Is there a place for the new iteration of this van-based MPV in a crowd segment?

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Any car maker setting out to design a £40,000 luxury seven-seater in today’s SUV-obsessed market would be very bold indeed to use a ‘light commercial vehicle’ – a van, to you and me – as a starting point.

But this road test subject, the new Volkswagen Caravelle, is no ordinary seven-seater. And the Volkswagen Transporter with which it shares its basis is no ordinary LCV, either.

The Type 2, first introduced in 1950, is the inspiration behind the modern day Caravelle

Before the introduction of the Volkswagen Caravelle’s earliest predecessor, there was no such thing as an MPV, or really even what we’d recognise as a modern van.

The original 1950 Volkswagen Type 2 was, along with the 1947 Citroën H Van, one of the pioneers, making the sixth-generation Transporter that VW has just launched about as aristocratic as these workhorses get.

The Caravelle derivative was officially introduced with the third-generation Transporter, although more comfortable passenger-carrying versions were offered with the original Type 2. Its mission was always to combine the material refinements of a passenger car with many of the dynamic ones – hence the availability of more powerful engines, four-wheel drive systems and automatic transmissions, most of which the Transporter didn’t have.

The Transporter and Caravelle have remained on the leading edge of the technological development of their breed for more than six decades, and this new T6 version continues in the same vein.

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It’s available with modern active safety and multimedia systems, a range of powerful and frugal Euro 6 diesel engines, a full-leather interior of remarkable flexibility and spaciousness, and the option of a dual-clutch automatic gearbox and 4Motion four-wheel drive.

But can such a large, commercial-based vehicle cut it next to today’s wealth of choice in seven-seaters at upwards of £40,000? Is the modern descendant of the iconic VW Camper still a liberated, enlightened lifestyle choice – or is it now just a bad one?

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Volkswagen Caravelle T6 rear

Like its immediate predecessors, the Caravelle is available in regular or long-wheelbase versions and with up to seven seats, with the more utilitarian Transporter Shuttle minibus offering seating for up to nine. While at the other end of the spectrum is the California which keeps the camper tradition continuing with all the mod cons. It’s unlikely to appeal much in visual terms, being necessarily tall and slab-sided, but for what it is, the car looks very neat and tidy.

The process of ordering one is more like that of a custom commercial than a normal passenger car, with VW offering to leave in or take out both the one-piece folding and sliding third-row bench seat and the two swivelling, removable ‘captain’s chairs’ in the second row – and that is just the tip of the cabin specification iceberg.

The Volkswagen T4 Caravelle was a pioneer of its kind

The long and short of it is that your Caravelle can probably seat as many full-sized adults as you need it to – as well as accommodating more than 4000 litres of cargo in two-seat mode and short-wheelbase form.

At less than 4.9 metres in length and only just over 1.9m in mirror-excluded width, the Caravelle is actually shorter and only a couple of inches wider than a Vauxhall Insignia Sports Tourer. And at just under two metres tall, it is possibly not too large to fit in a typical single-car garage or into a regular UK parking space.

Monocoque construction, independent telescopic front suspension and a choice of transversely mounted 2.0-litre diesel engines in 148bhp or twin-turbo 201bhp states of tune make most of the Caravelle’s mechanical fundamentals pretty car-like. The Caravelle comes with an independent rear suspension, fitted with coil springs and load sensitive shock absorbers, similar to its Transporter siblings.

A kerb weight of just under 2.4 tonnes for the 201bhp short-wheelbase version tested here is very substantial, but little more so than we’d expect of some large seven-seat SUVs. A power-to-weight ratio of 84bhp per tonne is modest but acceptable at typical modern family hatchback level.

And although there’s no way to quite match the oomph of a large SUV with your Caravelle, there’s certainly the chance to add a bit of rough-stuff capability.

Our test car was a front-wheel-drive manual one, but VW offers Haldex-based four-wheel drive and a seven-speed DSG transmission, as well as a proper mechanical limited-slip differential for the rear axle, extra-long suspension springs, heavy-duty shock absorbers and hill descent control.

Or, for the most poised on-road handling possible, you can pick ‘dynamic suspension’, lowered by 20mm from standard and teamed with variable damper control, as VW had on our test car.

So, just like the interior, the Caravelle’s drivetrain and suspension are flexible and can be configured exactly for the sort of use you’ve got in mind for it. It’s all part of the appeal. 


Volkswagen Caravelle sliding rear doors

Your impressions of being inside the Caravelle will be defined primarily by which door you use to get in.

Up front, the cab feels broadly similar to an upmarket, particularly cushy van’s. The driving position is one of straight arms and bent legs, and the seat is thick, comfy, part-leather-clad and high-mounted.

Nice to see thoughtful details such as the asymmetrical cupholders in the rear

The view out is imperious, thanks to the remarkable expanse of very upright glass immediately ahead of you and to either side.

The driver’s seat has armrests on both sides, and there’s a short gearlever on the fascia for easy access, as well as typically clear VW-brand analogue instruments and centrally mounted multimedia and climate control consoles worthy of any of VW’s passenger cars.

