What Car? says...
We doubt the Volkswagen Caravelle needs much in the way of an introduction; after all, you can trace its lineage all the way back to the original split-screen VW bus that was launched in 1950. While that was, in effect, a stretched Beetle with a box on top, the latest ‘T6.1’ is a purpose-built people-mover.
Of course, you don’t need to look too hard to see that the T6.1 also comes as a purpose-built van: the Transporter. That puts it up against rivals such as the Citroën Spacetourer, Peugeot Traveller and Ford Tourneo Custom – all candidates if you’ve outgrown a Ford Galaxy or Seat Alhambra.
This generation was launched with a choice of diesel and petrol engines, but the latter have since been dropped. This is no bad thing, however, as the Caravelle has always been better suited to a grunty diesel motor, especially when loaded up with people and luggage.
To see which version we recommend and how the Caravelle compares with rivals, keep reading for our comprehensive review. And remember, if you’re in the market for a new family car, there is a good chance we can save you a few quid through our New Car Buying page.
Performance & drive
What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is
Volkswagen has kept the engine line up simple in the Caravelle: you can either have a 2.0-litre diesel with 148bhp or a twin turbocharged version of the same engine, which puts out a whopping 196bhp. The latter engine is also available with a 4Motion all-wheel drive system, but we have yet to sample this specification.
The entry-level engine doesn’t feel overly peppy, but as long as you’re not in a hurry, it will see the Caravelle slog up to motorway speeds without too much fuss. And thanks to a prodigious amount of low down grunt (224 ft lb of torque, to be specific), it’s rare that you have to rev it hard and it remains hushed when cruising higher speeds.
That said, if you are looking at a heavier long-wheelbase model, or plan on doing some towing, it might be worth taking the step up to the 196bhp variant as it packs some seriously impressive performance. Even when loaded up with people and luggage it delivers performance comparable to some family saloon cars; Volkswagen claims a 0-62mph time of just 10.1 seconds (versus 13 seconds in the 148bhp model).
It’s just a shame, however, that both engines get the same seven-speed DSG automatic gearbox. It’s well-behaved if you’re just cruising along, but around town it can be rather jerky in its operation with a noticeable pause between putting your foot down and the Caravelle actually moving.
Compared with a Citroën Spacetourer, Peugeot Traveller or Toyota Proace Verso, the Caravelle is quite stiffly sprung. Undulations that wouldn’t trouble the aforementioned trio upset the Caravelle’s composure and it crashes over potholes. Drive down a typical B-road briskly and it’ll bounce around unpleasantly. Things calm down once you’ve got a few people in the back, but there are more comfortable options out there.
The firm suspension doesn’t translate into keen handling, either. Because the Caravelle is so tall, it feels top-heavy and leans considerably in bends. Try to carve through an S bend at pace and it feels downright ponderous. The steering is also a little slower than you would find in a Ford Galaxy or Seat Alhambra, reminding you that you’re effectively piloting a van, not a dedicated MPV.
The interior layout, fit and finish
Compared with other van-based MPVs such as the Citroën Spacetourer, the Caravelle feels pretty plush inside. As well as a selection of attractive trims, chrome detailing and solid-feeling switches, there are even soft-touch plastics to be found. However, jump from the Caravelle to a purpose built MPV like Volkswagen’s own Sharan and you’ll notice that its materials and level of fit and finish aren’t quite at the same level.
Thanks to huge windows, visibility is for the most part very good. Although it’s tricky to judge where the nose is, the flat sides make placing it on the road easy. Even so, we’d recommend the optional front and rear parking sensors that, usefully, also come with a rear-view camera (these are standard on Executive models).
And it’s not just big windows that help visibility; the driving position is higher than in a full-sized Range Rover, even with the seat as low as it’ll go. That makes it easy to spot hazards on the road, or just to do a spot of sightseeing.
