Adding a sheen of desirability to a vehicle as squarely utilitarian as a large MPV is no easy task. It’s harder still when the vehicle in question isn’t a car at all but technically a ‘light commercial’.
Welcome to what Volkswagen was faced with in the planning stages for this, the new top-of-the-range version of the extra-versatile Caravelle. This model, based as it is on the sixth-generation version of the Transporter van, is rather unimaginatively called the Generation 6.
Available with a choice of 148bhp or 201bhp four-cylinder diesel engines and only with front-wheel drive and a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox, the ‘Gen 6’ effectively bundles quite a lot of equipment together for a reduced price.
Among that standard kit is leather/Alcantara upholstery, three-zone air conditioning, LED headlights, a ‘Discover’ infotainment and navigation system, adaptive cruise control, adaptive dampers and 18in alloy wheels. Fit everything on that list to an Executive-spec car and it’ll cost you more than £2000 more.
But still, £55,000 is a lot to ask for any van-based MPV, so Volkswagen’s decision to offer the model exclusively in two-tone Cherry Red and Candy White paint is hardly likely to broaden its appeal. So has VW’s grandaddy MPV been promoted and preened too far for its own good?
What is the 2016 Volkswagen Caravelle Gen 6 like to drive?
The Caravelle Gen 6 does some things well enough to conceal its commercial vehicle roots – but not everything. You might imagine that a 2.0-litre engine in a 2.4-tonne car would make drivability one of its failings, but in fact the car’s performance is more than adequate.
The diesel’s low and mid-range torque shoulders the car’s kerb weight quite easily, and with an extra intermediate gear to work with compared to the manual version we’ve also tested, the standard dual-clutch gearbox always seems to keep that engine engaged and ready to work in its sweet spot, so it’s easy to pick up and maintain speed.
The engine is unexpectedly quiet and civil both at idle and at cruising revs, and it declines to get raucous even when revved. The cabin, meanwhile, is also unexpectedly well sealed for something so bluff and upright, keeping wind intrusion down and permitting easy conversation with your passengers.
On fuel economy, the Caravelle also strikes quite a car-like compromise. Drive hard and your economy will drop close to 30mpg, but adopt a typical everyday stride and you can return better than 40mpg on a longer run.
On ride and handling, though, the car pays a higher price for its sheer size, mass and profile.
There’s enough grip to make the handling feel secure at all times, but body roll builds steadily at higher speeds, and around roundabouts and motorway slip roads it’s easy to over-estimate the speed the chassis will comfortably carry.
On A and B-roads, the crudity of the Caravelle’s ride is the clearest indication that it needs to be driven with patience. Apparently ordinary bits of raised ironwork and expansion joints are enough to make the suspension thump and the huge body fidget when you hit them. Bigger lumps and bumps are simply best driven around, such is the severity with which they can crash through the cabin.
The car’s shock absorbers do better isolate the cabin, provided you’re prepared to tolerate the choppier ride quality conferred by the adjustable dampers' Sport mode.
What is the 2016 Volkswagen Caravelle Gen 6 like inside?
Finding a branded ‘Generation 6’ LED light next to where you plant your foot to climb up into the cabin might add a moment’s distraction for the typical Caravelle owner, but once they are clambered up and settled in, it'll instantly feel like driving a van.
A very nice van, that is. Its switches are much better presented and more tactile than you expect them to be, although not in £50,000 executive saloon territory for perceived quality.
Most fascia mouldings look and feel pleasant, but you can find cheaper fixtures at knee level and below. The Generation 6 version’s red dashboard foil adds a welcome flash of colour, and its standard infotainment system is easy to use and displayed in a clear and attractive fashion.
Further back, the Caravelle’s trump card comes into play. With large sliding rear doors, two individual second-row seats that swivel, slide and recline, a three-seater third-row bench that also slides fore and aft and plenty of convenience features such as a free-standing foldaway table and extra-large bottle-sized cupholders, the car’s rear passenger quarters are enormously comfortable, flexible and convivial to travel in.
Alternatively, take the second-row seats out altogether (not an easy job, admittedly) and you’ve got a very practical five-seater with a huge boot.
Should I buy one?
The Caravelle remains a car to meet unusual and specialised requirements. Even for many larger families its sheer size and versatility will seem excessive, and unless you regularly transport groups of adults or have the sort of hobbies that are only pursued by carrying bulky paraphernalia around, you probably won’t have a need for what it can offer.
If you do happen to have a need for its talents, meanwhile, spending more than £50k on the car in the hope that you’ll get a more limo-like driving experience isn’t really advisable. We’d settle for a manual gearbox, a more modest equipment level and a paintjob less likely to make people laugh at you in the office car park.
A test drive of Mercedes' similarly practicaly V-Class is also advisable, or if sheer space and practicality is what you need – not a premium feel – then Ford's far cheaper Tourneo Custom is well worth a look.
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Volkswagen Caravelle Gen 6
Engine size 2.0 diesel
Price from £54,547
Torque 332lb ft
Top speed 126mph
Fuel economy (official combined) 44.8mpg
CO2/BIK band 164g/km/32%