Practical Motorhome's experts review the Wellhouse Leisure Mazda Bongo Friendee

Overview

The Bongo Friendee is the most oddly named ’van in Britain. It is a grey import, never having been sold outside Japan where it was made until 2000 (so, any model you buy will be used).

Most Bongos are automatics. The reason these diminutive vehicles have flooded the British market in recent years is that they convert to well-specified, affordable campers at a lower price than VW-based alternatives. The 1996 model we tested has a full camper conversion from Wellhouse Leisure, which adds £4500 to the price. So despite the vehicle itself being a used model, the conversion is brand new. Given its size, it is best to think of the Bongo as an MPV that can double as a camper – in fact, in its pre-converted state it’s a six-seater with two rows of seats that fold down to make a bed. Several UK converters offer differing floorplans, although some buyers prefer to keep the original seats. We recommend joining the owners club, if only for the access to useful parts and services information it provides: go to the website at www.bongofury.co.uk.

Plus: See our Mazda Bongo Friendee Buyer's Guide:

http://www.practicalmotorhome.com/advice/mazda-bongo-camper-buyers-guide

Design

As the numbers on the road show, this cheerful looking camper is fast becoming a cult vehicle. The fun-looking graphics and cryptic Anglo-Japanese phrases – such as ‘auto free top’, which refers to the elevating roof – all add to the charm.
Wellhouse’s conversion – our vehicle sported one of several optional colour schemes – is fresh and unfussy, and the use of Vöhringer marine plywood throughout the interior makes for durable furniture.
The only issue that really needs to be addressed is the fixing for the bench seat base cushion, which has a tendency to ‘submarine’.
The elevating roof is a fine piece of engineering. It raises and lowers electrically (often to the amusement of other campers) and was designed and built by Mazda as original equipment. Despite the fact that all Bongos are six years old or more, there are rarely problems with the roof mechanism, or the electric side window blinds.

On the road

This Bongo is a ten-year old vehicle and although its 2.5-litre turbo-diesel power plant is still in use on some Ford pick-ups, it’s not as smooth or powerful as today’s common-rail diesel engines. Nonetheless, power and torque are ample for all conditions, from motorway cruising at 70mpg to hill climbing.
Where the Bongo really comes into its own is during urban driving. Its narrow track width and minimal overhang make it easy to weave through traffic and manoeuvring is a cinch thanks to the rear parking mirror which is angled down towards the bumper.
However, in combination with the comparative height of the vehicle, its narrow track does affect stability so cornering at speed is not a wise idea.
The darkened-glass rear windows are a bonus on site, providing privacy and a deterrent to casual thieves but visibility is limited on the road at night.
Many Bongos come with four-wheel drive but ours is a two-wheel drive version. Nonetheless, we were unable to achieve the fuel economy figures that many owners quote: 30mpg if you drive at 60mph. Generally, we achieved only 24mpg overall (22mpg during urban use). We found that the Mazda’s responsive automatic gearbox increases fuel consumption noticeably if you hurry things along.
Cab comfort is good, thanks to electric windows and air conditioning. There are two three-point seat belts on the rear bench seat, too.
Our Wellhouse conversion has a Webasto diesel-fuelled space heater in place of an air conditioning unit for rear passengers. It’s a worthwhile feature for families who want a vehicle for daily use, in addition to camping trips.
The Bongo is a mid-engined vehicle, which probably gives rise to our main complaint that on long trips the floor of the conversion becomes warm, the heat generated by the workings beneath.

Lounging & dining

The bench seat is sufficiently comfortable for two to be able to sit there and read but we missed being able to make use of swivelling cab seats.
The single-leg table is fine to use when drinking a cup of tea or eating a snack but with the limited dimensions of the Bongo’s interior, main meals can prove tricky.

Kitchen

The cooking area is basic: two burners and only cold water. However, there is just enough room to make tea and toast, or perform other basic culinary operations.
The wooden hob and sink covers are sturdy enough to use as a worktop but the cooker’s cover restricts the use of larger pans. There’s a cupboard under the sink, but no cutlery drawer.
The Waeco 40-litre compressor refrigerator is a practical piece of kit. It runs on battery power so the contents of the fridge and its tiny freezer section are not at risk of becoming warm, even if the vehicle is parked away from a hook-up for several hours.

Sleeping

The bench seat bed is comfortable but short. Instead, providing you can climb up there, the roof bed is by far the best option, with lots of headroom and a zip-around half-height flyscreen for ventilation. Its only failing is that the mattress is thin, so we would recommend fitting a new one or using some kind of camping mat, or bed foam that has been designed specifically for use on made-up seat beds.

Washroom

Here is the reason why camper owners need to stay at campsites: the Bongo’s only sanitary provision is a manual-flush Thetford Porta Potti. It is better than a ‘bucket and chuck it’, but only just.

Storage

The classic VW camper-type floorplan allows for a small rear boot from where you also have access to the gas cylinder.
There’s a small, offside, corner wardrobe, a hinged flap opening into the seat base and a double under-sink cupboard, with a locker at the rear. Wellhouse can also fit lockers above the kitchen.

Technical specs

Sleeps4
Travel seats4
MTPLM2400kg
Payload560kg
Length4.58m15′
Width1.69m5′7″
Height2.09m6′10″
Waste water27L
Kitchen Equipment
Waeco Compressor Fridge, 2-burner gas hob
Heating
Webasto space heater

Verdict

Let’s put this into context: this is a ten-year old vehicle with a new conversion. It’s one of the smallest campers on the market, but offers a lot more than a similarly priced Volkswagen. Overall, this quirky Japanese import combines the benefit of a driveable day vehicle with all the facilities of a basic camper. It does this with some style and better levels of specification than you could expect from European campers of equivalent age.

Conclusion

Pros

  • Quirky styling
  • Good-quality conversion
  • Electric elevating roof

Cons

  • Short, thin mattress
  • Fuel economy
  • Dated engine
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