If you need to move plenty of people for not a lot of cash, the 2016 Volkswagen Caravelle could be the bus for you.
Bus? Well, not quite, but with nine seats as standard, this isn’t a small vehicle – inside or out.
Being a goods van that has been purposed with the task of also being a people mover isn’t a new idea: in fact, the VW Kombi was the first vehicle to do it when it first rolled off the production line in 1950, so there’s some heritage here.
And it’s affordable, too: with the Caravelle only coming in one specification priced from $50,990 plus on-road costs, which is $1000 more than it cost if you bought one earlier this year (it was $49,990 until recently, when a minor upgrade was rolled out). Still, the 2016 model offers the best value for money it has since way back in 2004 (and it was only a little bit cheaper and not as well appointed then!) and it’s more than 10 per cent cheaper than models that have preceded it.
There are cheaper vans out there – you could consider a Hyundai iMax or LDV G10 People Mover if you’re on a tighter budget – but the Caravelle is the most wallet-friendly way to get into a European people-mover.
Keeping you connected is Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, operated by a 5.0-inch colour touchscreen media system. It has an eight-speaker stereo, too.
The VW can be optioned up to a 6.3-inch unit with the brand’s App-Connect system to mirror your smartphone on the screen. This would be a great upgrade for potential purchasers, but it’s pricey at $1190 and still relies on your phone data for mapping. If you want satellite navigation built in with the App-Connect system, that’ll cost you $2190.
While the menus are simple and the resolution of the standard screen isn’t great, the phone connectivity and intuitive menu systems were simple. We had zero issues connecting multiple smartphones via Bluetooth and USB, too. And according to our crew of (non-expert) expert audio testers, the VW offered up pretty decent sound quality in the front and the rear.
Also up front is a driver information screen with a digital speedometer and detailed trip computer, while there’s also dual-zone climate control for those up front, and a third controller for temperature and ventilation in the rear. The back seats have vents and lighting to keep things light and airy back there.
On that topic, the VW has a four-row layout, with two seats up front, two in the second row, two in the third row and three in the fourth row. They can be configured so that you can walk from the side door to the rear through what is, for want of a better term, a hallway.
You can configure the second and third row seats to one side if required, though to maintain the best balance and wear on tyres and suspension, we maintained the better-balanced standard layout: the second row was on the driver’s side, the third row on the kerb side, and the back row was three across. Still with a hallway, but more like an S-shaped walkway.
But the fact you can move the seats around is a positive, and you can remove them too if you need to – just ask a mate to help. They can’t be slid fore and aft, however, so quick adjustments are non-existent
The seats are quite flat, and the VW doesn’t necessarily offer occupants more space than some competitors. The fourth row was said to be “a bit claustrophobic” by some backseat bandits, though those critics also loved the fact they could see plenty out of the large side windows of the VW.
For haulers of younger whingers people, the VW has four top-tether points (in the second and third rows), and four ISOFIX attachments, too.
Storage in the cabin isn’t terrific, particularly in the back, where there are no cup holders at all. Up front it has a single dashtop folder holder and cup-holders on top of the dash, and its front door pockets offer excellent space for bottles and lots of other odds and ends. The lack of centre armrests for the front-seat occupants was a bit annoying.
Access to the rear cabin is by way of dual side sliding doors, manually operated – and while the doors are light enough, you can option dual side sliders if you so desire ($2680, including electronically latching tailgate). The tailgate is large and hard to open in confined spaces and it isn’t electric, and nor can it be optioned as such. The tailgate may be difficult to shut for shorter people, too.
The boot area is quite shallow with the VW configured for people rather than parcels, and while you can slide luggage under the rear row of seating, to have a properly large boot you’d need to remove/shift the rear row of seats. The Caravelle can hold a maximum of 6700 litres of cargo with all the rear seats removed, and there are sturdy luggage tie-down points if you need them.
As for occupant safety, there’s a big omission on the part of Volkswagen – it misses out on potentially life-saving curtain airbags, which is something that could rule it out for some buyers. It has dual front airbags and dual front-side airbags as standard, though.
It has a rear-view camera and rear parking sensors, but on our test vehicle the camera was buggy, showing an optical display of the sensors unless you hit a button on the touchscreen every time you engaged reverse.
The Caravelle’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel engine has 103kW of power and 340Nm of torque, which doesn’t seem a lot for a van that measures 5304 millimetres long!
But it has a kerb weight of just 1857 kilograms, which is very light for the size of the thing, meaning that it doesn’t struggle for grunt. There’s adequate torque on offer with eight bodies on board, and when it’s empty there is heaps of grunt.
The VW’s front-wheel-drive underpinnings can be a little clumsy, with its seven-speed dual-clutch automatic (DSG) gearbox, exhibiting some wheelspin under both hard and mid-strength acceleration from a standstill. There was also take-off lag that can be exacerbated by the turbo diesel engine’s lag below about 2000rpm, and there was some torque steer, where the steering wheel jerks to the side under throttle.
That transmission can be also eager to downshift when braking, and it also has a coasting feature so the gearbox disengages when you're cruising on the street or downhill and take your foot off the accelerator. On the whole it offers very smooth shifts at speed.
On paper, the Caravelle claims fuel use of 7.7 litres per 100 kilometres, and on test it returned 8.7L/100km, including plenty of highway miles with bodies on board.
The VW’s suspension is on the firm side, but the advantage is that it has good body control after a bump. When empty it was a bit rigid with good big bump absorption, while with a load of people on board it was notably stiffer, but not to the point of being uncomfortable. It rides on 16-inch steelies with forgiving plastic hubcaps.
Its steering is natural feeling while being a bit heavy at low speeds, and its big turning circle means simple U-turns can require a three-point turn, but thankfully the vision from the driver’s seat is excellent. The braking performance was a little grabby at first, but strong when empty or full.
The VW comes with a three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty, and a six-year/90,000km capped-price service program. Maintenance is due every 12 months or 15,000km, whichever occurs first, with an average cost of $605 per visit, and that’s before you include some additional filter costs and brake fluid.
The 2016 Volkswagen Caravelle offers a brilliant amount of people-moving real estate for the money, but feels built to a price as a result – that lack of airbags could prove unforgivable for some, but if you can deal with that, this is a great people-moving option.
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