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First drive: T5 leads VW’s commercial assault

Transporter triumph: From the impressive ergonomics to all the major controls’ lightness and ease, the T5 is a delight.

Volkswagen wants to set the pace in parcel and people-movers, both big and small

9 Mar 2004

VOLKSWAGEN Group Australia (VWGA) is preparing its largest ever light commercial vehicle onslaught, starting with the release of the new T5 Transporter range.

Thirty T5-series variants will be available by year’s end - in van, people-mover and cab-chassis shapes - offering short or long wheelbase, low, mid or high-roof and petrol or diesel-powered configurations.

The van is the first Transporter for the taking, available from early April. The entry level Kombi and luxury Caravelle people-movers, along with the single and dual-cab-chassis T5 workhorses, follow suit from September.

Next up will be the Caddy, a four-cylinder Golf V-based panel van in the mould of the Holden Combo and Citroen Berlingo.

Meanwhile, the long-awaited Microbus concept, a star of the 2001 Sydney Motor Show, is expected to materialise in six-seater production guise glued onto the T5 chassis sometime in 2006. And finally the next generation LT van will debut in late 2006.

Right now, though, VWGA is concentrating on the vital new T5 range.

But the German-owned distributor is withholding all pricing details right up to the release of each variant.

VWGA general manager of commercial vehicles Phil Clark insisted on the sticker price secrecy at the T5’s media launch, saying he did not want to give his rivals time to devise any counteractive pricing strategies.

But he did promise this: "We will be more than competitive, with more than just a surprise or two up our sleeves".

The T5’s main competition will be the new Fiat Ducato, Mercedes-Benz Vito, Ford Transit and Toyota Hiace SBV.

Like its 1993-2004 T4 predecessor, the larger T5 features a short-bonnet nose that houses an engine and front wheel drive transaxle.

Optional all-wheel drive is expected later in the year.

3 center image Driver enjoyment, occupant space, comfort and refinement levels, and crash protection have risen significantly, a corollary of the T5 being engineered first as a people-mover and then as a van, according to VW.

Yet as a workhorse, the T5’s maximum load space on the long wheelbase van is now up to 9.3 cubic metres, while an extra sliding door can also be ordered as well as the regular hatch or barn-style rear doors.

Subscribing to the evolutionary school of styling are the completely redesigned bodies and cabin, which are purposefully reminiscent of the upcoming Golf V.

And like VW’s vital small car, the T5 sits on an all-new chassis.

Suspension is by MacPherson strut with decoupled subframe and anti roll bars with coupling rods all round. The front struts – along with the engine – are now mounted onto an energy-absorbing subframe for claimed greater refinement and structural rigidity properties.

Powered rack and pinion steering and four-wheel disc brakes are the norm.

All Australian-bound VW petrol engines are EU4 emission compliant. In the T5 they are:
  • 85kW/170Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder (van, Kombi only)
  • 173kW/315Nm 3.2-litre V6 (Caravelle only)
A wider range of turbo-diesel engines is also available:
  • 63kW/200Nm 1.9-litre four-cylinder (not Kombi, Caravelle)
  • 77kW/250Nm 1.9-litre four-cylinder (not Kombi, Caravelle)
  • 96kW/340Nm 2.5-litre five-cylinder (not Caravelle)
  • 128kW/400Nm 2.5-litre five-cylinder
All 2.5s offer a six-speed manual gearbox a six-speed ZF automatic transmission with Tiptronic shift is available on the 2.5 and 3.2 engines, while the 1.9 and 2.0 units are five-speed manual-only propositions.

On the technology front, anti-lock braking with electronic differential lock and anti-spin regulation (ABS, EDL and ASR in VW speak) are standard, along with a driver’s airbag and adjustable steering wheel.

VWGA is also keen to promote the T5’s lower servicing costs. At the model’s launch, the following price examples were issued to the press:
  • T4 2.5 TDI – 120,000km regular scheduled service cost: $1528.00
  • T5 2.5 TDI – 120,000km regular scheduled service cost: $716.00
All Transporters will be sourced from Hanover in Germany, except for the cab chassis variants, which come from VW’s new dedicated commercial vehicle facility in Poland. The latter is also the Caddy’s place of birth.

