The reasons for buying a campervan are many and varied. Whatever, the reason, if you have ever seriously considered buying one you will have noticed there is a wide variety of campervans to choose from. In the VW stable you have the achingly cool vintage splitties and bays with their air cooled engines and distinctive bup, bup, bup sounds. Good examples of these are rare and expensive. VW has a wide range of later models and conversions. The most recent models are amazing featuring fully sprung beds, table and chair sets hidden away in the tail gate, top loading fridges, every convenience you could conceivably desire in a modern campervan. If you want to drool check out this you tube video. If you have 40k to spare I’d get one of these. However, if your funds are a bit more limited but you still want a convenient modern van, with high specifications the Mazda Bongo Friendee (despite the silly name) has a lot to offer!
The Bongo comes with a tintop or an autofree top (AFT) A tintop has a standard flat roof, of the sort you would find in any normal van or MPV.
How it works
The autofree top (AFT) is a factory fitted automatic rising roof.
- It is controlled by a button on the ceiling to the left of the driver.
- You can either control it from the front seats or from the cabin.
- When lifting the roof all that is required is to have the engine running and hold the button down.
- When dropping the roof, you will need to first push the safety button actually up in the roof which sets off a beeping noise, you then go down and hold down the cabin control button. It’s a bit easier if there are two people but it is perfectly possible to do it by yourself.
- The roof will descend half way then stop, this is an opportunity to be sure there isn’t anything left up there (or anybody!) and that the roof is folding unimpeded. Just a safety thing really. Just let go of the button then hold it down again to get it to carry on closing. Bingo.
- As the roof is factory fitted it is very sturdy and reliable.
The original layout for the roof includes a hatch for accessing the roof area. Once you are up, you close the hatch and lie on it. This is just about ok for adults but a total pain for children as it is hard to get to them if you need to during the night. It is highly recommended to get a roof conversion. A roof conversion costs around £250 by Clearcut Conversions, have a look here to see how it works. When youngish kids are up there you can leave one end open, making it very easy to get to them in the night. If an adult is up there, you can close the full length of the roof, it is still perfectly possible to open the roof from inside.
What’s it like up there?
In the roof there is a roof light. If you get a quiet moment to go for a chill out in the roof, it is lovely to stare up through the roof light at the passing clouds. At night there is a shutter that cuts out any early morning light very effectively. Or try a spot of star gazing. The roof bed is a lovely cosy place to be, but if you want some fresh air the zips can be opened and the insulating, waterproof lining can be rolled up to reveal the netting. Approx two-thirds of the roof sides is then netting while the bottom third retains its thermal layer. It is truly lovely to sit up in the roof with sides rolled up, especially if you are among trees or somewhere with a great view! The netting and the thicker bottom part of the roof sides mean that you feel perfectly safe. When you wake up in the morning and things have got a little stuffy, you can unzip some smaller vents to let a little gentle breeze in. If the weather is foul you will feel safe and secure in the roof. It has kept us dry through hours of battering rain on Bodmin Moor, nights of downpours and gusting winds. It will sometimes rock a little, don’t be alarmed, just think of it like a boat.
Automatic blinds – They are controlled by rocker switches, one for each blind. They are pretty cool if a little 80’s in style, and provide decent light blocking, though not black out. They can be controlled by switches on the drivers control panel or in the back of the van. NB: If you have run the leisure battery down (by listening to the cricket on the car radio for too long, for instance), you will have to turn the engine on to operate the blinds. Also:
- Dual air-conditioning,
- Twin airbags (later models),
- Electric windows
- Electric wing mirrors,
- Reversing sensors
- Privacy glass
Not all models feature all these extras check the model you are looking at carefully
There are 3 basic models of Bongo. 1995 – 1997 – The earliest version. recognisable by the hands grips on the rear, the roof does not raise quite as high as the later model, the rear seats split and fold up to create more ‘transporting space’. They do not slide (see below). 1997 – The ‘facelift’ model. This features some updated body work and sliding rear seats. You will need this version for some of the conversions, particularly a mid conversion. 1999-2005 -The new shape model. The main difference is that the rear seats are on rails which allows them to slide back and forth, great for creating more room in the cabin when you are camping. The body work is also revamped and has a generally more modern feel to it 2004 – there was another slight facelift which can be identified by dark panels at the front of the elevating roof. The rear spoiler is integrated into the elevating roof making adding a bike rack much easier.
You can get a 2 litre petrol, a 2.5 litre v6 petrol and 2.5 litre diesel. 2 (model SGL3) or 4 (model SGL5) wheel drive. There are some manual gearboxes but most are automatic. However, as all Bongo’s are secondhand and imported you may not be able to get exactly what you want, even if you import one yourself. They stopped being made in 2005 so good examples are getting harder to find – depending on your budget. 2 litre petrol – economical but underpowered. 2.5 liter v6 – thirsty but has lots of power. 2.5 turbo diesel – economical and powerful, the one to go for if you can. LPG conversions on petrol engines. This will set you back around £1200 but the views vary on the long term performance and reliability. Also, don’t forget, if you have the LPG you wont be allowed through the channel tunnel. Finally. A Ford Freda is also a Mazda Bongo with a different badge. It’s the same!
Driving the Bongo
- The Bongo is very easy to drive and use as a day to day vehicle.
- It handles and drives like a car rather than a van, very smooth and parking is a cinch with the handy mirror on the back and the parking sensors. It is no bigger than an average estate car and no wider!
- It will fit easily into normal parking bays and down narrow country lanes.
- The only thing to watch out for is the height. The height of a Bongo with an AFT is 2.1m, too tall for some car park barriers!