Fleet News

Road test: Volkswagen Transporter T5

THINK of Poland and you'll probably conjure up images of dirty shipyards staffed by female stevadores who look suspiciously like blokes, huge grey apartment blocks and dodgy motors that spew out enough noxious gases to choke the whole planet.

But there is certainly nothing dodgy about the new product that is coming out of Volkswagen's Poznan plant in the west of the country – this is one of the two factories that is building the new Transporter, codenamed T5, which will hit Britain's shores in September. The other is in Hannover.

I joined a select party of British journalists who were flown by private jet to Poland to tour the factory and drive the new van for the first time in left-hand drive format. So far no right-hand drive models have been produced.

The factory is surprisingly labour-intensive. Some of the panels are welded by robots but for the most part, the work is completed by smartly-uniformed Polish workers who scuttle about busily wielding all manner of hi-tech gear.

The factory is virtually brand new and the workers seem pleased to be there. After all, it is quite a novelty to actually get paid on time in Poland and when Volkswagen advertised for 1,000 new staff to help build the Transporter, more than 17,000 people applied for the positions.

The Transporter can trace its roots right back to the old VW Splitty of the 1950s which is still the favoured transport of Britain's young surfing fraternity. As then, the Transporter still boasts the same qualities – solid no-nonsense engineering and a build quality some other manufacturers can never hope to match. After all, how many 50-year-old British vans do you still see on the roads?

Big news for the T5 comes on two fronts. Firstly, long wheelbase versions will be offered for the first time, along with a choice of three roof heights. Thus T5 will have gross vehicle weights of anything between 2.6 and 3.4-tonnes. Load volumes will measure between 5.8 and 9.3 cubic metres. And secondly, the T5 will carry the honour of being the most powerful panel van on Britain's roads.

There will be two diesel engines to choose from – a 1.9 TDI offering either 86bhp or 105bhp and 147 or 184lb-ft of torque, and a 2.5-litre unit with either 130bhp or 174bhp and 250 or 295lb-ft of torque. The most powerful panel vans on the road at present are the Volkswagen LT and Renault Master, both of which offer top power of 158bhp.

The T5 will also have a choice of petrol engines in Europe but none will be on sale in Britain, effectively cutting out any possibility of LPG and CNG conversions. However, T5 has a high level of specification. Both driver's airbag and ABS brakes will be standard on all models, together with remote central locking, height adjustable driver's seat and height and rake adjustable steering column. Prices will be announced nearer to the launch date.

Outside

Volkswagen is not renowned for building stylish commercial vehicles and T5 is not the best looking light panel van. The old T4 had been around for 13 years and still looked modern, so exterior styling changes have been limited to a bit of nipping and tucking.

The front end has been given a snubbier, more chunky look while the rear has been tidied up a bit, but you'd still immediately identify the van as a Transporter just by looking at it.

Some would argue that it doesn't matter what a van looks like but it's a shame VW couldn't have produced something a little chic.

After all, it will be pitched directly against the likes of the Renault Trafic, Vauxhall Vivaro and Nissan Primastar (all the same van with different badges) and this van has 'style' written all over it.

I wouldn't mark the Transporter down for its function-over-form stance, but I certainly would for its lack of side rubbing strips. While it boasts plastic bumpers front and back, there is no protection for either the side panels or the wheelarches. That's inexcusable in my book bearing in mind how cheap it would be to correct this shortcoming.

In the front

Top marks for VW for including remote central locking as a standard feature. It's all too easy for a busy driver to accidentally leave a van door open – and that could lead to the loss of a whole load. Climbing aboard, we find the cab typical of what we expect from the German manufacturer – flat, hard seats which turn out to be wonderfully supportive over long distances and a redesigned dash which doesn't contain anything unnecessary. Function over form again.

One thing the old Transporter suffered from was a lack of cubby holes and this has now been addressed. There are two-litre drink bottle bins in each side pocket and the pull-out ashtray contains two coffee cup holders which ping out on either side when the drawer is extracted. The driver's seat adjusts for height and the steering column has reach and rake adjustments so there was no problem finding a comfortable position. But with a full bulkhead fitted to all our test models, there was a shortage of legroom for passengers. The cab seemed a bit dark and gloomy too, especially compared to the aforementioned trio which boast wonderfully light and airy front areas.

In the back

In short wheelbase standard height roof format, the T5 is much as it was in its previous T4 guise. The side sliding door glides back and forth gracefully and the flat load area contains six extra large lashing points.

However, when the long wheelbase versions go on sale in Britain at the end of the year, there will be a mix and match range of sizes and payloads. Load volumes will range from 5.8 cubic metres to 9.3 cubic metres and payloads will be from about 1,000 to 1,200 kg.

The extra large model means that Transporter now overlaps with its bigger brother the LT. It's a trend which was started by the Trafic/Vivaro/Primastar trio and will be continued when the new Mercedes-Benz Vito is launched later this year. The whole concept doesn't make a lot of sense to me as surely it will lead to confusion among buyers over whether to go for a big Transporter or a small LT. But I suppose all the manufacturers want to plug very possible gap in the market.

On the road

Volkswagen lined up a selection of panel vans and trucks for testing outside our hotel in Nowy Tomysl and for one beautifully warm sunny Polish afternoon we were able to play with them to our hearts' content among the rural lanes, wooded slopes and neat farms of the region.

There isn't a mountain within 500 miles of Poznan so we were not able to test the van's hill-climbing abilities. But there were enough potholes, ruts and grooves to make up for this and our models – all weighted down with half loads of sand – flew across them as though we were driving on a billiard table. There are obviously no problems in the suspension department.

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The common rail diesel powerplants fire up with no fuss and clatter at all and even at motorway speeds, driver and passengers can converse in normal speaking tones.

The gear lever has moved from the floor in the T4 to the dashboard in the new model and what a difference it makes. Gearchanging is now possible using one finger. Power steering too is ideally weighted so there is just enough feel through the wheel to let the driver know what's going on in the road.

I would like to say that the 174bhp version is the pick of the bunch but for fleet purposes, all that power would be inadvisable. Don't forget your company logo is likely to be plastered all over the outside of the van and it would only take one rogue driver to ruin the firm's reputation.

My co-pilot and I both drove the 130bhp version in panel van and flatbed format and were taken with its smooth, sheer power. Mated to a six-speed gearbox and with a massive 250lb-ft of torque on offer, it was almost a case of 'pick any gear and any speed'.

But for fleet purposes, the 86 and 105 bhp versions will do fine.

Verdict

Ignoring the rather dour looks of this van, it is a fine successor to an already fine performer. And it's top marks to VW for the addition of ABS brakes to the standard specification list.

How the rivals shape up

Renault Trafic
ALSO badged as Vauxhall Vivaro and Nissan Primastar, this van has been feted from all directions. It is more stylish than the Transporter and has a lighter, airier cab. However, its highest powered engine is rated at 120bhp, so the VW knocks it into a cocked hat power-wise. ABS brakes are only standard on top Trafic models too, whereas all Transporters have them for free

Ford Transit SWB
STILL king of the LCV castle by a mile, Ford seems to have the knack of striking back with a vengeance just when it looks as though the others are getting ahead. As Transporter was announced, Ford revealed it was making ABS brakes standard on all Transits, thus taking away VW's fire to some extent. But the Transit still lacks that certain quality, Germanic feel that the Transporter manages to exude.

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