Despite shrinking sales of mid-priced mid-sized people-movers like the Mazda MPV, VWGA is banking on expanding higher-end segment sales to support a bewildering number of people-carrying T5 variants.

All models include dual front airbags, air-conditioning, a CD player, keyless entry, power windows and electric mirrors.

If you need nine seats, the Kombi Comfortline can oblige. If eight is enough, then the better-equipped Kombi Highline should be fine. Or punters can plonk for the base model Caravelle Shuttle.

Moving further upmarket, the Caravelle Comfortline brings sliding and middle-swivelling chairs, and front-side and rear-curtain airbags to a party of seven.

The more luxurious Caravelle Highline adds traction and stability controls, three-zone air-conditioning, leather trim, a sliding/folding rear table, electric doors and tailgate, satellite navigation and a DVD player.

And new to the segment is the flagship Caravelle Business six-seater model, aimed at the growing VIP office/airport express set.

It adds individual chairs to the formula, along with snazzy trim.

In 2003 VWGA sold a record 1558 new commercial vehicles in Australia. The ageing T4 range tripled its share since the company was formed on January 1, 2001.

And at least 2000 annual sales are earmarked for the commercial vehicle division by 2006, pushed along by the T5 as well as the 400-odd sales predicted for the new Caddy light panel van.

VWGA expects big interest in the powerful 128kW 2.5 TDI models, especially from emergency services operators, people-mover fleet markets and even luxury car buyers needing people and luggage lugging ability.

But sales are expected to remain steady this year due to the model changeover, which usually results in stock shortages.

In the second half of 2005, VWGA is expected to bring in the T5 Motor Home, including the California – a $100,000-plus two-berth luxury version purpose-built by VW in a new German plant.

The T5 comes from a long line of Transporter models first introduced as the air-cooled rear-engine rear-wheel drive Beetle-based T1 of 1950. The famous Kombi versions arrived in Australia in 1965, followed by the larger T2 series of 1968.

In 1979 the boxy T3 represented a complete stylistic departure for the series, but it wasn’t until the water-cooled Series II of the mid-‘80s that saw the Transporter’s first real definitive steps towards modernity occurred.

That finally came with the 1990 T4, with its nose-nestling drivetrain and two-box design. It was launched here in early 1993 and has remained essentially unchanged since.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

IF you’ve ever lived with the outgoing T4 Transporter, you’ll know that the heavy and vague manual gearshift helped taint a terrific workman’s tool.

It was literally a pain in the arm.

But the new T5, after a 150km stint in mostly rural conditions, is a totally different drive.

From the impressive ergonomics of the sober but functional cabin, with its quality air, pleasing ambience and funky dash-mounted gear lever, to all the major controls’ lightness and ease, the T5 is a delight.

The near-range topping T5 Caravelle Highline’s 173kW 3.2 V6 manfully hauled the 2500kg-plus bus very smoothly and with reasonable verve, aided by a responsive six-speed automatic transmission, relatively direct steering and flat handling.

On the debit side, the V6’s ride seemed too sharp while the acceleration was too blunt when fully laden the rear bench’s constrictive seatbelts created discomfort, the three-zone air-conditioning was heard more than it was felt and there’s a feeling you’re still just driving a van in drag.

What that Highline needed is the powerful and punchy 128kW 2.5 TDI turbo-diesel option. With 85Nm extra torque over the high-strung V6, progress would have been more sprightly and more relaxed.

Married to an unladen long-wheelbase Transporter van, the boss 2.5 bound forward like a Big Red. Fast and fun, it really hot-tailed like an overgrown hot hatch. Only the droning load area gave the game away.

And even the more sedate 96kW/340Nm 2.5 TDI is AOK.

Again unladen (and subsequently noisy out back), it proved ideal in the basic short-wheelbase van.

Combined with the refined drivetrain, responsive dynamics and comfortable cabin, the new Transporter in 2.5 TDI guises could very well be the vans of the year – an accolade it already enjoys in Europe.

And what about the gear change? In slick six-speed manual mode, it might just also make trannie of the year.

But the uneven Caravelle V6 may yet have something to say about that.

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