Car reviews - Volkswagen - Transporter - range
More car-like cabin, dignified design, massive choice, gutsy diesels, promising economy, easy to manoeuvre, unimpeachable heritage
Room for improvement
Firm ride, ageing feel, facelift not different enough from before, not as much fun to drive as some rivals
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16 Dec 2015
VOLKSWAGEN’S form in vans and people-movers is the stuff of 20th Century legend. From 1950s German holidaymaker kitsch, through to seminal 1960s Flower Power, and then on to ‘70s and ‘80s workhorses, the brand’s commercial-vehicle offering has come to mean a whole lot more than just a box on wheels.
The switch to front-drive in the early ‘90s coincided with blockier and less evocative design (it’s like Wolfsburg’s stylists were inspired by the chunks of Berlin Wall littering the famous city’s streets for the rather charmless T4 of 1991), but what that meant was a more serious proposition that also spelled no-nonsense quality, safety and practicality. It’s when the lovable Kombi rogue turned into the Transporter workhorse.
The latter characteristics carried through to the T5 generation released in 2004, and then evolved and honed even further with the not-so-all-new T6 just released in Australia.
If you’re struggling to tell it apart from its bookishly handsome predecessor, don’t worry – even Volkswagen management admit that the styling evolution has moved with the pace of continental drift. And underneath it all is pretty much exactly the same vehicle that has served for over a decade now.
Inside, happily, things have progressed quite a lot more, thanks to a more contemporary and less utilitarian dashboard than what went before. Car-like multimedia and Bluetooth connectivity/streaming systems are the biggest news, while any Golf owner should recognise the classy instruments and some of the switchgear.
Better still, if your pockets are deep enough, the more upmarket T6s bring active safety to a new level in this class of van, due to the availability of adaptive cruise control, autonomous emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, reversing camera, and Multi Collision Braking systems. It’s a long way from those spartan T2 Kombis many of us were stuffed in as kids.
For the first time, people who choose the Multivan also score a fascia that is further removed from the hired-help van, with a host of little extras that are designed to lift the ambience that little bit more above the tradie’s office-on-wheels.
Properly comfortable seating – even in the third row – raise questions over why more people don’t consider a people-mover like this over often pricier and inefficiently packaged SUVs. And that’s before considering how much extra luggage capacity there is in a T6.
However, there is no escaping the commercial vehicle-like driving position and hard plastic (though hardwearing) surfaces. No amount of glossy sheen can hide the blue-collar roots. Don’t forget that the top-line Multivan TDI450 Executive breaches the $80K barrier.
From a performance point of view, the uprated 2.0-litre four-pot TDI turbo-diesels – sampled in smooth TDI340, gutsy TDI400, and rip-snorting TDI450 guises – are right up there with competitors’ powertrains, especially considering how well they all mate with the seven-speed DSG dual-clutch transmissions.
Helped out by a Hill-Hold feature, there is very little lag, and plenty of instant forward thrust, to keep up with the ins and outs of inner-urban driving. We can say that with confidence, since the T6 launch had us doing many laps of the inner-Sydney CBD, complete a sizeable pallet of cargo designed to simulate the real-world delivery scenarios these vehicles operate in on a daily basis.
However, where the Transporter as a van does lag behind the best of its rivals (Transit and Trafic) is in ride comfort and handling finesse both the Ford and Renault feel more alive behind the wheel, making the A-to-B schlep a fun and involving experience. That the suspension in the VW lacks the cushy refinement of the others is a disappointment. In fact, it is in the overall driving – strong engine range excepted – where the T6 is feeling a bit long in the tooth.
Yet, with such a bewildering choice of versions – there’s almost 20 to choose from at launch – most buyers of medium vans like this will appreciate the scope on offer anyway, while overlooking the commercial vehicle-related shortfalls in terms of ambience and driving pleasure.
And that’s what the market for the latest Transporter and Multivan is – sensible folk who realise that a big, safe, powerful, refined, and practical box on wheels makes a whole lot more sense than the respective pick-up truck or cramped seven-seater crossover alternatives.
Since the Trafic and Transit don’t even bother offering an automatic, the new T6 already has the upper hand despite feeling its age in terms of design and dynamic finesse. Volkswagen has clearly done its homework, then, updating what has long been regarded as one of the better commercial vehicle options.
It’s ironic, then, that the latest Transporter appeals to your sensible head, rather than your hippy heart in the way that its ancestors would have.
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