Brand new panel vans are due from Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and Ford, while there are also major facelifts on the cards from Citroen, Fiat and Peugeot.
We’ve been champing at the bit to get behind the wheel of all these new models, but first up with a press launch – despite the fact that it won’t go on sale until autumn – is Volkswagen with the Crafter, which replaces the ageing LT.
It was developed in conjunction with Mercedes-Benz and comes off the same production line as the new Sprinter, but while many of the components are shared, the Crafter will have its own Volkswagen engines, modified suspension and an outrageously-styled front end.
While the Sprinter’s bonnet is understated and stylish, the Volkswagen designers set out to shock – and they have certainly achieved their goal.
At the launch, Dr Bernd Weidemann, Volkswagen chief executive officer for commercial vehicles, said: ‘We wanted to make our van brawny, reliable and flexible.
It has a strikingly chiselled look that makes it stand out as a tough performer.’
More on this subject later.
Volkswagen sold 36,000 LTs last year and aims to raise this figure by 10% in 2007, although Weidemann admits that the firm has a tough task ahead with the launch of the new Sprinter and Transit this year. One way he aims to gain extra market share is by keeping prices at the same level as the existing LT.
The new model is certainly a quantum leap forward over the old one. It will be available at 3.0, 3.5 and 5.0-tonne gross vehicle weight and in three wheelbases, with the addition of an extra-long overhang. There will be three roof heights – normal, high and super high and there will also be chassis-cabs and crew-cabs.
Load volumes will range from 7.5 cubic metres to 17 and payloads range from 1.4 to 3.0 tonnes.
The rear side loading doors are massive – 1,300mm of width to be precise.
Standard remote central locking can be controlled separately for cab and rear, meaning a driver can be loading the back end while not having to worry about the local low-life nicking his sandwiches from the cab.
In the front, Volkswagen says it has given functionality the highest priority.
It’s a lot larger for a start, meaning even tall drivers will be comfortable.
The seats are all new and seat height adjustment will be standard. Lumbar support and armrests will be available as options.
Meanwhile, the steering wheel is adjustable and its angle has been lowered from 47° to 32°, giving a more car-like feel. The general trim of the cab is more car-like too.
Noise has been reduced with special foam elements in the A and B-pillars.
Cubby holes and cup holders abound, while the middle section of the centre seat pulls out to reveal a desk. There are also extra storage spaces under the passenger seats which can be accessed by lifting the seat squabs.
Under the bonnet goes a brand new set of TDI engines which feature common rail technology for the first time. There are four to choose from – all 2.5-litre five-cylinder units offering between 89bhp and 164bhp. All are Euro IV compliant and come with particulate filters.
Transmission is via a six-speed manual gearbox but there will also be a ‘Shiftmatic’ option for the 109bhp and 136bhp versions, based on Volkswagen’s clutchless manual DSG system.
Maintenance levels are extended. The Crafter requires a service inspection every 50,000 miles and an oil change at 30,000 miles or two years. An onboard indicator will light up if it is felt a change is needed earlier.
On the safety front a driver’s airbag is standard, along with ABS brakes, ASR (acceleration slip regulation) and traction control. Options include a passenger airbag and side headbags.
Behind the wheel
OK, so let’s get this business of the Crafter’s bizarre front end out of the way first and we can then get on to the serious testing business.
When I first clapped eyes on the press pictures I sat open-mouthed for a moment wondering at Volkswagen’s nerve in producing such a monstrous conk. It has been variously described in the press as looking like a giant bean slicer and a basking shark.
In the metal, it’s a different story. You really do have to meet a Crafter face to face to appreciate its stance. It’s a monster, no doubt, and has that ‘don’t mess with me’ look. But after an hour or two I had to grudgingly admit that I quite liked it. It’s a far cry from the stylish new Sprinter but you’ve got to admire Volkswagen for at least trying to do something different.
Climbing aboard, the cab feels enormous compared to the old model and it is wonderfully light and airy.
That reworked driver’s seat is to die for. It seemed to mould itself into every curve of my body and is among to best I’ve sat in – either car or van. Those storage areas under the seats are handy for hiding any precious items and there are cup holders galore, along with a large cola bottle bin in each door. In the back, the side sliding door is huge and should make for easy loading.
However, as with all other panel vans I have driven, the lights in the load area seem pathetically dim.
We drove all four engine options on the busy roads around Hamburg and the definite fleet choice has to be the 109bhp version which felt lusty and willing with a half-load on board. Drivers will no doubt hanker for the more powerful models but there really is no need for the extra oomph, unless you have a five-tonner which will be carrying predominantly full loads.
My co-driver and I were able to talk in normal tones on our test route so the sound reduction was well worth it. And the dash-mounted gearstick proved slick and sure. Power steering too was nicely weighted and gave just enough feel.
THIS new model is a triumph and I’m sure I’ll be saying the same for the new Sprinter soon. With vans like this on sale, Ford is going to have to pull out all the stops with the new Transit to retain its market dominance.
|Model:||2.5 TDI 90||2.5 TDI 110||2.5 TDI 140||2.5 TDI 170|
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||89/3,500||109/2,500||136/3,500||165/3,500|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||162/1,750||206/2,000||221/2,000||258/2,000|
|Gross vehicle weight (kg):||3,000*||3,000-5,000*||3,000-5,000*||3,000-5,000*|
|Load volume (cu m):||7.5-14||7.5-14||7.5-14||7.5-14|
|Prices (£ ex-VAT):||tba|
* Exact specification to be confirmed
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