Volkswagen’s Transporter van-based Caravelle was never going to attract the same counterculture cachet as the original, iconic derivations of the Type 2 Transporter did, but all the same this cavernous MPV offers almost as much flexibility in its people-swallowing interior.
And if you’re in any doubt as to the Caravelle’s thinly disguised van-derived roots, you only have to look for it online, where you’ll find this airport-taxi and hotel-run stalwart on Volkswagen’s van and commercial vehicle website, not the one that caters for its mainstream car line-up.
In truth it’s the even more heavily modified Caravelle-derived California camper van that is the original VW camper’s spiritual ancestor. But that vehicle itself, with its pop-up extending roof and overnight accommodation for four, is barely a step or two removed from today’s seven-seater Caravelle.
This latest version of VW’s crowd-swallowing people-mover gets revised front-end styling that brings the Caravelle more into line with VW’s mainstream models – squint and you can see hints of Polo and Golf in the Caravelle’s face – while inside there are new instruments and improved front seats.
There are two up-to-the-minute engines on offer, a choice of six-speed manual or seven-speed DSG gearboxes, the option of four-wheel drive and even a long-wheelbase version available (but only on the midrange SE-spec models), which stretches the Caravelle’s overall length from 4892mm to 5292mm.
Engines are both 2.0-litre diesels, either in 138bhp, 251lb ft TDI form or a more entertaining 178bhp, 295lb ft twin-turbocharged BiTDI incarnation. We drove the higher-powered version, fitted with a seven-speed DSG ’box and on a standard-length wheelbase. Mated to the DSG gearbox, the BiTDI motor returns a claimed 35.8mpg on the combined cycle while emitting 208g/km of CO2. The 138bhp variant equipped with the same transmission returns a claimed 34.4mpg on the combined cycle and emits 216g/km.
And surprisingly decent to drive it is, too. Okay, so the Caravelle never feels like much other than the converted van it is, but the BiTDI motor has enough low-end torque to make the Caravelle feel sprightly (at least before it’s loaded with six passengers and their luggage). And while its exhaust note isn’t quite as appealing as the old five-pot unit, it quietens down at motorway cruising speeds.
Cruising is all you’ll want to do, of course – there’s no real driver involvement – but the DSG’s shifts are quick enough to ensure smooth progress on the twistier routes.
The ride is surprisingly good, if not at times excellent. With no passengers or luggage on board you’ll notice some fore-and-aft pitching, but the Caravelle’s sturdy commercial vehicle underpinnings, with suspension tuned to deal with significant loads, mean that the ride is transformed into something approaching limo-like luxury with a full complement of passengers and their bags on board.
And it gets better. Inside, the Caravelle is a paradigm of rugged practicality. Interior space is massive and even if seven people plus luggage would be something of a squeeze, five will be very comfortable.
The dashboard manages to look like it’s from the 1980s while feeling like it could last until 2030. The seats spin into what seems like a thousand configurations and there are countless cubby-holes. The middle two perches are removable, although they are inordinately heavy.
The conversion from commercial to ‘real’ vehicle is a thoughtful and comprehensive one, but for domestic use a Caravelle is probably a little excessive unless you regularly travel with six other adults.