of speculation, Bedford revealed its deal with Suzuki (in which GM holds a six per cent stake) to build its SK410 microvan and pick-up at Luton both for itself — badged as the Rascal — and for Suzuki GB as the Suzuki Super Carry. Production of both models, which have virtually the same specification, started in February.
Until now, the micro sector has been contested solely by Japanese importers — notably Honda, Suzuki, Daihatsu and, more recently, Subaru. However, import quotas have kept the total market to little more than 7,000 vehicles a year. The Bedford deal blows this wide open. By building its micro range at Luton, Bedford expects to double the market to 15,000 vehicles by 1987, its Rascal taking a dominant share.
After the initial joint-launch last year, Bedford is now playing down the Suzuki connection and concentrating its marketing efforts solely on the Rascal which goes on sale this week through about 400 UK van dealerships.
CM is one of the first magazines to appraise the Rascal, and shortly we will be publishing a full road test of its twin.
• CAB ACCESS One of the most surprising aspects of the Rascal is how easy it is to get into, and out of, the driving compartment — in fact, compared with other small, forward-control vans such as the Toyota Lite-Ace and Bedford's own larger Midi, it is much easier. All you do is hold on to the grab handle on the not-too-steeply raked A-post and slide in sideways. The only complaint we have is that on leaving the cab the driver's leg tends to rub the top of the wheelarch which collects dirt and spray under the door.
The amount of room in the cab is uncanny. Even for a tall driver, there is ample headroom.
Inevitably, there is an element of compromise in the driving position, which is rather sit-up-and-beg. The driver is forced to keep his elbows tucked well in and feed the wheel through his hands on turning. Most drivers will adapt to it, however.
The Rascal's forward-control design suffers one serious drawback: the intruding off-side wheelarch forces the driver to hold his right foot over the accelerator at an angle rather than raight on. The pick-up model's fixed ar bulkhead, not surprisingly, also its the amount of rearward seat Livement for the long-legged.
DRIVEABILITY ie Rascal's 33kW (44hp) four-cylinder 'Octni petrol engine (there is no diesel tion) makes it the most powerful cro model on the market — and it ows. Even with a full 625kg load 'eluding a driver and passenger) our 41-tonne GVW Rascal van proved a rky performer around town and on sy A-roads. Fully laden, it will just out pull away in second.
The optional five-speed, overdrive') box has no obvious gaps in its nos and is well worth the extra .£60, rficularly as the standard four-speed n is noticeably undergeared and mificantly noiser at speeds above knvh (40mph) in top gear.
Overall, noise levels on the Rascal are acceptable, although engine-roar can become intrusive when the little unit is revved hard. For the UK market Bedford has added extra noise insulation to the original Suzuki design.
For such a short wheelbase (1.84m) vehicle the Rascal, which has a MacPherson-strut and leaf-spring suspension set-up, gives a good ride, aided by the comfortable — if rather toosoft — seats. It does pitch a little, however, on sharp edges or bumps at high speed.
The Rascal's rack-and-pinion steering is light and precise, and on the motorway it is fairly stable in gusting crosswinds. Manoeuvrability is superb, aided by the Rascal's 8.8m turning circle. It can turn in an average-width road on full lock in one go.
Throughout our test run the Rascal's brakes performed well.
• FUEL ECONOMY
Over a short, mixed A-road and motorway circuit our laden Rascal van returned a useful overall average consumption of 9.1 lit/1001cm (31.1mpg), with the motorway-only section just dipping below the 9.4 lit/100km (30mpg) mark. Around town it will probably do better. The little four-stroke engine, which has a peak torque of 75Nm (55Ibft) at 3,200rptn, runs on two-star petrol which will help keep costs down. Specifying the five-speed gearbox will also aid fuel economy. • INTERIOR FINISH Compared with many other Japanesedesigned vans the Rascal is pleasantly "European" with an attractive light and dark brown interior trim which is easy on the eyes and practical. The seats have tweed cloth facings and a vinyl edging which should take the knocks. The rubber floor covering, however, looks rather thin and could do with some decent retaining strips along the door apertures.
Instrumentation is kept fairly simple, with the speedo and temperature and fuel gauges all easy to read. The heater controls are well within reach, and on a cold, wet test day the heater certainly proved more than capable of keeping condensation down.
Storage space for the driver, however, is pretty limited — beyond the small cubby box and trays there is not much. The rather cheap elasticated door pockets will not last long if too much is put in them.
With two sliding side doors as standard on the van, Bedford has ensured good loading flexibility. They can be opened from inside and have a latch for holding them wide open.
The van's body is fairly well finished with only small wheelarches to take up space inside. The rear tailgate opens high enough not to catch the driver's head. One criticism, however, is the battery, which is stowed right in the middle of the load platform, below the floor, making it difficult to reach if the Rascal is laden. On the pick-up it is mounted on the nearside in the open.
The pick-up's dropside body looks fairly tough although the flush rear lights are rather vulnerable. The over-centre catches could also be stronger. Bedford is offering an impressive range of extras for the Rascal dropside including a ladder rack, side extension rails, tilt cover and a tonneau.
Access to the little 970cm3 engine (which is inclined to fit under the driving compartment floor) is via inspection covers under either the driver's or passenger's seat. Most daily checks are easy, although to get to the distributor you need to raise an additional panel behind the seats. 0