Can VW successfully transpose the GTI treatment onto a Transporter van?

The increasing prevalence of bolder sport styling on new commercial vehicles might simply be evidence that vans, lorries and pick-up trucks inevitably follow where market trends for passenger cars lead.

This week’s road test subject, however, suggests that something more interesting could be afoot. Some buyers of these super-functional, hard-working utility vehicles might be ready for more serious pseudo-performance van derivatives, right out of the showroom, than they have hitherto been offered. They might even be ready to pay surprisingly high prices for them.

Front bumper design looks aggressive from a distance, but up close it’s pretty obvious how little of it provides necessary airflow. Would something subtler have been better? Perhaps.

The Transporter Sportline is the new range-topping version of Volkswagen’s mid-sized van. Having been added to the Transporter range in 2021 shortly after a mid-life facelift for the T6-generation vehicle dubbed the T6.1, the Sportline adds more than a few tokenistic performance-aping exterior styling touches. Its specification includes 18in alloy wheels with performance tyres, lowered sports suspension and part-leather sports seats, as well as the dinky roof spoiler and eye-catching front bumper pictured on these pages.

So what are we to make of the idea of a 2.1-tonne utility monocab that wears hot hatch garb at least semi-seriously? Is this a real attempt at a cargo carrier with a little added driver appeal? Or is it simply a dose of visual razzle-dazzle for the entrepreneur who wants the world to know his bathroom-fitting business is doing well? And whichever it is, does that have implications for how functional or useful this vehicle is in its primary purpose?

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The Volkswagen Transporter line-up at a glance

The Transporter range is sprawling. We’ve listed only Kombi crew vans like our test car above, but regular panel vans are cheaper, and there are Shuttle nine-seaters too, plus the related Volkswagen Volkswagen Caravelle and California.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Volkswagen Transporter


2 Volkswagen Transporter 2022 road test review side pan

This vehicle joins a Transporter model line-up that already caters to all manner of purposes. If you want Sportline trim, you’re restricted to either a standard panel van body or a Kombi crew van (which has a removable second row of seats and can therefore accommodate up to six occupants).

There is only one engine option, which is the same 201bhp 2.0-litre twin-turbocharged diesel that serves in other top-end Transporter models, so there’s no direct power boost to report here.

Both headlights and tail-lights have strong LED-illuminated ‘daytime- running’ visual design signatures – the arrow-shaped motif of the latter being the visually more appealing in our book.

You can only have a two-pedal dual-clutch automatic gearbox. And while you get a choice of wheelbase lengths (3.0m or 3.4m), there’s only one default choice of roof height and carrying capacity (all Transporter Sportlines are based on Volkswagen’s T32 chassis specification, with maximum payload ratings ranging from just under to just over one tonne). Elsewhere in the wider line-up, of course, configurability is the Transporter’s middle name. The entry-level Startline short-wheelbase panel van can be bought for less than £30,000 including VAT; it comes with a 109bhp 2.0-litre diesel engine and front-wheel drive; and it will haul 800kg of cargo or swallow a couple of Euro 3 pallets in its hindquarters.

The engines progress up to the 201bhp 2.0-litre oil-burner of our test car, and all come from VW’s EA288 four-pot diesel family, with a fully electric option now available in the shape of the ABT e-Transporter. Those engines mount transversely in the front of the vehicle, with drive going to the front wheels in all but the Haldex-style 4Motion versions.

There is a Transporter Shuttle model for those who need more than six seats in a strictly commercial version of the vehicle, and also the plusher Volkswagen Caravelle upmarket people mover and the California camper, of course. Pretty much whatever useful purpose you imagine putting a big monocab vehicle to, then, the Transporter ought to be able to meet it in one of its many guises.

The Transporter switched to modern monocoque chassis construction in its fourth generation. The latest version has electromechanical power steering not least so that it can offer up-to-date driver assistance systems, as well as all-independent suspension via struts at the front axle and semi-trailing arms at the rear, and coil springs.

