Volkswagen's Caravelle might look like a straightforward sort of vehicle but it's almost unique in today's market. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
The commercial vehicle origins of the Volkswagen Caravelle endow it with more interior space than most large MPVs but it masks its links to the Transporter van very well inside where quality is high. With ample space for seven adults and luggage, strong common-rail diesel engines and a classy feel, there isn't much else that can do what a Caravelle can.
What is the Volkswagen Caravelle? It's a good question. Based on the Volkswagen Transporter panel van and sold through Volkswagen Van Centres, one perfectly reasonable assumption would be that it's a van. It's got seven seats, though, so you could also finger it as a minibus. Then you'd clamber inside and see that those seats slide, fold and rotate. Could the Caravelle be an MPV? It could be but with those arm-chair style seats and the superior materials in the range-topping models, it's quite upmarket for the kids. Maybe it's an executive limousine. Let's stop this. What we do know for sure is that the Caravelle has been enhanced in its latest facelifted guise and it looks just as versatile and difficult to pin down as ever.
There are no prizes for guessing that this vehicle has its origins in the van sector. It looks identical to the Volkswagen T5 Transporter apart from the side windows running its length. Volkswagen offers minibus versions of the Transporter without the plush cabin and adaptable seating system and those vehicles act as the bridge between the highfaluting Caravelle and its more workmanlike relative. It's been around for a while and, from commercial vehicle to mobile office space for the chairman of the board, it's been put to no end of uses but Volkswagen has worked to keep the range fresh and will be hoping that there's plenty of life left in the current models.
When this Caravelle was launched, Volkswagen was still persevering with its direct injection diesel engines. These were robust units with plenty of torque but wouldn't win too many prizes for smoothness or refinement by today's standards. This facelifted Caravelle swapped the old five-cylinder direct injection engines for smaller four-cylinder units which use advanced common-rail injection technology and deliver more power, torque and refinement as a result.
The entry-level 2.0-litre TDI has 138bhp and 340Nm or torque. It can't give a two and a half tonne Caravelle any great turn of pace (the 0-60mph sprint takes 14.2s) but should be relatively untroubled under the weight of the vehicle and its occupants. More lively is the 2.0-litre BiTDI engine which is essentially the same unit with two turbochargers instead of one. Here 178bhp is generated and there's torque of 400Nm. These are big figures for a 2.0-litre diesel engine and the 0-60mph time of 11.4s and 119mph top speed should be as fast as anyone really wants to drive a Caravelle. There's the option of 4MOTION AWD if you want it.
Design and Build
The latest Caravelle shares its nose with Volkswagen passenger cars like the Golf and Polo. The headlights and grille merge within a single bar running across the front end, with the grille section split by chrome slats. There's another chrome separator in the air intake that's been carved into the bumper and the wing mirrors are of a more aerodynamic design but although neat, tidy and inoffensive, the look of the vehicle is not going to turn anyone weak at the knees.
All the excitement is inside. At 4,892mm long and 1,904mm wide in short wheelbase form, the Caravelle was never going to be anything but roomy. The seating layout is comprised of two arm-chairs in the front and two more behind with a three-seater bench in the back row. Unlike many seven-seater MPVs, there's also a usable luggage area behind the third row and it can be made more usable by sliding the rear bench forward on its runners. The front and second row seating is also mounted on a system of runners in the Caravelle's floor so these chairs can be moved around to tweak the layout. The front seats can even be rotated 180 degrees to face backwards, creating a kind of living room layout around the multi-function table that's mounted on its own rail in the centre of the cabin. If you get tired, the back seats fold down into a bed.
Adaptability is not in short supply then, but how well does it all work? It's theoretically possible to lift all of the furniture out of the Caravelle but you'll need biceps the size of breadbins: it's not light. Sliding the chairs around is quite straightforward, although you might need to think ahead before embarking on a rearrangement as the multi-function table can get in the way. The build quality impresses and even in standard trim, the Caravelle doesn't feel like a commercial vehicle. The switchgear and instruments will be familiar to VW passenger car owners and there's an abundance of storage options around the vehicle.
Market and Model
Caravelle customers have a lot of decisions to make when it comes to specifying their vehicle. Both of the engines come with six-speed gearboxes as standard but they can be specified with Volkswagen's 7-speed DSG twin-clutch system that allows manual or automatic shifting. The BiTDI engine can also come with the 4MOTION all-wheel-drive system. Then there are the short and long wheelbase bodystyles, with the longer model adding 400mm to the Caravelle's length. There's even a California model based on the Caravelle that amounts to a full motorhome conversion.
The trim level range extends from the basic spec which is hardly austere to SE and then Executive models. The SE is basically just air-conditioning and alloy wheels but the Executive spec really goes to town on the Caravelle. It adds full leather trim, cruise control, heated front seats, electric sliding side doors, speed sensitive power steering and a climate control system with separate controls for the rear seat occupants.
Predictably, no Caravelle is what you could call cheap with even the base spec well over £35,000. This will limit its appeal for family buyers but there's little to match its combination of opulence and space outside of the similarly priced Mercedes-Benz Viano models, so there may still be some takers. The Executive model has obvious appeal for companies needing to transport personnel over long distances in comfort and with all the bells and whistles. At the top of the range is the leather-lined limousine Business version, offered with manual or auto transmission with the BiTDI engine. These variants still come in at under £70,000, less than a banker's Christmas bonus.
Cost of Ownership
The 2.0-litre diesel engines powering the Caravelle have a weighty role to fill but they still turn in reasonable economy figures. The twin-turbo BiTDI engine is actually a little more efficient than its junior sibling, with 37.2mpg on the combined cycle compared to 36.7mpg for the 138bhp TDI. Emissions of CO2 are measured at 199g/km for the BiTDI and 203g/km for the TDI.
Whether you see it as a posh minibus, an executive MPV or some kind of lifestyle vehicle in the mould of VWs classic Camper vans, the Volkswagen Caravelle's unique selling point is space. There just aren't many vehicles that can seat seven in this kind of comfort and take a significant amount of luggage along for the ride. The pricing will deter some but buyers are getting a big hunk of vehicle for their money and there aren't too many alternatives with similar qualities.