Take a Volkswagen T5 Crew Bus with 4Motion, raise the suspension by 35mm, fit shorter gear ratios and a beefed-up clutch, and you have a spacious van that can go pretty much everywhere. And you can buy it brand new at your nearest friendly VW dealer
The 4×4 test track that Leisure Wheels uses, the Protea Eco-Adventures Tau 4×4 Trail in the Krugersdorp Game Reserve, looks tame when you first arrive. But there are a couple of rocky inclines, water crossings, axle twisters and teeth-rattlers that make any 4×4 work for its money.
So when Sportsvans’ Frank Herborn said that a Volkswagen T5 Crew Bus with 4Motion, breathed upon by his company, will go wherever any 4×4 will (or won’t) go, we decided to put our money where Frank’s mouth is…
But first, a little background. The Wallmannsthal, Pretoria-based Sportsvans Corporation specialises in the conversion of panel vans and buses into 4x4s, and if they are four-wheel drive already, making them even more capable off-road by fitting new suspension and transmission bits. Not just Volkswagen, but Mercedes-Benz products as well.
All components are imported from Germany, from manufacturer-approved suppliers, so the vehicle’s warranty is not affected.
Although the main focus is on vans, Sportsvans will also do modifications on vehicles like the Volkswagen Touareg and Tiguan (mainly raising the suspension), while its RaceChip plug-in performance system – claimed to improve power and torque by as much as 30% – is available for a wide range of vehicles.
Frank and his business partner, Johan Majoor, started the business a couple of years ago, using their website and word of mouth to get the message out.
Today they export their 4×4 vans into Africa, where they’re in high demand for use by police, the military and emergency services to get into areas where the roads are poor or non-existent.
The suspension kits include air suspensions, and while the ride height is increased by a useful 35mm to 45mm, drivetrain angles aren’t affected and other modifications aren’t needed. “When we’re finished, we send the vehicle to have the alignment checked and that is it,” says Johan.
The VW Crew Bus that arrived on our doorstep for driving impressions was the Seikel T5 4Motion, Auto Seikel being the German company that provided the bits. Peter Seikel, incidentally, is well known in motorsport circles and is a previous Le Mans 24-hour race class winner.
Auto Seikel GmbH is an off-road and 4×4 tuning company that supplies the VW factory with various product enhancements. Some of the official VW products developed by Seikel include the T5 PanAmericana, Caddy 4Motion, and the T5 Extreme, the latter being the support vehicle to the VW team at the Dakar rally.
The bits in question include the Seikel Dakar suspension kit that raises the ride height by 35mm, a shorter gear-ratio kit and a Seikel heavy-duty clutch.
The final drive ratio changes from 69:15/21/19 to a shorter ratio of 71:13/19/17, while first and second gears are 18% shorter; third to sixth gear 10% shorter, and reverse gear 17% shorter.
The vehicle still has the same top speed, though (with 10% higher revs), while the fuel consumption is claimed to be at most 0,5 l/100km higher.
On the order list from Auto Seikel are a snorkel (we sorely needed that!), steel rear bumper with a spare-wheel carrier mounted, and various underbody protection plates (that we didn’t need on our test).
So, after driving the vehicle for a day or two to get used to the clutch action and neck-snapping acceleration, it was off to our test track.
As said, we chose the 4×4 track, and we soon had the Bus with rear wheel high in the air posing for photographs at a deep crossover. Pulling off was easy enough, but two even deeper holes saw opposite wheels off the ground. No problem, hit the differential lock button and off we went, albeit with quite a bit of wheelspin and a fair bit of dust.
Steep inclines with good grip proved no problem for the powerful diesel engine, while the shorter ratios resulted in us going at crawling pace without the need to slip the clutch.
Then came a steep, rock-strewn incline up a fire-swept koppie. We realised this would need a little more momentum while having to tread the fine line between stalling and jumping over rocks, but again the Bus fared admirably – the short turning circle making child’s play of the twisty track and the higher undercarriage clearing even large rocks.
A river drive wasn’t much of a challenge, but was good for photographs, so on the way to the parking area we decided on a new water crossing where the river was dammed to a depth of about 50cm. The road down is very steep, so the nose of the bus entered the water at an acute angle, immersing the air intake that is situated quite low, behind the front bumper.
The engine cut out, so we switched off immediately, didn’t try to start it, and pulled the Bus out with another 4×4.
Tip: If you want to do things like this, fit the screw-in towing hook beforehand. It’s not fun to try to find the opening when it’s under (freezing) water, and remember that it screws in anti-clockwise…
That optional snorkel isn’t a bad idea either if you want to do more serious off-roading.
The conversion isn’t cheap – the Seikel Gear kit is R75 920 fitted and the Dakar Raised Suspension kit adds another R26 000, both inclusive of VAT, but then you do get an extremely capable 4×4 that still rides like a passenger car and has oodles of space.
The Seidel conversion can be ordered at a VW dealer in the case of a new vehicle, or fitted afterwards by Sportsvans.