Volkswagen’s Composition Colour radio with a 5.0in touchscreen comes as standard with both SE and Executive trim, but you have to spend extra to get either the Composition Media system with a bigger touchscreen or the full-house Discover Media Navigation Plus system, which was fitted to our test car.

The upgraded Discover set-up is pricey (£1320) but includes a media control system that lets you access it from remote devices connected wirelessly, plus an app control system via which you can access certain apps on your smartphone.

The navigation system is usable and intuitive, with clear mapping and directional prompts. VW’s familiar shortcut keys also make the other infotainment functions easy to access.

Material quality is more than respectable and perceived quality is enhanced by plenty of piano black and chrome trim.

Oddment storage, meanwhile, is almost embarrassingly abundant: dual gloveboxes, an additional lidded cubby on the roll-top dashboard, another in the centre stack and a drawer with extra storage and cupholders immediately below, as well as double door pockets, the lower ones positioned too low to access on the move, unfortunately.

But only when you explore further aft do you discover what the Caravelle is really about. Open the motorised sliding side door and you’ll find individual second-row captain’s chairs that swivel and slide, combining with the sliding three-seat bench further back to allow you to create a very convivial five-seat mobile meeting room.

All three seat units slide fore and aft on a system of four rails, the middle ones also carrying a fold-out table that can be positioned conveniently for any of the five seats and comes as part of the Executive spec.

Alternatively, the middle-row chairs can be removed to make extra carrying or lounging space. They’re heavy, predictably, and the process isn’t the work of a few seconds.

But if you do that, in five-seat mode and with the third-row bench slid all the way forwards, the Caravelle can at once provide more leg and head room than a Mercedes-Benz S-Class (although admittedly a less comfortable seat), more boot loading length than most saloon cars and much more loading width and height.

The Caravelle’s talents don’t end with merely conveying its passengers, either. A wander through the brochure reveals the potential to specify a bigger 12-volt battery, a parking heater, laminated glass all round, window blinds and a Good Night Package that adds a couple of extra shelves to the sliding, folding three-seat bench to enable it to be converted into a bed.

And if that’s still not domesticated enough for you, there’s always the Caravelle’s fully fledged camper van sibling, the California, which gets yet another bed under the flip-up roof.

There are three Caravelle trims and two Calfornia trims to choose from. The entry-level SE models get 17in alloy wheels, fabric upholstery, Bluetooth, USB connectivity and lumbar adjustment for the front seats, while upgrading to Executive gets you Alcantara upholstery, heated front seats, cruise control, a multifunction steering wheel, automatic lights and wipers, electric sliding doors, lashings of chrome and tri-zone climate control. 

Opt for the Caravelle Generation Six and you will get a retro looking van with two-tone paint job, 18in disc alloys, adaptive cruise control, sat nav, parking sensors, LED headlights, and adaptive chassis control.

The California is available in entry-level Beach and range-topping Ocean trims. The former comes with a pop-up aluminium framed roof, folding table and chairs, a two-person bed, a folding bench, extra insulated side windows, while the California Ocean includes a 42-litre cool/warm box, a gas stove, a kitchen unit, fresh water storage unit and a built-in wardrobe. A true home away from home.


2.0-litre Volkswagen Caravelle BiTDI engine

A £45,000 seven-seat SUV like an Audi Q7 or a Volvo XC90 will hit 60mph from rest in less than eight seconds. Despite a sub-10sec claim, the Caravelle took almost 12.

Its deficit to the Volvo when accelerating from 30-70mph, perhaps a better indicator of real-world performance, is almost as large (8.3sec versus 11.7sec).

The 2.0-litre BiTDI Caravelle we tested managed to get to 0-60mph in 11.6 secs, while averaging 37.9mpg

So while the Caravelle is the most powerful of its kind and trumps the practicality of even a large 4x4 to such an extent as to make the comparison spurious to many, it will still represent an unpalatable compromise on performance to some.

Not to us, though. Modest but adequate performance seems like a reasonable compromise when you consider what the Caravelle gives you in other respects.

What’s required, more than anything, is low and mid-range torque to motivate its mass and to prevent it from leeching speed up gradients and into headwinds. It has that in generous supply.

The 2.0 BiTDi engine responds well to the throttle and pulls stoutly in high gears from well under 2000rpm, making this big, heavy car assured and quite relaxing to drive.

The engine is also much quieter than anyone expecting a commercial temperament will have bargained for.

Although it’s a little noisy at idle, the Caravelle’s cabin is decently quiet on the move – in spite of the fact that it’s basically a 5000-litre resonance chamber with no bulkheads to break up the sound waves.

Road noise is decently suppressed and wind noise isn’t that pronounced. At both 30mph and 50mph, the Caravelle registered at only a decibel louder than an XC90.

The car tends to pitch and heave a little during hurried gearshifts and doesn’t like to change ratios quickly. VW’s DSG transmission would most likely feel like a much smoother, more sophisticated solution.


Volkswagen Caravelle T6 cornering

Although low expectations are doubtless in play, no one is likely to be disappointed with the way the Caravelle conducts itself on the road.

