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Tested: VW Caravelle 2.0TDi

2010-09-14 08:13

Can the latest T5, boasting a diminutive yet powerful 2l diesel engine, successfully campaign for a position as the South Africa’s most popular MPV?

Vehicle Specs
Manufacturer VW
Model T5 2.0TDI DSG
Engine 2l turbodiesel
Power 132 @ 4 000r/min
Torque 400Nm @ 1 500r/min
Transmission Seven-speed DSG
Zero To Hundred 11.3 sec
Top Speed 191km/h
Fuel Tank 80l
Fuel Consumption 9l/100km
Service Plan 5 year/60 000km
Price R555 300

Lance Branquinho

When I was drowning in an inflation-proof blazer bought three sizes too big, a measure of status at school was being part of a lift club which included VW’s T3 Caravelle.

South Africans have an affinity for the VW range of T-series MPVs.

This is due in no small part to us missing out on the first-generation Chrysler Vogayer, Ford Galaxy and Renault’s Espace thanks to a trade embargo during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The David Kramer marketing probably helped VW’s brand equity along in the MPV market too.

All things considered, the T3-series MPVs were properly decent cars too. The aerodynamics may have been rather brick-like yet the VW T3 Caravelle’s agility was outstanding and its horizontally opposed engines (especially the mad 3.2l Oettinger version, which was available locally in limited numbers) made a most entertaining faux Porsche 911 soundtrack.

Changing of the guard

Everything changed with the T4. Although it was a more sophisticated design, the drivetrain switched from being exclusively rear to front-wheel drive. Understandably, this was a big no-no in the minds of most local buyers.

Despite optional synchro all-wheel drive, VW’s T4 was usurped as the shuttle vehicle of choice by Mercedes-Benz’s Vito range, adjudged to be better suited to robust load-carrying thanks to its single-differential – at the rear. 

This brings us to the current T5 range, which has been on sale since 2004 - quite a long model cycle in modern marketing terms.

In an attempt to face off competition from Hyundai’s high value H1 and the old enemy, Mercedes-Benz’s Vito, VW’s T5 range was revised with some styling trinkets and significant drivetrain upgrades earlier this year.

After two weeks with a Caravelle 2.0 TDI DSG model, the question remains: is this contemporary Caravelle worthy of its T3 heritage?

Loadable – just not with features

Despite the premium Caravelle nameplate, don’t expect a full-house of features with the latest T5. Cruise control, a third-zone of  fresh-air management, parking distance control and (almost unbelievably for a VW product) a multi-function steering-wheel are standard.

Curtain airbags for the rear passengers (R4020) and powered sliding doors (R13 050) are not. This is a shame; safety and easy entry are key factors underpinning buyer rationale in the MPV market.

In terms of packaging and utility, the test unit Caravelle had a foldable table (for families keen on eating without stopping) and a rear cooler-box. Between these two optional extras the latter is probably worth its R4580 tick-box price, especially considering South African families have a penchant for vacationing in December when temperatures are high and there is a real value to cold beverages, able to cool relations between arguing second and third-row passengers, who invariably turn out to be family members.

The two-plus-three second and third-row seating is plenty comfortable, yet moving and manipulating the Caravelle's seats remains rather agricultural. A neat feature is the 180-degree front-seat swivel function. Perfect for an impromptu Chinese parliament meeting to discuss just how lost the Caravelle is on a particular dirt road sojourn seeking that elusive curio retailing spot.

Use the ill-aligned floor-rail system to slide out the seats and you’ll usher in a ridiculous 5800-litre load area. With the second row of seats in place, it’s still a cargo-friendly 2700 if you load to roof level.

Driver’s bus?

Especially heartening for dynamic drivers (customers forced to swop their GTI for a Caravelle due to a proliferation of offspring) is the presence of VW’s popular dual-clutch transmissions – one of the T5 upgrades for this year.

The Caravelle’s drive is not managed by a simple six-speed DSG either, it shifts courtesy of VW’s latest seven-speed dual-clutch set-up.

Although the six-speed manual shift option remains, you’d have to be an unabashed masochist to burden yourself with tri-pedal fatigue in traffic when there is a self-shifter of the seven-speed DSG’s calibre available.

The upgraded T5 range is headlined by a 132kW version of the 2.0 TDi. This high-output engine is only 4kW keener than the old 128kW 2.5 TDi and cues a similar peak rotational force value to the engine it replaces. Critically, it produces its 400Nm across a more generous engine speed range.

Logic dictates that despite the output numbers, a two-litre turbo engine is never going to endow the 2.3-ton Caravelle with agile responses. The reality experienced during our testing period confirmed this.

The spacious cabin, car-like driving position (enhanced by a new, smaller steering wheel), low levels of road noise and mechanical resonance all combine to deliver an engaging driving experience that has  a low fatigue impact on passengers an driver alike.

Despite its two-litre engine’s impressive low-speed toque figures (400Nm at 1500r/min), the Caravelle is not a light car and at very low speeds it does feel burdened by its mass.

