Car reviews - Volkswagen - Caravelle - GLS people-mover
Smooth automatic transmission, good visibility
Room for improvement
28 Jun 2001
VOLKSWAGEN - people-mover pioneers since the 1950s Kombi - launched the facelifted Caravelle in 1997.
The former hippy icon has grown older and wiser with its ageing market by coming over all sophisticated. It now features sleeker headlight treatment to distance itself from the lowly Transporter van it is so clearly based on.
Therein lies the Caravelle's biggest hurdle. Against more glamorous rivals like the Honda Odyssey and the Chrysler Voyager the VW competes in a tough market.
It may be one of the biggest but the Caravelle - now almost a decade-old design - is not the most refined, despite the independent suspension and smooth four-speed automatic transmission.
The safety conscious, semi-bonneted front engine layout results in an upright seating position. It gives the driver a sense of being behind the wheel of a bus.
The flip side is good visibility all-round, especially when parking. Another advantage is the "walk-through" cabin, enabling access from the front to the rear-most seats.
The ungainly T-bar automatic shifter is sharply angled toward the driver's seat, requiring a long reach down to operate, while the controls for the standard air-conditioning are equally fiddly and add to the haphazard ergonomics.
The dashboard most obviously betrays the Caravelle's T4-series Transporter heritage. While offering clear and comprehensive instrumentation and car-like heater/ventilation controls, the basic architecture is clearly designed to be hard-wearing and functional. At least it promises to last a long time.
The rear passengers benefit from the boxy buses' light and airy "room with a view" seating arrangements. A huge glass area (with centre windows that slide open) afford class-leading views for all.
Entry to either row of rear seats is through the left-hand side sliding side door, reminding the occupants of the Caravelle's commercial vehicle-based origins.
Every seat in the rear is large enough to accommodate adults in the same level of comfort as the front occupants while still leaving an abundance of luggage space. This is perhaps the Caravelle's biggest advantage over its more stylish competition.
A second air-conditioning system for rear-bound passengers ensures climate-controlled comfort.
On the road, the Caravelle is more driver friendly than its appearance suggests, thanks to its car-derived mechanicals.
Unsuspecting hippies may swear off acid for life if they try to locate the Caravelle's engine in the boot. Today's Kombi-by-any- other name is front-wheel drive and front-engined, and relatively gutsy to boot. A compact, 85kW, 2.5-litre, five-cylinder engine lives under the Caravelle's bonnet.
With the engine's 200Nm of torque available from just 2200rpm, acceleration is brisk. The steering response is good with the tight turning circle tradespersons have come to appreciate in the commercial variants.
The ride is firm but comfortable thanks to the long wheelbase and independent suspension. It soaks up bumpy road surfaces with ease, although body roll through corners is noticeable.
The front-wheel drive configuration, wide track and wheels at each corner layout all contribute to the Caravelle's reassuring stability.
At cruising speeds, noise, vibration and harshness levels are low, although the engine is a little loud when worked hard.
But strong headwinds at high speed really knock the Caravelle's performance potential and lift fuel consumption alarmingly. The big Volkswagen is obviously not the world's most aerodynamic vehicle.
The basic design harks back to 1990 and has held up surprisingly well in the face of curvy and egg-shaped rivals which may date more quickly.
If its boxy, non-conformist utilitarian looks appeal, then the very German Caravelle is still a capable and comfortable mover of people and their gear, and not at all bad to drive.
- Automotive NetWorks 06/05/1999
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