The fact that it doesn’t grip or corner quite as keenly as even a better-sorted conventional MPV such as a Seat Alhambra or Ford Galaxy, or control its mass as delicately, hardly needs to be noted.

Faster corners reveals the Caravelle's softness of directional response and reluctance to change direction, but stability is not in question

It doesn’t (although, actually, it doesn’t miss by much). But, frankly, it needn’t, because what lateral grip and roll control the car has is easily sufficient to keep it on line and under control at the speeds that the engine will easily maintain.

Most testers were left pleasantly surprised by the Caravelle’s cornering tenacity – on its optional lowered ‘dynamic’ suspension, admittedly.

Some were less impressed by its occasionally jittery, slightly wooden ride, though – an observation that must be considered a more serious criticism of a luxury car.

Although compliant and composed enough on smooth motorways and A-roads, the chassis can stumble over sharper and more pronounced intrusions, the rear axle struggling for ride dexterity in particular.

VW’s adaptive dampers fail to perfect the ride compromise, simply removing compliance at too high a cost in Sport mode, and permitting too much unchecked wheel travel and chassis thump in Comfort. Normal mode is an adequate but unspectacular middle ground.

The small steering wheel connects you to an unexpectedly direct rack that adds angle gently enough at first to make for good high-speed stability, but piles it on off-centre at gathering pace to ensure the car feels nice and wieldy at low speeds. Control weight is a little bit wavering and inconsistent, like the car’s ride, but it’s precise enough to allow you to place the car easily.

All of which makes the Caravelle easy to drive: pleasant, precise and controlled at a moderate, ground-covering A-road pace, manoeuvrable at low speeds and assured and stable on the motorway. Or, to put it another way, perfectly respectable for something so heavy and tall.

Caravelle owners will presumably either be greatly imperilled or misguided to be probing the limits of lateral grip and stability in their cars.

However, Volkswagen is to be praised for making the car dynamically competent enough to be well within itself when driven at speeds that would be considered routine by many passenger car drivers, and for keeping its body upright, hanging on hard and slipping from the front axle first when grip finally runs out.

Mid-corner bumps taken with lateral load in the mix do unearth a bit of crudeness in the suspension but don’t knock the car off line.

Heavy steering weight, rather than extremes of body roll, and slowly building understeer mark the edge of adhesion here.

Traction is good, even under high cornering load, so you never need to worry about wheelspin making your outward cornering line ragged — and the car’s ESP system (always on) is subtly effective.


Volkswagen Caravelle T6

Many people will be shocked at being asked to spend what might otherwise buy a luxury SUV for a vehicle derived from a van that looks so plainly like a van. But others may be more convinced once they begin to discover what the Caravelle does.

The load-carrying, people-carrying, rough-stuff scrambling and even occasional camping we’ve already covered. That the car also offers luxury features such as nappa leather seats, in-car wi-fi, adaptive cruise control and adaptive bi-xenon headlights as options, and a DAB radio and touchscreen infotainment system as standard, could help to seal the deal for anyone giving up a modern passenger car. Its array of active safety features may also reassure some.

Sliding the second-row pews back and forth requires a good deal of desperate jostling

Our advice would be to take no half measures and opt for the four-wheel drive, 2.0-litre bi-turbo in Executive trim, mated to a DSG gearbox and the off-road suspension set-up.

We would also add laminated glass (£222), extra side airbags (£312), parking heater (£1734) and the Good Night pack (£348).

The car’s fuel economy and CO2 emissions should be no great barrier to ownership compared with rivals of a similar size. Our testing suggests that it’ll return better than 40mpg at a restrained cruise.

CAP suggests the Volkswagen Caravelle will retain its value better than most other van-based MPVs, with only the Mercedes-Benz V-Class likely to have a better residual value.

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4 star Volkswagen Caravelle T6

The Caravelle started this test feeling like a car out of time. Although it finishes it with more than a suggestion of that initial impression lingering, its major victory is to justify its continued existence under the threat of numerous, ultra-desirable seven-seat SUVs.

A Land Rover Discovery isn’t this useful, a Ford Galaxy isn’t this habitable, spacious, flexible or capable, and neither can be specified so deliciously as to suit the exact role you intend for it.

Slavishly functional but sensationally versatile. Respectable to drive

The Caravelle has become the king of multi-purpose vehicles, and if what you want is a vehicle to do absolutely everything, and in which to do everything – including eat, sleep, work and more – it has only one equal - the Mercedes-Benz V-Class and it's Marco Polo camper van.

Such size and versatility will, of course, be above and beyond what most families will ever need and penalises the Caravelle in so many ways – notably on performance, ride refinement and visual appeal. But those penalties are relative only to cars of considerably less versatility.

The flexibility and multi-purpose versatility of the VW Caravelle, mixed with its nicely furnished interior and driving characteristics means that it tops our list for van-based MPVs, ahead of the Mercedes V-Class, Hyundai i800, Ford Tourneo and the Vauxhall Vivaro Combi.

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Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Volkswagen Caravelle First drives