Car reviews - Volkswagen - Caddy - Life people-mover range
Space, TDI power and economy, pleasant dynamics, Euro styling, versatile cabin, affordability, ESP availability
Room for improvement
1.6’s lacklustre performance, all-too-obvious van origins inside, left-hand drive-centric third-row access
30 May 2006
DRIVING through unfamiliar surrounds in the foreboding dark of a cold winter’s evening, the Caddy Life brings warm feelings of security and familiarity reminiscent of today’s Golf.
It isn’t just in the VW’s trademark blue instrumentation lighting, quality plastics, sensibly located controls, solid dashboard, firm but accommodating seating and European ambience that shine through in the dark either.
As long as you don’t have to turn your head more than about 35 degrees, that is.
If you do then the Caddy Life’s commercial vehicle heritage – manifesting as unpainted body trim, a high ceiling, and stacks of space behind you – gives it a utilitarian identity all its own.
A better look betrays the Caddy’s van origins even more, with sliding side doors complete with ugly sliding windows, ‘theatre style’ raised seating and cardboard-like ceiling trim with surprisingly rough finishes.
Plus, at freeway speeds, the huge exterior van mirrors whoosh as air rushes past them while the VW’s almost 1.9-metre height is made apparent in crosswinds.
Happily the Golf feeling resumes once the driver pushes on with eyes back on the road, via the weighty and tactile steering feel, and springy five-speed manual gearbox in the base 1.6 or responsive DSG Tiptronic automatic gearbox of the 1.9 TDI.
The latter is the only engine to have, since, as a 250Nm turbo-diesel, it is endowed with enough get-up-and-go to haul the heft of a septet of passengers with more ease.
As with the similarly motivated Golf, the 77kW TDI cruises pleasantly if somewhat vocally, and responds with just as much conviction to added accelerator pedal pressure.
In contrast the 75kW/148Nm 1.6-litre petrol engine seems unsuited to this application, since GoAuto struggled to keep it in convoy with an enthusiastically driven TDI over hilly roads – and with only one occupant on board as well. Never mind the six other souls (and with the air-conditioning switched on) this VW is designed to lug around.
We would imagine that the smaller-engined Caddy Life would only feel adequate in inner-urban driving situations with no call for overtaking or high-speed cruising abilities. At least it isn’t as loud as the TDI when you are wringing every last kiloWatt out of it.
Both models are entertaining to drive when the roads become more interesting, with wieldy handling and grippy roadholding abilities despite the van-derived leaf spring rear suspension (the same set-up you will find in a Ford Falcon wagon, in fact).
The brakes certainly feel up to the task, the ride is impressively compliant over a variety of conditions and there is none of the drum-like boom that some tall-bodied van-derived vehicles suffer from.
Owing to the Caddy Life’s height and body shape, there is probably more passenger space inside than its diminutive proportions suggest.
The front occupants may be sitting only as high as in a normal Golf, but the TDI’s standard seat adjuster, combined with the fairly vast expanse of glass, result in a comfortable and commanding driving position.
Middle-row seat comfort is easily the equal of many wider SUV wagons, with the feeling of spaciousness boosted by the deep windows and high ceiling.
Access to the third row is easy due to the large aperture the sliding doors leave.
However, having a left-hand drive-biased 66:33 split/fold centre-row seat dictates that the ‘66’ seat portion people have to get out and tip their seats forward instead of the single ‘33’ person if the safer kerbside sliding door is used.
Once sited in the rearmost row even average-sized adults should find that there is adequate room for heads, shoulders and legs, aided by the upright seating configuration.
Potential buyers should also realise how voluminous the cargo area can get once the (heavy) third-row seats are removed and middle ones folded down.
Now all this is great news for people who require up to seven seats for carting kids around, but who do not want to be reminded of the inescapable compromises they have to make as a result.
The Caddy Life’s relative compactness is its biggest weapon if you don’t need a bulky van.
However, the 1.6 is simply not powerful enough, and lacks the desirable cruise control, seat height adjustment, trip computer and under-seat drawers that the better-equipped TDI includes for its $4000 premium.
Furthermore the TDI uses less fuel, feels far more powerful, and should prove easier to on-sell.
Plus it costs less – and is far less thirsty – than rival V6 people-movers, and doesn’t suffer a performance penalty either.
VW says that since Kia Carnivals are mostly used for driving children around, the unique Caddy Life is more than capable of stepping into its role.
Even putting aside the VW’s European style and Golf-like safety and refinement, people seeking a frugal and efficient seven-seater people-mover for under $40,000 are no longer left in the dark.
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