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Vans and their cab chassis spinoffs are big business for Europe’s major vehicle makers. Volkswagen Commercial is the perfect example, evidenced by the brand new Crafter.
It’s no longer built by Daimler AG and twinned with the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter as the old one was. Instead, VW dropped a lazy 10 billion euros developing a brand new model made entirely in-house, at a purpose-built plant in Poland with 3000 new workers.
Companies don’t spend the equivalent of a small nation’s GDP on a new product unless they’re sure of recouping it. Naturally, the new Crafter needs to be a big step up, especially when competition is so tough – the new Sprinter being an obvious case in point.
The old Crafter ended up a rear-wheel-drive (RWD) van with manual gearbox only, and was oft-outgunned against the Sprinter – used locally by paramedics and postal services en masse – and Ford Transit Heavy, Renault Master, Fiat Ducato and co.
But signs are strong that this will change. All up, there’ll be a whopping 59 variants in total, with various drivelines, wheelbases and roof heights, and body styles from normal vans to light trucks and buses. More importantly, there’s now an automatic option – a version of the Amarok’s ZF eight-speeder with torque converter.
About 70 per cent of today’s van buyers want autos, and without this option you’re increasingly chum in the water.
The rollout is being staggered in Australia, a result of homologation headaches and supply. The base ‘Runner’ TDI340 model is here, as is the more powerful Crafter TDI410. Order books are also open for the other variations ahead of an early 2019 arrival time.
To sum up the range in a nutshell a little more briefly than we have done in our pricing and specs story: The Crafter van comes in medium wheelbase (MWB), long wheelbase (LWB) and LWB with extra rear overhang variations, the latter two getting a higher roof than the former. The cargo space lengths vary between 3450mm and 4855mm, and all are 1832mm wide (1380mm between the arches). For reference, a Toyota Corolla is 4300 x 1760mm.
On top of this there are single and dual-cab light trucks, the former available with a 4300mm long and 2040mm wide tray and payloads of between 1.5t and 2.4t (that latter if you have dual-rear tyres), and the latter with a seven-seat cabin, three in the front and four at the rear – hardly sufficient for four portly tradies, we'd add.
VW Australia’s 107-site dealer network will also ally with local builders to create various purpose-built vans and trucks with full factory warranty cover, a database of aftermarket reputable organisations that also do coach and custom builds. So you can get nearly anything you want, really.
Significantly, the Crafter van and cab chassis' now come with front-wheel drive to lower the floor by 100mm (no propshaft), dual-tyred RWD to carry heavier loads, and a 4Motion all-wheel drive system (AWD) with Haldex coupling and an optionally available mechanical locking rear diff. At $4500 extra, this AWD is something of a bargain in its segment.
There are two 2.0-litre turbo-diesel engine offerings, the TDI340 and TDI410, mounted transversely (FWD) or longitudinally (RWD). Both are EU6 compliant and come from VW’s new ‘EA288 Commercial’ family. There’s an AdBlue treatment tank ahead of the DPF.
The base unit makes 103kW at 3500rpm and 340Nm at 2000rpm, while the higher grade unit makes 130kW at 3600rpm and 410Nm at 2000rpm. Each tows up to 2.5 tonnes (braked), contingent on GCM.
Now, there's clearly a market in Australia for larger-displacement engines – the MB Sprinter six-pot is evidence of this – but to VW's defence the TDI410 in particular stacks up very well next to the Master's 2.3L and Transit's 2.2L, plus the new Sprinter's 2.1L with a maximum 130kW/400Nm.
While the base transmission is a six-speed manual, there’s that new eight-speed automatic with torque converter available across the board – it’s not a DSG, or a slurring AMT.
We only drove the TDI410 versions, but with both gearboxes. The van we steered had 500kg aboard, and the cab chassis was empty. It felt sufficiently muscular off the line, had a particularly unobtrusive stop/start system and the 8AT's plethora of ratios means extra highway refinement in particular. As we found with the new Sprinter, the Crafter's 2.3 is extremely quiet and largely vibration-free at idle as well.
We're particularly curious about the 4Motion versions which, for that $4500 impost, are sure to prove popular.
All versions have 75L fuel tanks, 303mm/300mm ventilated disc brakes front/rear, and MacPherson front/leaf rear suspension setups. What was particularly noticeable was how quickly the unladen cab chassis settled after speed bumps. No pogo-ing... The electric-assisted steering is also light enough to twirl with a finger, not that you should.
The overhauled cabin was subject to more focus groups and other types of buyer research than you can poke a stick at, with VW making special mention of all the little hidey-holes for your smartphone, bottles, laptops, mugs, gloves, tools and package scanner, just to name a few.
There are deep storage areas running along the dash, atop the dash and in the roof, and two separate bins in the doors. The passenger seat base flips up to reveal a big cubby, and the middle front seat turns into a work bench.
The standard seats get fore/aft and height adjust plus electric lumbar supports and moving armrests, but you can also option special ergoActive seats with more cushioning for shocks, plus a massage function.
In typical van style, you sit up very high, with a commanding road view unimpeded by the slim pillars. There are also two-stage side mirrors, the lower portion angled downwards for kerbside parking. The only real downside is the fact the infotainment doesn't equal the Sprinter's MBUX, which is a near-flawless benchmark.
All versions have a windowed partition between the cabin and loading area, which in the van is accessed by rear barn doors (opening up to 270 degrees) and either single- or dual sliding side doors depending on what you option. There are 10-14 lashing rings and 2 x 12V sockets back there, and you can get universal fastening rails in the floor.
Standard equipment includes an 8.0-inch touchscreen with big reversing camera display, and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto (onboard sat-nav is an option), cruise control/speed-limiter, rubber floors, A/C with pollen filter, LED reading lights, halogen headlights and a full-size spare.
Safety tech includes front and side curtain airbags for first-row occupants (sorry, dual-cab-chassis buyers with rear occupants), crosswind assist built into the traction control, autonomous emergency braking, front/rear parking sensors and a driver fatigue warning.
Volkswagen will sell you active cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, lane assist, rear cross-traffic alert, electric folding mirrors, auto headlights and DAB+. There are four solid paint colours (white, orange, red and blue), metallic silver and grey, and pearlescent black.
Naturally there are various tougher suspension upgrades available to boost GCM, and various cargo area configurations you can get, notably heavy-duty universal loading rails and matting. You can also get a second battery with cutoff relay/alternator.
From an ownership perspective, you get 20,000km servicing intervals and a three-year warranty that makes up for its modest term length by having no kilometre ceiling.
At the same time, the value equation cannot compete against older rivals like the Renault Master, though VW claims it'll have better resale value and guaranteed future value.
The cheapest Crafter you can buy is the manual MWB Runner at $48,490, climbing to $71,490 for the 7m long monster with RWD and six tyres. The single cab chassis varies between $48,290 and $61,290, while the dual cab varies from $51,790 to $64,790.
We're going to bring you a lot more detail on each Crafter once we start getting them through our garages, though on first impression it's clear that it's an exceptionally comfortable, safe and configurable line-up of workhorses. If you want it, VW Commercial probably builds it...