VW Crafter 2016 - Test Drive Review
When it comes to van launches, they don't get any bigger than this. The new Volkswagen Crafter is undoubtedly the biggest launch of the year (if not the decade), both in terms of vehicle size and importance to the manufacturer.In the past year, we've been to Wrzesnia in Poland to see where it will be built and we've managed to ogle it on the stand at the IAA Show in Hanover in September. Now finally we've been to Almeria in Spain to get behind the wheel of the new vehicle prior to its UK on-sale date of April 2017.Why is this launch so big? To explain this, we have to take a step back and look at the present model. For many years now the Crafter has rolled off the same production line as the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter in Dusseldorf, albeit with its own unique front end and drivetrains.This agreement with its arch-rival has now come to an end so VW was left with the prospect of having no 3.5-tonne van to offer. So a brand new model and a whole new factory were whistled up PDQ and voila, the new and all-Volkswagen Crafter was born.The other reason why this launch is so important has everything to do with VW's ambitions for supremacy in the UK van market. Until a couple of years back, it was traditionally Ford at No1 in the sales chart followed by Vauxhall, but of late VW has placed itself firmly behind the blue oval. But while the smaller Caddy and Transporter vans sell like hot cakes, the Crafter has always lagged behind its twin brother the Sprinter. With a new home-grown van on offer, VW has high hopes that the sales gap between itself and Ford will shorten; or, dare we say, vanish altogether.Bearing all this in mind, it is pretty obvious that Volkswagen is placing an awful lot of emphasis on this new vehicle and will be waiting with bated breath to discover what we, the British van press, think of it. Before we look at the new Crafter in detail, let's just confirm that, in our view, this van is an absolute belter; everything we expected from this premium manufacturer and more. Much more in fact.When the full range is rolled out during the coming year, there will be panel vans, crew cabs, single and double chassis cabs, dropsides and tippers and gross vehicle weights will go from 3.5-tonnes to 5.5-tonnes. Drivetrains will be front-, rear- and four-wheel drive 4Motion.First front-wheel drive versions will arrive in the UK in April 2017, followed by rear-wheel drive vans later in the year. Chassis-cab versions won't be here until the end of 2017, followed finally by passenger and minibuses in 2018. DrivetrainsWhen Volkswagen first unveiled a 2.0-litre engine for Crafter (based on the ones found in the current Transporter T6) we all wondered if such diminutive cubage could possibly be man enough to lug this vehicle plus a full load along sufficiently. Well, of course it could and it does so with gusto too. Nowadays technology has advanced so much that engineers can adjust the engine management system and dial in just about any amount of power required.VW already has a 2.0-litre Euro 6 engine in the present Crafter, but not satisfied with that, this unit has been tweaked further so the new Crafter will offer around 15 per cent better fuel economy, albeit with an AdBlue tank to be filled occasionally. The engine is mounted transversely and has been tilted over at an angle of 8.0° to allow a little more room for occupants in the cab.Three power outputs will be on offer — 102hp, 140hp and a bi-turbo 177hp — and all are mated to six-speed manual gearboxes and feature a stop-start system as standard. There will also be an eight-speed auto ’box on offer, which we can't wait to test. Volkswagen has even revealed an all-electric eCrafter which is planned to be tested out with certain European fleet operators during 2017. The batteries are located under the floor so that load volume is not affected and this variant has a gross vehicle weight of 4.4 tonnes. At the launch, however, VW bosses said there were no plans at present to build a right-hand drive version.Load AreaThere will be three lengths and three roof heights in the panel van versions and while details are somewhat sketchy as yet, we know that maximum load volume will be a meaty 18.4m3 . Vehicle lengths start at 5,986mm, moving up to the long wheelbase version at 6,836mm with the extended rear overhang option taking total length to 7,391mm.
Front-wheel drive variant have gross vehicle weights go from 3.0 to 4.0 tonne while rear-wheel drive models offer between 3.5 and 5.5 tonne. Four-wheel drive Crafters will be available with GVWs up to 4.0 tonne. Rear-drive is the way to go for heavy duty applications with the added advantage of a 3.5 tonne braked trailer towing weight. Front-drive variants provide the bigger load volume and have a rear loading height of 570mm; that’s 100mm lower than RWD variants.