Entry-level SE trim Caravelles have a 6.5in touchscreen infotainment system called Composition Colour that comes with Bluetooth, DAB radio, two USB (type-C) sockets and an SD card slot, while a larger 8.0in system with sat-nav, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and a whopping 32GB of in-built storage comes as standard on the higher Executive trim. This Discover Media system is our favourite; with physical dials either side of the screen, functions such as zooming in and out of the map and changing the volume of the radio are both less distracting when driving.
The even larger, 9.2in Discover Pro touchscreen is optional throughout the range and is a backwards step in some ways, doing away with physical controls altogether. The way it works seamlessly with VW’s fantastic digital cockpit dials (optional on SE and standard on Executive) is impressive, though. With this setup, physical dials are replaced with a 10.25in screen, which augments the central screen to show sat-nav and other important information.
Passenger & boot space
How it copes with people and clutter
One of the advantages of the Caravelle’s van basis is that you can buy it in two lengths. The short wheelbase is far more manageable on the road, but you’ll have to compromise on passenger leg room if you want it to give you any sort of boot at all. Go for the long wheelbase model, though, and you’ll be able to have your Battenberg and scoff it; just remember that finding a parking space long enough will consume much of your life.
All versions come with seven seats, but these are in a slightly different layout to the MPV norm. The front two rows have two individual seats, while the third is a three-seat bench. All rear seats can be slid backwards and forward or removed completely. Bear in mind, though, that they’re rather hefty; even a single seat requires a fair bit of muscle just to slide. If you need more than seven seats and still want a Volkswagen, you’ll need to look at the huge Transporter Shuttle.
If that wasn’t enough flexibility, you can also spin the second-row seats to face the rear – perfect for business meetings on the go, or making your passengers feel very queasy. You also get a table that can slide forward and backwards, move from side to side, and push up to chest height.
Up front, there are big door pockets with a built-in bottle holder, two gloveboxes, a couple of pop-out cupholders and a covered shelf that hides the two USB (type-C) ports and 12V socket. Meanwhile, the seats have handy drawers underneath for even more storage.
The final touch is electric sliding doors that can be operated from the dashboard, key fob or the doors themselves. These are standard on Executive trim and optional on SE. An electric tailgate is optional.
Buying & owning
Everyday costs, plus how reliable and safe it is
Even the smallest Caravelle is larger than some London bedsits, so it’s no surprise to find out that it isn’t cheap, but the reality is quite eye-watering. Add a few options, even to a ‘base’ short wheelbase SE model, and you’ll be looking at a pretty steep price tag.
In fact, big MPV rivals such as the Citroën Spacetourer, Peugeot Traveller and Toyota Proace Verso are significantly cheaper; you can get the biggest and most luxurious version of those rivals for around the same money as an entry-level Caravelle with the least powerful diesel engine.
If we were to spec our ideal Caravelle, we’d try and keep the price as low as possible. Fortunately, the entry-level SE gets a decent amount of kit as standard: air-con, sliding and removable rear seats, lumbar support for the driver and front passenger, two 12V and two USB (type C) sockets on the dashboard, and a leather wrapped multi-function steering wheel. To this we’d advise adding the 8.0in Discover Media infotainment system, parking sensors front and rear with park assist, and power sliding doors.
Upgrade to Executive trim and you get LED headlights, VW’s brilliant Digital Cockpit display, heated front seats, bigger wheels, three-zone climate control, powered side doors, a powered tailgate and the 8.0in Discover Media infotainment system. However, it is significantly more expensive than SE trim.
In terms of running costs, there’s not a lot to separate the 148bhp and 196bhp 2.0-litre diesel engines. They both fall into the same company car tax band and both return roughly the same fuel economy figures – you can expect to see around 32mpg in mixed use.
Crash testing experts Euro NCAP have yet to test the Caravelle, but it gives you a fair bit of standard safety kit. That includes adaptive cruise control, crosswind assist, automatic emergency braking (AEB) along with the usual selection of airbags and electronic driving assistants.
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