THE NEW Beetle was not VW’s first model to be reincarnated with the powertrain moved from back to front. In Europe, the old Kombi (which garnered nearly as much affection as the old Beetle over the years) was given the same treatment as the Bug a decade or so ago, but South Africans were not exposed to this microbus makeover until recently. The T4 Caravelle is available here in five versions – four manual turbodiesels with either 2wd or 4wd, and a fwd auto V6. We put an all-wheel drive TDI through its paces, interested to see whether or not the latest manifestation evoked similar vibes of the old Kombi/Microbus/Caravelle (which continues in production at Uitenhage), as the New Beetle did with its predecessor.

On the face of it, there is little basis for comparison. T4 is a lot bigger for a start, and the layout of the interior is not compromised by having to house an engine and transmission at the back. The new Caravelle’s powertrain is situated in its own bonneted compartment up front and the spare wheel is carried on a hanger out back, so the cabin is left solely for accommodating people and goods. T4 stands for Transporter Mk4, which suggests light commercial vehicle considerations, and it is available overseas in van and other configurations. We get the MPV only, but do not be put off by its workhorse connotations – in some aspects the Caravelle actually benefits from its universal origins.

Space is the most obvious one. The Caravelle is huge inside, with eight seats split into three rows and each chair having ample head, feet and kneeroom – and armrests. Each front seat has two fold-up rests, the two-thirds section of the middle seat has a fold-up centre rest and there are rests moulded into the side panels, and the rear seat has two foldaways dividing it into three as well as rests moulded into the sides, although they are more for elbows than arms due to the rear speaker mountings. It appears as though drink holders are out, armrests are

in...

But no, not really. There are enough locations to store a drink spread around the cabin, and the backrest of the larger section of the middle seat can be folded down to form a table. The single seat next to the large side door can be turned around – but not for a passenger when on the move: the seatbelt cannot be used, and anyway there is likely to be a clash of kneecaps with the person opposite.

Not only do passengers in the second and third rows have comfortable seating, but each place has its own air-con vent mounted in the roof. The facia houses the master ventilation controls (which regulate separate front/back temperature

settings and feature an auto setting). An auxiliary control panel is located on the passenger side B-pillar. There are sliding windows in the side door and driver-side centre panel, but the glass in the rear section is fixed. However, there is little likelihood of anyone sitting at the back feeling claustrophobic. The airiness is helped by the tailgate being some way aft of the rear seat, because T4 is one MPV that can carry a full complement of passengers and more than a reasonable amount of luggage.

Turbodiesel Caravelles come in two spec levels, Trendline and Highline, with each available as front-wheel drive only or as a Syncro version, the latter being a simple switchable four-wheel drive system. Our test vehicle was the full-house Syncro Highline, which is quickly identifiable on the outside by its body-coloured exterior rear-view mirrors and bumpers, alloy road wheels and front and rear foglights. Inside, all Caravelles have a multitude of coat hooks and grab handles. Highlines boast electric one-touch front window operation, electric outside mirrors

with heating elements, more comfortable front seats with height and tilt adjustable head restraints, the aforementioned squadron of armrests, map pockets, high-spec CD-compatible sound system with six speakers, illuminated vanity mirrors, and a courtesy light with delay.

Generally, then, most people will find the T4 a more comfortable, spacious and better furnished apartment than the Kombi. For the driver, the seating position will feel familiar, although allowance must be made for the sloping bonnet (just visible above the base of the windscreen) when manoeuvring.

The steering wheel is noticeably smaller and less horizontal than before, so no more bus driver jokes, thank you. Nothing art deco about the facia styling: the T4’s commercial considerations have dictated a design that is straight-lined and functional. We are surprised to see that nothing has been made of the considerable space beneath the facia behind the gearshift, enough for a cooler box and/or some additional storage.

Start up the engine and there is a surprise in store – and we are not referring to its for’ard location. It is the sound. The five-cylinder turbodiesel emits an aural tone reminiscent of the Volksiebus’s flat-four and in-line five petrol engines. Driving along, the similarity is uncanny. Performance-wise, though, the TDI has a character of its own. Peak power is only 75 kW at 3 500 r/min, so it is left to the 250 N.m of maximum torque developed between 1 900 and 2 300 r/min to do the business. Gearing is low – pulling away in second when unladen is an old Kombi trick that is still valid – and the motor needs to be kept spinning between 2 000 and 3 500 r/min to keep it on the boil. Cruising at 120 km/h in top has the five-cylinder revving at 3 153. The gear lever is long, but precise enough (no more “stir it and see” shift action complaints). However, do fold the inner armrest out of the way in town because it can interfere with gearshifting.

As for the Syncro part of the equation, it is actually an electronic diff lock and not intended for bundu bashing, but rather to aid stability and control in treacherous conditions. Heart of the system is a viscous diff that, when engaged by a knob in the cabin (no other input is required from the driver), automatically apportions drive to the rear wheels. Utilising the T4’s ABS sensors to detect lost traction by any wheel, Syncro adjusts the power transmitted to the opposite wheel on the same axle until balance is restored.

The system works up to 80 km/h, and emits a faint warning beep when active. Such systems can impair the effectiveness of ABS in extreme braking conditions, but Syncro is programmed to cut out in such a case, re-engaging when appropriate, all without detection.

The additional mass of the Syncro hardware and the Highline specification accounted for the test vehicle tipping the scales a shade over two tons, but overall fuel economy works out to around 12 litres/100 km, which is not unreasonable for such a large vehicle.

Original article from Car