As such, this is a prime candidate among vans of its size for a light performance makeover – even if VW has employed the lightest of touches in that respect. A set of 18in alloy wheels – bigger in diameter and wider of rim, and fitted with wider, lower-profile tyres, than any other Transporter uses – come as standard. They roll underneath Eibach sports springs that lower the vehicle 30mm closer to the road than other Transporters are carried.

There is no brake upgrade for the vehicle and you can’t get VW’s adaptive dampers (which are optional on other derivatives), the Sportline sticking with the Transporter’s standard-fit load- sensitive passive shock absorbers.

Our test car came in range-topping Black Edition trim, which accounts for its tinted glazing at the side and rear, and its black styling elements (wheels, sill bars and body decals).


13 Volkswagen Transporter 2022 road test review dashboard

The Transporter Sportline may have sporty aspirations, but it’s still a van – and as soon as you hear the slightly reverberant clang of the driver’s door as it closes behind you, you’ll know as much.

Once you’re in, you find seats that make only a gesture at sportiness (part-leather upholstery and red stitching, but short cushions and no side bolstering, and little or no lateral support). They offer great forward visibility, though, and are comfortable enough if you adopt the tradesman- favoured jacked-up driving position. There are also handles on the cab’s A-pillars for those who want to use a free hand to better secure their body weight during faster cornering than the seat design is given to do. Still, a van’s a van and, ergonomically at least, this one doesn’t do much differently from any other.

Auxiliary heating system for the second-row seats is a £330 option, controlled from this roof panel. A parking heater, working off a second 12V battery, costs £3216.

You get a leather steering wheel, digital instruments, an 8.0in touchscreen infotainment system, and a few metallised highlights and bits of slightly showy trim for your money. The Transporter’s dashboard is made uniformly of hard, scratch-resistant mouldings, while the cab is carpeted and well furnished for storage cubbies and cupholders, on the upper and lower dashboard and in the door consoles.

In the back, two glazed, power-sliding rear passenger doors come as standard. The rear seats (Kombi crew vans have two rows) divide into a two-seater unit on the offside and an individual chair on the nearside of the vehicle. Both fold forwards, and the latter also leans forward to allow access to the cargo area through the nearside side door.

Both seat units can also be removed entirely (although they’re heavy and awkward), opening up a vast loading area that we measured at just over 2.5 metres in total length – and that’s in the short-wheelbase version. Even with the rear seats in place, there’s room to thread longer items along the floor and underneath the back seat cushions if you need to.

The loading area in five-seat mode is more than a metre and a half long anyway, as well as more than a metre and a half wide at its widest, and approaching a metre and a half tall from floor to ceiling. That’s much more room than you would get in any SUV or big people carrier, and there are lashing eyes to secure heavier loads.

Volksawagen Transporter infotainment and sat-nav

The Transporter still uses the old 8.0in Discover Media touchscreen infotainment system of Volkswagen’s last-generation passenger car models. That is no bad thing, given our reservations about usability in the latest MIB II set-ups.

It doesn’t lack for functionality, offering wireless smartphone mirroring, wired device charging by USB-C ports, 32GB of on-board media storage and connected services, with online media streaming (for a year, and then via subscription) courtesy of VW’s We Connect Plus service.

It’s somewhat of a shame to find no physical volume knob here, but usability is otherwise good. Navigation destinations are easy to program via fingertip input; a little bit less so, perhaps, by voice command – but the system typically worked at the second or third attempt for us.

The quality of the audio system is respectable but not up to the standards of a similarly priced premium one in a passenger car. The ambient noise level in the back is likely to make rear-seat passengers prefer headphones, and their own entertainment.


22 Volkswagen Transporter 2022 road test review engine

As we’ve mentioned, the particular specification and tuning of the Transporter Sportline’s 2.0-litre BiTDI diesel engine and its seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox aren’t anything special. There isn’t even a sports exhaust or a Sport driving mode here, which the vehicle could certainly do with.

