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Car reviews - Volkswagen - Transporter - range

Our Opinion

We like
Diesel engine choices, slick gearboxes, pleasing dynamics, usual VW van virtues, cheaper prices, more safety, better refinement
Room for improvement
Exterior handsome but ageing, road noise intrusion

17 Mar 2010

WHO’S the daddy of all vans?

With an impressive 60 years of experience behind it, Volkswagen’s famous workhorse – be it the Transporter van/cab chassis or Multivan/Caravelle people-mover – is about as evolved as it can get.

The latest version – the T5 GP series of 2010, itself a facelift of the 2003 fifth-generation Transporter – has hundreds of special details, big and small, that seem as natural and organic as anything Charles Darwin might have observed in nature.

Trial and error has led to this large, boxy body that is easy to get stuff in and out of, thanks to large apertures, and precisely placed grab handles, hooks and tie rings. Doors open and shut with a solid thud, while the room on offer is maximised to be as spacious and practical as possible.

These were our thoughts back when the T4 Transporter lobbed in during 1994, and the same is true today.

But the difference between that previous-generation VW van – as well as the outgoing T5 Series 1 – and the newcomer is that the Germans have completely re-engineered the drivetrain, essentially for the first time since what we used to know as the Kombi (or Combi) swapped its rear-engine/rear-drive layout for today’s front-drive transverse engine configuration in the early 1990s.

In a way then, while the physical changes appear minor at first glance (in fact almost everything forward of the B-pillar is new), you could say that the heart and mind of the T5 – rather than the body – has undergone a significant evolution. So to the driver’s seat we go.

Actually, we should add that we prefer the cleaner look of the earlier T5 (and lament the passing of that model’s front bumper step that allowed for easy cleaning of the vast windscreen), but the GP series is still a handsome brute – as far as vans go anyway … boxy Teutonic charm at its best.

Anyway, the changes to the dash are welcome. While the new fascia does not pretend to be “car like” visually (and works better as a result since everything is angled for maximum ergonomic use), the attention to detail is lovely (better than a Tiguan’s, surprisingly), with high-quality materials, pleasing aesthetics and a real focus on functionality. Well done, VW.

Firm and supportive seats, high-mounted gear lever, a tilt and telescope steering wheel and (on most models) a height-adjustable driver’s pew should help most people find a comfy and commanding position of control to which they can work from.

Speaking of workplaces, VW now fits better brakes, ESC stability control, anti-rollover technology, and the availability of more airbags, to make the T5 models among the safest commercial vehicles you can buy – although whether it betters the five-star Mercedes vans with their latest airbag devices remains to be seen.

Yet it is the turning of the key that reveals the wheels of progress in motion most, since VW has thrown out all the dirty old engines (and most gearboxes) for shiny new items that elevate the T5 to the top of its tree.

And despite having quite different driveability characteristics, only the one, 2.0-litre common-rail direct-injection turbocharged and intercooled twin-cam 16-valve four-cylinder diesel engine is employed in all T5s (for now – TSI petrol units may come in later), in three quite separate guises. This powerplant usurps the ancient 85kW/200Nm 2.0L petrol, 77kW/250Nm 1.9L TDI, and 128kW/400Nm 2.5L five-pot TDI.

Base model first: the 75 TDI uses a 75kW/250Nm unit mated solely to one of the finest shifting five-speed manual gearboxes you will ever likely find in a commercial application. It’s only available in the base Transporter van, is priced to poach people out of HiAces and iLoads, and delivers a muted and smooth surge of forward thrust that will have you thinking that any other engine would be a waste of money, especially when you look up its low consumption and emissions outputs. What a star!

We drove the SWB 75 TDI van two-up with an empty load, and revelled in the keen roadholding, quick steering and responsive brakes. A good ride and tight turning circle are icing on the cake. Only the expected tyre drone booming from within the empty load area betrayed this VW’s van DNA.

Next up is the 103kW/340Nm 103 TDI: in six-speed manual form the lever is not as slick, and it takes some practice getting used to the tightly spaced gate (we went from second to fifth gear several times), but the extra power would certainly come in handy.

Meanwhile, the DSG ‘auto’ – expected to be the T5 bestseller, and at $40,990 it represents excellent and unique value in the van segment) makes for an easy, eager companion. But we did notice some momentary hesitation when instant step-off acceleration was desired, while that old dual-clutch trannie jerkiness bugbear reared its head from time to time. Yet, as an inner-urban workhorse companion, the DSG is still second-to-none in this class, with an on-the-move response to blow all other auto vans away quick smart.

However, for a really, really great blow-away job, you cannot go past the 136 TDI. With 136kW and 400Nm of torque at your disposal, this is the new hot-hatch-for-van-man (and woman) experience. Just tickling the throttle in either gearbox will have the VW streaking forward with stupendous ease. Keep an eye on that speed too, because this current top-spec T5 engine makes for a deceptively fast point-to-point … err Transporter. And the chassis has no problems handling all that twisting action either. What a blast!

So there you have it – the best driving, most refined, and certainly cleanest and greenest VW vans ever offered in Australia.

Factor in the keener pricing, improved safety and higher levels of personalisation thanks to a big increase in luxury option availability, and it is clear to see where all of VW’s six decade hard work developing the series has led to.

This is one daddy cool Kombi!

Caravelle and Multivan:

Of course, the people mover versions of the T5 GP Series – now all long wheelbase – also benefit from all the improvements that the Transporter range receive.

Similarly, the same driveability attributes apply. But it is worth noting that at $5000 less than the old 2.5L TDI with the six-speed auto, the $49,990 Caravelle 2.0 CR TDI DSG represents quite startling value-for-money if it is a people transfer vehicle you need.

All nine seats are adult sized, adjustable in a variety of ways and comfortable for short-haul transportation and since there are a myriad of vents, handles, storage facilities and opening windows to serve the rear seat occupants, that feeling of being stuck in the back of a delivery van isn’t present either.

Meanwhile, the Multivan builds on the Caravelle with its lounge-like rear seating, available conference table, and long list of other standard and optional features to create a luxury people mover.

Other than a jittery ride for the rearmost occupants who must sit on the back axle, there is little to complain riding in the back of the latest VW buses.

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