Take a deep breath, because the 2016 Volkswagen Transporter TDI400 LWB Dual Cab Chassis is both a big utility vehicle physically and big in name. For the purposes of our sanity in delivering this review, we’ll refer to it from here as the Volkswagen Transporter - and if you need a dual-cab work for the novel purpose of actually working, then you should definitely be considering this workhorse.
We use the word ‘novel’, because, beyond a gym bag, wet suit or bicycle, you’re unlikely to see a top-spec, four-wheel drive, dual-cab ute actually being used for work these days. Sure, you see them parked at work sites around the place, but they aren’t actually working.
So, let’s take those posers – I mean buyers – out of the equation and concentrate on people who actually need a utility vehicle for work, need to haul some serious weight both in the tray and perhaps on the tow ball, and need the flexibility of proper, second-row seating. If those considerations match your needs, the Volkswagen Transporter is right at the head of the class.
Our test vehicle has the TDI400 engine and seven-speed DSG, which we’ll get to in a minute, and pricing for the model starts from $48,290 plus on-road costs. You can get the exact same front-wheel-drive platform starting from $45,290 (plus on-road costs) with a manual transmission, and there’s also a 4Motion 4WD variant available (six-speed manual only) starting from $48,790. If you really need 4WD, you’ll have to cop the fact there is no auto available - but to get 4WD for only $500 more is pretty good value.
The following options have been added to our test Transporter: metallic paint ($1190), body-coloured bumpers ($750), Interior Comfort Package (including light and sight, comfort package, height adjust for front passenger seat, lumbar support for front passenger seat and armrests for driver and front passengers seats $1550), Load Platform Package (load platform with aluminium sides including mirror braces, retaining cables for load platform tailgate and rear mud flaps $2490), Discover Media Satellite Navigation with App Connect (Discover Media navigation, App Connect and Volkswagen Media Control, SD card for navigation, Cell Phone Interface with WLAN and USB Interface – iPod/iPhone/iPad compatible and auxiliary input $2190).
That takes the price of our Transporter up from $48,290 to a total of $56,490 plus the usual drive-away costs. The king of our recent dual-cab mega-test was the Ford Ranger and, with a 2016 Ford Ranger XLT costing $54,390 plus drive-away costs, you can see how this Volkswagen Transporter starts to make a lot of sense for tradies on the numbers alone. Step up to a Ford Ranger Wildtrak, and the price climbs to $57,890 plus drive-away costs. With the pricing so close, then, the proof will be in the driving – both laden and unladen.
The TDI400 model sits at the top of the Transporter range and, as such, is powered by a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged diesel engine with BlueMotion technology and stop/start. There’s 132kW on offer at 4000rpm, and the ‘400’ in the name comes from the 400Nm available between 1500-2000rpm. The engine is paired to a seven-speed DSG with Tiptronic shifting and the fuel-saving coasting function.
In FWD guise, as tested here, the Transporter uses an ADR-claimed 7.9 litres/100 kilometres on the combined cycle. On test, we used an indicated 9.0L/100km, which is genuinely impressive for a full-sized dual-cab utility with little focus on aerodynamics. We covered under 200km on the highway during our test, with the remainder covered around town. The fuel tank capacity is 80 litres, making for long intervals between fills and excellent touring range.
The Transporter’s suspension is set up to tackle the daily grind with MacPherson struts at the front and a semi-trailing, independent rear axle with coil springs and an anti-roll bar. The fact the Transporter does away with leaf springs at the rear should, in theory at least, make for a more accomplished ride under all conditions. We loaded a pallet with a tonne of bricks into the tray to test the suspension under strain, but more on that soon.
Volkswagen quotes a gross vehicle weight of 3000kg – break that down and you get to the vehicle, which weighs 1719kg, and the payload, which is a maximum of 1281kg. So, we have a proper one-tonne utility here, too, meaning our one-tonne pallet load is up close to the maximum permissible weight. Continuing the Ranger comparison, the Ford in XLT spec weighs in at 2200kg, and has a payload of 1000kg. The VW Transporter will tow 2000kg braked, while the Ranger can haul 3500kg braked.
Back to the subject of payload, the Volkswagen tray is a properly flexible, work-friendly platform with solid tie-downs inside the tray that fold flat, flush down into the load space - meaning if you don’t need them, they won’t be in the way. As you can see in the photos, we used a heavy-duty ratchet strap and put some tension into it too, and the tie-downs didn’t budge or flex.
The non-slip Masonite floor lining in the tray is an incredibly smart addition we wish every work truck featured as standard. The tray measures 1940mm wide, 2170mm long and 390mm deep.
The LWB dual-cab chassis model with the optional alloy tray, as tested here, is 5500mm long and 2300mm wide, including the chunky rear view mirrors. The body of the Transporter is 1994mm wide. Overall height is 1960mm meaning you’ll have to be aware in some tighter, underground carparks. The Ranger is 5351mm long, 1850mm wide (including the mirrors) and 1821mm high.
