Langley Park Rally School is certainly out in the sticks. So much so that even Google Maps can’t find it. Were it not for the cardboard arrows nailed to lampposts when we get close we’d probably have been rattling around the backroads of Essex, well, forever. The school sits on the site of an old WW2 airfield, and part of the course layout straddles what was the original apron where fighters would leave to take on the might of the Luftwaffe.
Over seventy years later Citroen is here instead with its little Berlingo panel van and it has an altogether different enemy in its sights; white van man. Of course, selling vans is part of Citroen’s business, so rather than alienate its target market the carmaker has gone all out to make its latest stuff mover more appealing than ever. To be honest, and despite the panelled sides, this is more of a car than a van, with plenty of automotive tech and driver assist aids to keep anyone happy.
The new edition even has an indicator that tells you if your white (red in our case) van is overloaded, plus blind spot monitoring as an option too. On the day we're there it has also drafted in the help of Citroen WRC driver Esapekka Lappi and his cohorts to demonstrate the comfort and robust nature of the van. Citroen’s Berlingo has actually picked up the 2019 International Van of the Year accolade, which is cool in a year that also sees the French manufacturer celebrating a century of building motor vehicles.
And, for a van, it comes rather well appointed considering for most owners it will soon become a home from home complete with old newspapers, food leftovers, flasks, cups, clothes, hardhats, work boots and all the other stuff that van owners like to turf inside. There are comfy seats, a touchscreen audio pack with Connect Navigation and an all-seeing rear-facing camera that makes reversing a breeze. That said, the Citroen bods point out that the model we’re driving today has had some minor tweaks for the job in hand. As good as they are these vans are they, unsurprisingly, aren't really made for rallying.
The sunny summer weather has dried out the track so rather than any mud being present the location mainly resembles a dustbowl. In front of us lie lots of bollards, most of which make a kind of circuit to follow, while others have been pushed out of kilter by previous journalists and Lappi himself. As you’d expect, this is a man who doesn’t know the meaning of the word restraint, so he drives around the haphazard track in the Berlingo like a man possessed.
The object of the exercise is to illustrate how a regular van can be a lot more versatile than you might think. Despite the fact that this model comes with an array of those in-car driver assists, all the tech is switched off for the circuit. So there’s nothing to keep you on the track apart from your driving skills and the brakes. Needless to say, this isn’t a problem for Esapekki as he takes the wheel a short while later. Prior to that it’s the job of a Gizmodo hack to get round the track, which goes surprisingly well. Lots of wheel-spinning dusty action and, thankfully, nothing broken. For a tiny panel van the Citroen Berlingo goes pretty well it has to be said.
Things don’t go quite as well when it comes to the next part of the ‘experience’. There’s another Berlingo that, after a dry run with an instructor, needs to be thrown in and out of some cones slalom-style while adding in a couple of fancy driving tricks. One of the moves is the J-Turn, which is a popular movie stunt where the car reverses at speed and then spins 180-degrees to face the opposite way and then speeds off. Er, simple, right?
Gizmodo’s first attempt results in a stall. So, second attempt and we adopt ‘full beans’ mode. It works. We shoot backwards, the steering wheel gets yanked to opposite lock and we spin round perfectly to end up facing the opposite way. And all without hitting anything. However, attempting to put the Berlingo into first gear results in a grinding sound and no momentum. “Sounds like a drive shaft,” says the worried-looking instructor. It was.
In fairness to us, it turns out the vans were ex-press fleet, so had probably been given a good seeing to in prior road tests. At the same time, we only did what we were told. In fact, the instructor seemed impressed that we’d managed to pull off a pretty reasonable J-Turn. And, at the same time, it’s not reflection on the durability and appeal of the Citroen Berlingo van either, as let’s face it, these things aren't really made for performing stunts in anyway.
So if you want to get a van, don't want to overload and drive safer into the bargain then get yourself a Berlingo. Then sign up for a course at Langley Park Rally School, but use a vehicle made for the job. In fact, any kind of driving experience in a controlled environment like this is a good idea if you’re trying to improve your road-going skills and overall awareness. Gizmodo also recently tried the Caterham CDX Drift Experience down at Brands Hatch racetrack in Kent.
During that day we didn't get to do any J-Turns and didn't manage to break anything either. What we did get from the experience though were some great insights on how to improve your driving skills. While what we learnt was on a private track and involved lots of drifting, doughnuts (the in-a-car kind) and much billowing tyre smoke, our instructor underlined just how much the techniques we’d learned could help us on the road, particularly in tricky driving conditions. And that’s useful whether you drive a white van or not.