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11 July 2016

“If you want to move people in the lap of luxury, the Caravelle is a good choice”

Syncro gone soft?

The all-new Volkswagen Caravelle arrived in SA a few months ago, but we thought we’d wait for the 4Motion version to see if it’s still the go-anywhere people carrier of choice.

A purpose… all vehicles have one. Some manage to juggle a couple of jobs at the same time. Others pretend to have a certain purpose – like a crossover that looks like it is maybe supposed to do a bit of off-road, but is really just a hatchback with plastic ‘testosterone’ added.

A Land Rover Defender again, does not pretend to be anything but a cool 4×4 icon with the dynamic finesse of a great white shark in a large fish bowl.

The latest VW Caravelle 4Motion, on the other hand, is an anomaly of sorts.

The original T3 Caravelle Syncro, which made its international debut in 1986 and served with the US and German armies, had a robust reputation. The local Syncro SA community boasts a few examples with lockers on both axles, upgraded suspension, mud terrain tyres and plenty of ground clearance that often leaves other 4×4 drivers speechless when the big buses manage to conquer seemingly impossible 4×4 tasks.

The new T6 4Motion is a whole different kettle of bus. Retailing for almost R900 000, the Caravelle is an upmarket people carrier with the added benefit of 4×4 traction in slippery conditions. But a pukka off-roader, even if you add some suspension and bigger wheels, it is no more.

Clearly it is geared more towards European winters and slippery road conditions than Namibian dunes.

Any good in Africa?
The times, they are a changing, said Bob Dylan. More poignantly, weather patterns seem to be changing too. These days it either doesn’t rain at all for extended periods, or it buckets down in a very short period. So one day you have to navigate your way through a proverbial river, and the next day you have to dodge massive potholes that have formed because of the heavy downpour.

As luck would have it, it rained during the Caravelle’s tenure with us, and the 4Motion traction certainly did its job in slippery conditions. And on a gravel road we hardly managed to ruffle the big bus’ tail feathers – it’s as stable as a cruise ship on the Apies River.

Sure, it feels its size, but luckily the steering is light and you get park distance control as standard. On smooth tarmac the ride is sublime but it’s a bit on the harsh side on some of the more scarred back roads surrounding Johannesburg.

On a tour of Namibia’s famous gravel highways, this Caravelle would be epic. We wouldn’t recommend driving it up a dune, however, because the long wheelbase and lack of clearance in all departments will get it bogged down or damaged.

Interestingly, the 4Motion has a rear differential lock, which seemed to be like handing an Olympic swimming champion a life jacket before he tackles a race. If you do go the full Seikel suspension lift (the only VW-approved upgrade) and bigger mud terrain tyres, and aim for some muddy roads in Moremi in Botswana, then that rear locker will probably earn its keep, especially since wheel articulation is virtually non-existent.

Overall, the Caravelle is really just a big soft-roader with limited off-road abilities.

What about the passengers?
If you simply want to move people from point A to B in reasonable comfort, there’s the T6 Kombi. But if you want to move people in the lap of luxury, the Caravelle is a good choice. Instead of trying to squeeze as many people in the available space as possible, the Caravelle provides its seven passengers with sumptuous space.

As standard, it comes with seven seats in three rows. Two seats at the front, two pews in the middle row and the third is a bench seat. All full size, all fabulously comfortable with enough legroom for even our largest editorial member.

These seats can also be arranged or removed to suit your needs and there’s a table if and when the rear occupants feel like grazing on the go. It’ll also be a nice place to sit when you decide to have a family picnic out in the middle of nowhere. Imagine pulling over in a remote location in Namibia, staring at the beautiful landscape while chowing one of ouma’s famous frikadelle.

In Highline specification, it comes with a lot of standard kit including 12-way power adjustment for the front seats, electric sliding doors, leather interior, climate control and Volksie’s new touchscreen interface with navigation thrown in as an added luxury. This system works a charm and senses your finger movement before it even touches the screen. The scroll function works as well as it does on most smartphones and the Bluetooth connection is easy to set up and maintain. It’s a very neat infotainment package.

Enough power for seven people?
The 4Motion is powered by the same two-litre, biturbo-engine that is used in the VW Amarok. It delivers 132kW and 400Nm of torque (peaking at a low 1500r/min), which is plenty enough for the large body. No, it’s no GTI, but in-gear acceleration is relatively impressive and should come in quite handy if the vehicle is going to be travelling long distances fairly often.

Unlike the Amarok automatic (which has the awesome eight-speed automatic ZF ‘box), the Caravelle uses a seven-speed dual-clutch unit (DSG). It’s not horribly bad, but it not great shakes either. There are times when you press on the go-faster pedal and there’s a moment of “oh dear, oh dear, what do we do?” while the electronics figure out which gear is most appropriate.

In sport mode the downshifts are also not the smoothest. We reckon the T6 Caravelle would have been much better served with that ZF eight-speed unit.

Average fuel consumption worked out at 9.8 litres/100km – not amazingly wow, but still pretty good for such a big people mover.

Should I get one?
There are a lot of very capable seven-seaters on the market these days. From the new Toyota Fortuner and Ford Everest 4x4s to the Kia Sedona MPV. The latter has zero off-road aspirations, but offers a better all-round package at a significantly better price.

Unfortunately, there’s no all-wheel drive option for the Kia, so if that’s one of the main considerations, you might as well scratch it from your list too. So the VW Caravelle 4Motion basically competes in a class of its own, and it really is a good all-rounder that may be just the ticket for companies who need to ferry VIP customers to and from airports.

That R900 000 sticker price though, may be beyond the reasonable reach for most potential Joe Soap customers.

Engine Four-cylinder, bi-turbo diesel
Power 132kW @ 4 000r/min
Torque 400Nm @ 1 500r/min
Gearbox Seven-speed DSG
4×4 Drivetrain All-wheel drive
4×4 Driving aids Electronic locking rear differential, traction control, hill hold control
Ground clearance 178mm
Average fuel consumption 9.8 litres/100km
Range 816km
Maintenance plan Five-year/60 000km
Price R873 500