So, to tidy those numbers up a little, if you’re comparing this Transporter to a conventional dual-cab 4WD utility, it’s 150mm longer, 450mm wider and 140mm taller. The width of the Transporter will be an issue to consider around town – especially in the CBD – but despite appearances, there really isn’t much in it.
The Transporter’s cabin is a reasonable step up from the ground, such is the ride height, but once you’re seated, the commanding view in every direction validates the higher ride height. The seats up front are comfortable and sculpted and have fold-down armrests that work (and don’t get in the way). The pillars aren’t too thick to get in the way of forward visibility, either.
We found the seating position and adjustment on offer suited all CarAdvice testers who spent some time with the Transporter. There’s also the handy ability to walk between the two front seats into the second row if you need to grab something, check on the kids, or escape out of a back door if you parked too close to a column in an underground loading zone. Ask us why we know…
Moving into the second row, the Transporter once again shows its twofold advantage over conventional dual-cab utes - those being copious legroom and comfortable seating for three adults. There’s no doubt that the transporter is a genuine five-seater, which can be used regularly and there’s absolutely no loss of comfort over long distances in that second row either. That remains the fact no matter how tall the front seat passengers are.
The door and roof linings in the second row feel eerily similar to those in my 1963 Single Cab relic that you can see in our photos. That is, they appear to be very much commercial, and very far from luxurious. They will be hard-wearing, though, and resistant to knocks and scrapes. The front part of the cabin – like an Amarok to a degree– feels more car-like than commercial and makes for an all-round more comfortable experience.
Thanks to the optional infotainment pack fitted to our Transporter, it is also well-equipped in the cabin. The Apple CarPlay system works well as we’ve experienced testing other VW models, and the only let down is the positioning of the USB/auxiliary inputs, which are such that you have cables hanging out of the face of the dashboard, getting in the way of the passenger and looking a little messy. There’s plenty of storage available throughout the cabin, useful cup and bottle holders, and a sizeable glovebox to keep things out of sight. You might miss a centre console when it comes to easy storage, but there’s plenty of storage elsewhere to take up the slack – like the useful two-tiered door pockets.
Hit the road, and the engine is immediately impressive. It’s smooth, refined and quieter than you expect, with a hefty slab of mid range torque that makes for effortless driving at any speed. Off the mark, the Transporter has a turn of speed that belies its physical heft, and it continues to pile on speed right up to 110km/h on the freeway. There’s an effortless flexibility to the way the diesel engine performs, you’ll never feel like it’s too small for the task at hand despite weighing in at only 2.0 litres.
A key element in the drive experience is the impressive seven-speed DSG. It makes the best use of the torque on offer across a broad range of engine rpm. The peak 400Nm explains why the engine has little trouble motivating a vehicle the size of the Transporter. We expected the Transporter to be impressive when unladen though, it’s refinement not a surprise. The true test is once you stack some weight into the excellent alloy tray.
As you can see from the photos, we strapped in a 1000kg pallet of landscaping bricks with the formidable tie-downs, and there were two factors that impressed immediately. The first thing we noticed was the way the engine and gearbox continued to work so effortlessly. There was no straining, no sense whatsoever that the diesel had to work hard to get the Transporter (plus the extra weight) up to speed. A short run along a two-lane 80km section of highway illustrated how easily the Transporter would cruise once up to speed too.
The second factor that impressed us even more than the way the engine worked was the ride quality. Utility manufacturers keep banging on about leaf springs, load carrying and durability, and yet the Transporter’s more modern independent rear axle/coil spring arrangement at the rear took to the weight-hauling task with ease. As it had when unladen, the rear end ironed out the bumps on a poor section of back road without raising a sweat.
There was some sag, as you’d expect with 1000kg on board (you can see that in the photos), but nothing that turned the handling to slop, and nothing that made the front end feel light either. The steering maintained its sense of purpose, too - another factor that is often left wanting with more primitive dual-cabs. The Transporter being FWD didn't seem to be an issue either.
So, is the Volkswagen Transporter a genuine alternative to the sea of 4WD dual-cab utility vehicles on the market? If you take as a given the reality that the majority of them will never even see 4WD engaged, then the Transporter is, in fact, a better solution for workers who need their vehicle to work. We’re in no doubt of that. The flexibility of the tray alone almost makes that case.
The Volkswagen Transporter is covered by a three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty as well as Volkswagen Assist - 24 hour roadside assistance. Volkswagen quotes the vehicle as being available with capped-price servicing each calendar year at participating Volkswagen dealers. Contact your local Volkswagen dealer for pricing.
Will that be enough to change the minds of buyers in droves? Probably not, because a 4WD dual-cab is as much a fashion statement for many buyers as it is a workhorse. And if you only need to carry a gym bag or mountain bike, who needs a massive alloy tray anyway? The most sensible decision isn’t always the road most travelled, though, is it? After a week in the CarAdvice garage, the Volkswagen Transporter impressed all who drove it – especially those of us who put it to work.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Christian Barbeitos