It’s fairly brisk and flexible on the road; not assertively fast, but probably about as quick as you would want a load carrier of this type to be. Our test car managed 100mph from rest within a standing kilometre, and hit the same speed within a standing mile when locked in fifth and sixth gears, so it clearly wouldn’t make you late for opening time at the builders’ merchant. Even so, it needed a little over nine seconds to hit 60mph from rest, which would leave its driver with plenty to do to keep pace with a fast supermini in 2022 (not that many van drivers typically seem to struggle with such challenges).

Transporter Sportline offers van drivers a more urgent if not especially engaging option and families a spacious but less refined alternative to modern passenger cars.

The Transporter’s gearbox feels like a more heavy-duty unit than the kind you get in Volkswagen’s modern passenger cars. It has a pretty gentle initial step-off, and what feels like a subsequent second stage of full engagement with the driveline once you are up beyond walking pace. That’s just what you would want when ushering a heavy load steadily into motion, or towing a heavy trailer, but faster starts take lots of revs and come with a slightly snatchy delivery of torque to the front wheels.

Unless, that is, you knock the gearbox into manual mode, keep your left foot on the brake pedal, plant the accelerator and – as we were as surprised to find as you probably are to read – activate the electronic launch control mode. Using it better regulates the delivery of torque to those front wheels, and could make the difference between a 0-60mph dash in the high nines, and one that could even be in the high eights on a dry day.

The DSG gearbox feels short-legged on the road, as you would expect of a van. It won’t do 40mph in second gear, and you will find fourth and fifth are your most useful driving gears as you speed up out of town. But torque comes stoutly at low revs, and so pulling higher gears even with a load on board wouldn’t be a problem.

Braking performance on test was very respectable, the Transporter stopping from 70mph in less than 50 metres even in slightly damp conditions. But the brake is a little grabby at the top of the pedal and can be irksome in stop-and-start traffic, which is evidence that vans like this still aren’t quite finished to the same dynamic standard as equivalently priced passenger cars in some respects.


24 Volkswagen Transporter 2022 road test review cornering front

The default dynamic tuning of a cargo-lugging van keeps the Transporter planted, stable and fairly steady in its body control when you give it some speed to carry on a halfway challenging country road. We could only test it in an unloaded condition, when you would expect it to have some composure in reserve. But given the tall body profile, it’s quite impressive how hard you can corner in it, and how much outright grip those Hankook sport tyres can provide for it, on a sufficiently smooth and wide canvas of a surface.

The Sportline rolls a fair bit as it corners, but not enough to prevent the van from keeping its weight fairly evenly spread across its axles, or to cue up steady-state understeer, surprisingly enough. It turns in quite sleepily, but stays true to a cornering line once it has been taken, except where bigger bumps come into play. And it has enough grip at the front wheels to haul itself away from an apex with a modicum of urgency, too. If you are the sort of van driver who just likes to get from A to B in a hurry, and don’t much care how that is achieved, the Transporter Sportline’s outright adhesion and body control probably would feel like a modest step up from your existing van.

The VW has that empty cereal box feel when bumps hit the loaded side of the axles, and the body reverberates. At speed, it makes you know a little better what it’s like to be a Weetabix.

If, on the other hand, you are used to the sort of agility, chassis balance, damping dexterity, control feedback and all-round driver engagement that you might get from even an average performance car in 2022, this will just feel like a van. At times, a pretty busy- and fiddly-riding one at that, without much keenness at all in its responses, and no apparent life or liveliness at all about its controls.

Because the Transporter’s steering is tuned to keep its high body steady and not to disturb its load, it is slow around dead centre, and quite light with it, which makes changes of direction feel a bit unenthusiastic. Navigate that first hurdle and you will find the Sportline is ready to corner quickly enough, but not in a particularly enjoyable way. Your backside is positioned so high above the vehicle’s roll axis that you feel every degree of lean, and the seats aren’t great at keeping that backside where you would like it to be.