Access to the load area rear is via side-hinged doors that open to 270° where a magnetic door stop locks them in place. The sliding side doors open to a lengthy 1,311mm, providing easy loading and unloading, especially if using a fork lift.
The new Crafter features a non-slip load floor which may or may not be standard when it arrives in the UK and there is a myriad of load-fastening rails which can even extend up across the roof, something we haven't seen before.In-Cab ComfortAs with all quality vans, the doors are massive and heavy and thwunk shut with a reassuringly solid sound. It's a big climb up in to the cab, which means a good view of the road ahead, but grab handles are provided to aid access. The seats are typically Germanic; rather hard at first, but figure-hugging and superbly supportive over long distances.Nooks and crannies for white van man's detritus abound and include a big overhead storage shelf. There are coffee cup holders up on top of the dash just where they should be and we were pleased to note that this area also housed both an extra 12-volt take off point and a USB port so all those important extra devices such as sat-nav units and phones can be plugged in without having wires dangling all over the shop.SafetyEvery time a new van is launched, we see safety systems that continually move the goalposts with their inventiveness. Of course we get ESP and ABS brakes as a legal requirement these days and those two items alone should be enough. But the Crafter also features four airbags as standard and also Lane Assist, Park Assist (which parks the vehicle automatically), Trailer Assist (which helps when reversing with a trailer), adaptive cruise control which applies the brakes automatically if a shunt is feared imminent, automatic post-collision braking and Light Assist and Side Wind assist.We do know that side wind assist and post collision assist will certainly be standard as they will come ready fitted from the factory, but most of the other hi-tech safety systems are likely to remain on the options list.We tried all these systems at the launch and while a couple, such as Park Assist, were a bit gimmicky (in our book if you can't reverse park a van into a space then you shouldn't be driving it!), others which automatically apply the brakes when an accident is imminent are a great step forward in the field of safety and should definitely be ordered at buying time, even if they are expensive. The cost will be recouped the first time an accident is avoided. Behind the WheelThe vehicles available for testing in Almeria were all medium-wheelbase vans (with a couple of dropsides) and all were half-loaded, to give us a better idea of what the driving experience will be like in real-life. We started with the lowest powered 102hp and worked our way up through the 144hp and finally up to the blisteringly good 177hp.The cab is one we immediately felt at home in, although we were a tad disappointed that the dash lacked any of the style of, say, the rival Transit, which is all arty and features a good load of swirly black and silver bits. Germans don't go in for arty swirls and curves. It's probably a pretty unfair criticism anyway as most people don't give a damn what the dash looks like.While we are griping, we also found complaint with the sat-nav system too (a Volkswagen branded one), which didn't seem to feature a close-up POV option and at one point promptly led us off into some scrubland which we very nearly didn't get out of. We're all TomTom fans here so would recommend buyers providing their own.There were certainly no other moans when we got under way. The new electro-mechanical steering set-up provided pin-sharp handling like we've never seen in the 3.5-tonne sector while steering was weighted just right and gears snicked into place easily. To begin with we thought it was feeling a bit strange as the weighting seemed to change for no apparent reason, until we realised that it was the Lane Assist system actively preventing us from straying across the centre white line.We traversed a good route that included both motorway driving, rural routes and even some dodgy mountain-top villages complete with mangy-looking farm dogs and the Crafter never put a foot wrong. Even when changing drivers in one of the aforementioned dog-infested villages we managed to escape with trouser-behinds intact.The lowest powered van performed surprisingly well and felt lusty enough for round-town and short-haul trips, but it did struggle a bit up the steeper hills. While we delighted in the sheer power of the 177hp we'd recommend the 144hp as the engine of choice for general business use.VerdictDid we rate the new Crafter? You bet. In fact with the sun blazing down in Almeria while the snow fell back in good old Blighty, we asked if we could maybe stay a while longer in the sun playing with this oh-so-capable van and then take it home with us. Sadly, another party of journos was due in the next day and with mournful faces we boarded our plane again. One thing's for certain; we'll be first in the queue for test drives when right-hand driver versions first appear in the UK.
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