Allow, for a second, your mind’s eye to conjure up the most stereotypical image of life in France. Chances are you’re picturing a game of boules in a village square, perhaps some elderly folk drinking pastis in a streetside cafe. Or maybe a mildly rotund chap in a beret pulling up outside the boulangerie in a Citroen 2CV to grab his daily baguette.
If it’s the latter, you’ll probably also be aware that such a scene in modern-day France is becoming less commonplace. The bakers are becoming fewer and further between as more and more French shoppers choose to buy bread at their local supermarket – and far from being in a Deux Chevaux, the chances are they’ll be getting there in a car like this Peugeot Rifter.
The Rifter is the latest in a long line of French vans with windows, or ‘ludospaces’ as they’re rather charmingly known in France. They’re immensely popular across the channel for the same reasons the 2CV was in the first place: they’re cheap, they’re versatile, they’re practical and they’re comfortable.
While the Rifter name might not be familiar, it replaces (thankfully) the old Partner Tepee, and has much in common with the vastly better-known (in the UK at least) Citroen Berlingo – as well as the plainer Vauxhall equivalent, the Combo Life.
It’s not cut from entirely the same cloth, mind you, for Peugeot is billing the Rifter as something of a crossover, with SUV genes injected into its humble van-based DNA. Consequently, it rides 34mm higher than its badge-engineered siblings, and sports black textured plastic add-ons to make it look as though it can cope with some mild green-laning.
You can choose between three versions: Active, which is pretty basic with steel wheels and black plastic bumpers, though it does at least get air-conditioning; Allure, with a body-coloured front bumper, a touchscreen infotainment system set into a blue dashboard and alloy wheels; and GT Line, with dual-zone climate control, sat-nav, larger alloy wheels, and a brown dashboard.
There are then two 1.2-litre petrol options of 108 and 128bhp, and two 1.5-litre diesels of 99bhp and 128bhp. To the higher-powered variants of each, you can add an eight-speed automatic gearbox, and while no Rifter actually comes with four-wheel drive, you can add Grip Control, Peugeot’s enhanced traction control system, for £650. What’s more, for a £1,700 premium, you can have your Rifter in ‘Long’ form, which stretches the length by 350mm and adds an extra row of folding seats in the boot, turning it into a seven-seater.
It’s the standard five-seat car we’ve got here, though, powered by the most potent diesel and in mid-range Allure form. As a result, we’ve got the blue dashboard, which isn’t particularly appealing in the flesh; the plastic is cheap and shiny, reminiscent of a Formica kitchen from the 1980s. At least all the switches are all well-sited, and pleasingly, in contrast to most other modern Peugeots, the air-conditioning controls aren’t part of the infotainment system, meaning you can adjust them without having to find your way through its menus – and that’s useful, given that the infotainment system is a little labyrinthine.
There’s loads of room in the front seats, with the high driving position making you feel remarkably tall, and there are some enormous cubbies in which you can lose all sorts of odds and sods for months on end. As you might expect, though, it’s in the back that the Rifter plays its trump card. Rear seat occupants will find head, leg and shoulder room aplenty – not to mention fold-out picnic tables for the outermost occupants. Big, sliding doors make the Rifter a doddle to climb in and out of, too, and together with the ride height should make easy work of lifting and strapping small children into child seats.
Even in this configuration, the boot is gargantuan, as you might expect. But what’s really clever is the way the rear seats fold into the floor in one swoop when you need more space, making it the work of a moment to convert the boot to a space into which you can fit pretty much anything short of… well, another Peugeot Rifter.
The total volume with the seats down is a staggering 3,000 litres, or more than 20 – yes, 20 – large suitcases. But it’s the shape of the space that makes it so useful; its low, flat floor and sheer sides mean it resembles a vast storage box. The only downside is the enormous bootlid, which extends out behind the car a good metre, at least, when it’s open. Reverse into a spot too close to a wall, and you might struggle to gain access to the boot.
What’s it like to drive? Well, what are you expecting from a jacked-up van? Stodgy responses and artificial-feeling steering mean it’s not much fun, but then you probably guessed that. The Rifter feels less stable and more top-heavy than its Berlingo or Combo Life siblings, too, probably thanks to its raised stance.
Likewise the ride quality is hampered by those extra millimetres of ride height, with the Rifter ducking and pitching into bumps a little too much around town. Thankfully, it doesn’t crash or thump, as the suspension is quite soft, but the constant head-tossing can grow tiresome. It does smooth out a little on the motorway, although there’s still a little van-like jostling going on.
The Rifter is, at least, just about quick enough for day-to-day use, although even this more potent diesel engine will probably feel rather breathless when it’s fully laden. And while wind noise can be an issue at high speed, noise from the engine and tyres is well-damped – surprisingly so, in fact, for something with commercial origins.
The biggest problem for the Rifter, though, is the cars with which it shares all but its nose and a few bits of trim. Its practicality and versatility are laudable, but they can be bought with a Citroen badge for less. And, like-for-like, the Berlingo tends to offer you more equipment, too.
Sure, the Rifter’s extra expense buys you some pseudo-SUV styling, but that isn’t really fooling anyone. This is still a van with windows in the eyes of anyone who has eyes. And when one of the joys of cars like these is that they’re so downright honest, the Rifter’s SUV pretentions may actually lend it less appeal in buyers’ eyes, rather than more. Either way, what’s worse – and more relevant – is that they cause it to ride and handle less well than its stablemates.
Don’t hold back on doing as the French do and buying a ludospace, though. They’re refreshing and worthy alternatives to the modern slew of SUVs. But there are better ways to do it than with a Rifter.
*Lease price from list price shown in the article is correct as of 17/01/2019 and are based on 9months initial payment upfront. Prices exclude VAT and are subject to change. Ts and Cs and Arrangement Fees apply.
Peugeot Rifter 1.5 BlueHDI 130 Allure
TESTED 1,499cc four-cylinder diesel turbo, six-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive
PRICE/ON SALE £22,609/now
POWER/TORQUE 128bhp @ 3,750rpm, 221lb ft @ 1,750rpm
TOP SPEED 116mph
ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 10.9sec
FUEL ECONOMY 62.8mpg/57.6mpg (EU Combined/Urban)
CO2 EMISSIONS 117g/km
VED £165 first year, then £140/year
VERDICT Top-notch practicality and versatility, but the Rifter often feels as it is – a car based on a van. No bad thing if that’s what you’re after, but the problem is others do it better, for less cash – and without downsides that come with its the faux-SUV ride height.
TELEGRAPH RATING Three stars out of five
Citroen Berlingo, from £18,875
Much the same as the Rifter, but does without the SUV stuff, and so handles and rides better; feels smarter inside, too, with less overt interior colour schemes. And, of course, it’s cheaper to buy. Doesn’t get the more potent petrol engine, mind.
Fiat Doblo, from £14,240
Ancient – and feels it. Wooden to drive, cheap and nasty inside, and pretty sluggish no matter which engine you go for. Still, the Doblo will do much of what the Rifter can in terms of practicality for a good deal less cash.
Peugeot 3008, from £22,870
If it’s an SUV you want, this one does it much better than the Rifter, with a beautifully crafted interior, a slick drive and a much more comfortable ride. Of course, it’s also much more expensive and a good deal less practical – you pays yer money, and so on.