Ride comfort and isolation

If you are used to driving a van with no dividing bulkhead, the noisy ride of the Transporter Sportline won’t bother you. Ride resonance is an inherent problem of vehicles of this size, which don’t have insulation materials to dampen any vibration, and offer a large and uninterrupted passenger compartment in which that resonance can reverberate. Put shortened, firmed-up suspension springs on such a car and the resonance potential only increases.

That’s why the Sportline’s ride can, to ears more familiar with passenger car refinement levels at least, sound a little like a drum solo in an Anderson shelter. It’s at its noisiest on bumpy country roads where you can hear every impact on the rear axle, and every flick of broken twig or loose stone on the underbody.

On better surfaces, the roar of passing Tarmac under the tyres, and of wind around those door mirrors, is a lot less likely to perturb you – but it’s hard to ignore entirely, especially if you’re travelling in the back. All of this comes with the territory where open-cab vans are concerned, but if you’re considering a vehicle like this as an alternative to a big passenger car for longer family trips, it is certainly something to consider.

The driver’s seat is at least comfortable over distance, once it is set to a height to support your legs, with armrests on both sides.

Assisted driving notes

Like all Transporter T6.1s, the Sportline comes with Volkswagen’s Front Assist autonomous emergency braking system as standard, as well as an adaptive cruise control system and a driver monitoring system. You can add a lane keeping assistance system, with Side Assist blindspot monitoring, for £1230. Our vehicle didn’t have it.

VW’s Front Assist AEB system can be tuned to intervene either early or late, or deactivated entirely, through the touchscreen infotainment system. We tested it in both its middle and lower intervention settings and found it unintrusive at all times. It doesn’t offer pedestrian or cyclist detection, however.

The adaptive cruise control is a simple system without any speed limit detection or automatic speed adaptation functionality, although it does offer a manual speed limiter if you prefer. A speed limit detection system would be a useful addition but only comes as an option.


1 Volkswagen Transporter 2022 road test review lead

Prices (inclusive of VAT, which a great many of its buyers won’t pay) start from a little over £54,000 for a short-wheelbase Transporter Sportline panel van, rising to a little under £60,000 for a long-wheelbase Kombi.

That is quite an ambitious price for some lowered suspension springs and a roof spoiler, you might think. Nevertheless, if you want an equivalent ‘hot’ van from a third-party company such as MS-RT, it will cost you a fair bit more still in 2022. With the Transporter Sportline, you can buy straight out of the showroom, and at a price you might just be able to stomach.

For fuel economy, our vehicle averaged 32.0mpg over the full course of our testing, with 70mph touring possible at almost 40mpg, so at least that factor need not put anyone off.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Volkswagen Transporter


26 Volkswagen Transporter 2022 road test review static

The Autocar road test dips only rarely into the world of the commercial vehicle, but when we do, it’s almost always because we have been tempted by the prospect of something extraordinary.

The Volkswagen Transporter Sportline looked as if it might have that kind of potential; to be a corollary of the Ford Ranger Raptor, and do for the workaday van what the Ford helped to do for the pick-up truck a few years ago, kindling interest and making people look anew at a vehicle concept they had always overlooked before.

Spec advice? Think whether a (cheaper) Transporter T32 Highline BiTDI 4Motion might better suit your needs. If not, go for a short-wheelbase Sportline if you’re a regular user of ordinary car parking spaces

The versatile, cavernous, hard-working van certainly deserves a champion, but in the end, this Transporter fails to break away on a path of its own. It may look intriguing, but it fails to offer anything dynamically to really set it apart from any other panel van, or that justifies you paying a premium for.

Performance is lukewarm; handling, roadholding and body control are as a whole only marginally above the van-segment standard; and the desirability-boosting premium features don’t divert your attention for long from what would be a very functional but broadly ordinary van driving and owning experience.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Volkswagen Transporter