In a hectic urban driving environment, the T5 Caravelle was occasionally caught in the midst of a classic turbo-lag elastic brand effect, no matter how flat that torque curve appears sketched as a graph. Once the turbo spools up sufficiently, there is reasonable forward momentum to be had though.

Dynamic DSG

The best part of the T5 Caravelle’s drivetrain is most certainly its DSG transmission - it's phenomenal.

I remember when the Golf5 GTi debuted with DSG. Back then (2005) it was inconceivable that a few short years later one could have a Caravelle family bus with seven-speed twin-clutch transmission shift capability..

VW's latest DSG is brilliantly responsive. Even left to its own devices it responds with great urgency (and smoothness) to throttle inputs.

Trail the throttle in traffic and when a gap finally appears a positive right-foot-down marries the engine’s output to an uncannily smooth (and swift) uptake from the seven-speed transmission.

The transmission shifter is located high on the fascia, close to the steering wheel, which means it falls easily to hand - positively encouraging one to palm it over to the left, enabling manual shifts.

Seventh is a delightful overdrive, allowing the T5 2.0 TDi Caravelle to hover just under 9 litres/100km, fully loaded. Its 80-litre tank ensures huge range. Driven tidily, the T5 Caravelle should easily return 800km on a tank.

A huge bugbear remains the fuel-filler cap placement. Located on the passenger side, in the B pillar, each time you need to refuel the font passenger door has to be opened to allow the fuel cap to flip open.

Passing slower traffic, a simple triple-tap back on the transmission shifter yields instant overtaking urge in fourth. Once up to speed, and free of its inertia burden, the T5 2.0 TDi’s performance is quite respectable. It remains a swift, instead of powerful, MPV though.

Considering its size and generous axle spacing (to maximise cabin space) you would never expect the T5 to agile. Being independently sprung at all four wheels, ride quality is pretty decent and so is high-speed tracking stability, the latter especially important driving through a crosswind in a vehicle with such a large profile.

The T5’s electrically assisted steering is predictably anaesthetised, with scant feedback. This is understandable. VW’s Caravelle is a larger vehicle and as such its helm needs to be light to the touch, enabling owners to wheel the T5 in and out of claustrophobic shopping mall and schoolyard parking areas. Unfortunately the lack of steering feel does a disservice to the excellence of the chassis and all-wheel independent wheel control.

Front-wheel drive - not ideal

The T5’s most notable dynamic weakness (besides its numb steering) is the front-wheel drive configuration. Although it does feature an electronic differential lock, this is simply not good enough.

During the T5 Caravelle’s time with us I went to visit some family who reside in one of those homes built on a ridiculous slope, featuring driveway access worthy of an off-road trail rating. Some rain fell as I was trying to navigate the T5 up their driveway and due to the steering angle required to thread it past the gate (combined with the inclination of the driveway) the front wheels just kept scrabbling for grip on the asphalt surface.

A traditional locking differential would probably have performed better, whereas the electronic system is reactive - requiring some momentum and wheel drive to pendulum torque to the wheel with more grip. The point is simple, though: you cannot expect such a large vehicle to turn and drive the same two wheels and think it is going to go everywhere a rear-wheel driven alternative can on imperfect surfaces. Here Hyundai’s H1 and the Mercedes-Benz MPVs are superior, thanks to their rear-wheel driven configuration.

Obviously the 4Motion Carvelle, with its Haldex multi-disc clutch all-wheel drive system, is a solution, yet that option carries a R30 500 premium…


Back in the David Kramer marketing days of the T3 Caravelle, VW had its way with the South African MPV market. There were essentially no competitors. The current market offers a multitude of alternatives. Cognisant of this, VW has ensured its T5 offering is as close to class-leading as possible.

As a range there is a multitude of models, sure to suit nearly any imaginable requirement.

As a premium MPV, the Caravelle 2.0 TDI DSG does many things particularly well. It has nearly car-like levels of noise insulation and vibration suppression and, despite its dead steering, retains quite tidy road manners. The DSG transmission makes it very driveable too, despite the mass burden being quite noticeable at low speeds.

If you require a workhorse MPV, the 4Motion drivetrain is critical to extending the T5’s ability, especially if when towing at the Caravelle’s peak 2.5-ton capacity up a damp slipway or loose surface. For potential owners who reside in a rural area and use a network or dirt roads easily turned to mud in the rainy season, the 4Motion system is a must. 

The competition?

Hyundai’s H1 diesel is better value but lacks the T5’s overall refinement and stability at speed.

Mercedes-Benz’s Vito is more robust, powerful and cheaper than a T5 yet, like the H1, cannot match its refinement.

Unfortunately for VW, the Viano 3.0 CDI V6 Ambiente ups the refinement levels appreciably and is similarly priced to the Caravelle 2.0 TDI DSG. If your MPV is going to work hard for a living, the Viano is a better buy.

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