What is it?
The Volkswagen Caravelle Generation Six is the top-of-the-range version of the Transporter-based, seven-seat people-carrier that was introduced just as VW ushered in the T6-generation car late in 2015.
You’ll recognise one when you see it on the road because, like all Caravelles, the Gen 6 is roughly the size and shape of a typical central London flat. Also, because it’s available in only one colour scheme – two-tone Cherry Red and Candy White, in tribute to the similarly colourful Type 2 VW Campers of the 1950s and 1960s.
You might imagine that such a bold paint scheme would limit the car’s appeal somewhat to the executive chauffeuring specialists who form the majority of the car’s customer base. And you’d be right. But Volkswagen’s point is that the Caravelle is part of a wider T6 family of models that are not only bought by plenty of private owners as well as business users, but are also polished, preened and genuinely enthused about by those private owners.
And before you dismiss that idea, think about how many times you’ve seen convoys of Transporters, their predecessors and their siblings on the UK’s motorways at weekends, on the way to rallies and owners' club meetings. That doesn’t happen with Ford Transits or Bedford Rascals, does it?
And what VW is offering those enthusiasts here besides the Postman-Pat-post-payrise exterior colouring is a fairly fully-loaded Caravelle at a slightly reduced price. Only fairly, because such extensive customisation potential exists in the Caravelle ordering process that there’s really no such thing as a ‘typical’ fully-loaded example. You can have a sporty one (high-output diesel engine, lowered suspension, 18in wheels etc), a touring one (adaptive dampers, leather seats, tinted windows and a convertible bed onboard), an off-road one (extra ground clearance, heavy-duty shocks, four-wheel drive, a proper locking rear differential) and others.
The Gen 6 comes in what you might describe as a high-end ‘everyday-use’ spec: mechanically, with a choice of 148bhp or 201bhp 2.0-litre diesel engines, front-wheel drive and a seven-speed twin-clutch gearbox. But also with leather-alcantara heated seats, three-zone air conditioning, LED headlights, cornering foglamps, a Discover touchscreen infotainment and navigation system, adaptive cruise control, dynamic chassis control adaptive damping and specially designed chrome-hubbed 18in alloy wheels all as standard.
Our 201bhp test car was still a £54,000 car, for which you’d certainly hope it would come well-equipped – but put the same equipment level on a car in Executive trim and it’ll cost you at least a couple of thousand pounds more.
What's it like?
Amazingly refined in many ways, with fairly strong performance and manageable handling, albeit still quite a long way from being anything like a regular passenger car to drive.
Climbing up into the car’s cabin makes you assume, at first, that you must be about to have a decidedly commercial driving experience – not least because the most comfortable way to orientate your body in relation to the controls is to crank the very adjustable driver’s seat up high and just embrace the lofty viewpoint. But only once you’re comfy does the Caravelle’s high equipment level and apparent material quality really register. The mouldings and fittings aren’t executive-class in their fit or finish, but they’re a very pleasant surprise when you’re expecting the usual plain, flimsy commercial trim stock.
Up front, the car is only averagely spacious: good for headroom but not desperately generous if you’re long-of-leg. But in the back, the car’s hugely practical for several passengers, and its spaciousness, flexibility and convenience are second-to-none. Individual swivelling ‘captain’s chairs’ feature as standard in the second row, and are an optional-fit up front. There’s a sliding and reclining three-seater third-row bench that’s quite cumbersome to move, but comfortable. Five adults can face each other back there, stretch out and travel in outstanding comfort; or you can trade seats for carrying space by sliding or removing seats altogether. There can be no more accommodating vehicle for a lads’ weekend away, or for a large family with an active lifestyle.
On the road, Volkswagen’s twin-turbocharged, 201bhp 2.0-litre diesel engine does three important things for the Caravelle which, in combination, will do a lot to convince would-be owners that it really could fit into their lives.
Quiet at idle and at a cruise, the motor’s even fairly civil when revving hard, and at no point does it make significantly more noise or fuss than a like-for-like saloon might. The cabin is also remarkably well-sealed from wind noise for something so upright, allowing you to have the politest of conversations with your front-seat passenger, and reasonably fluent ones with those in the back, during a fast motorway cruise.
‘Fast’ isn’t necessarily a misplaced word in that context, either. The Caravelle’s performance level is certainly sedate for its £50,000 price point, but the car’s considerably quicker and more effortless to drive than the average supermini, and forges its way up to 70mph and beyond without requiring particular bravery or commitment.
The DSG gearbox fitted to the Gen 6 certainly contributes to that sense of adequate pace, shifting away smoothly and decisively at higher speeds, and only wanting for a bit of delicacy in the way it engages its clutches around town and away from standing. With a heavy load of passengers onboard, it’s slightly too easy to disturb the car’s anti-slip regulation and make the front wheels scrabble without deploying more than two-thirds of the accelerator pedal’s travel.
Even with those adaptive dampers fitted as standard, there’s a bit of van-level crudity to the car’s ride, and some evident limitations to its handling, that you can’t fail to notice. The car corners with a reasonable grip level but with plenty of body roll if you venture beyond a reserved pootle around roundabouts and along B-roads. Motorway slip roads are often sharp enough to begin to take away the efficacy of the steered axle.
Meanwhile, typical bits of raised ironwork and tarmac scars are enough to make the suspension thump, and the car’s huge body fidget a bit, when you hit them. Bigger lumps and bumps are simply best driven around, such is the severity with which they can crash through into the cabin – although the car’s shock absorbers do better-isolate the cabin provided you’re prepared to tolerate the choppier ride quality conferred by the DCCs sport mode.
Should I buy one?
Two-tone paint job or not, the Caravelle is plainly a car that answers a need, valuable not so much for what it is as what it’ll do for you. So if you don’t have a great many passengers or stuff to transport to various distant or hard-to-reach places - or if you prefer sleeping between four walls than four wheels - you’ll probably find its compromises and limitations unpalatable.
But let’s assume you have the need – or, for whatever reason, just the inclination; is this Gen 6 the definitive version? For transporting people around in relative comfort, it could be. But for me, it’s just a smidgeon too wrapped up in the trappings and fripperies of luxury and retro-cool design to represent the T6 at its best. Frankly, they're the wrong fripperies.
My idea of the ultimate Caravelle would be a ruggedised version: all four-wheel drive and long-travel suspension, with a slippy diff, ‘M&S’ tyres, a manual gearbox, a fold-away bed in the back – and a sunroof for star-gazing. Chromed alloy wheels don’t really come into it.
Volkswagen Caravelle Gen 6
Location Feltham, Middlesex; On sale now; Price £54,547; Engine 4cyls, 1968cc, turbodiesel; Power 201bhp; Torque 332lb ft; Gearbox 7-spd twin-clutch automatic; Kerbweight 2405kg; 0-62mph 9.9sec; Top speed 126mph; Economy 44.8mpg; CO2/tax band 164g/km, 32%