Van Review: First Irish Drive: Volkswagen Crafter

Large van segment gets welcome boost with Volkswagen Crafter arrival

If it seems an age since we saw the first images of the new generation Crafter, think of how long a wait it must have been for the good folk at Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles Ireland, who have been waiting patiently for their new (big) baby to arrive.

Happily that wait is now over, and the Crafter is now on sale in dealer showrooms around the country.

And let’s make no bones about it, this is a big one as new van arrivals go. An all-new product that isn’t code-shared or badge-engineered with any other manufacturer (apart from the forthcoming TGE from Volkswagen Group partner MAN Truck & Bus), built at a brand new €800 million purpose built factory in Wrzesnia, Poland that will employ in excess of 3,000 people…. Yes, there’s a lot riding on the success of the new Crafter, that’s for sure.

We’ve driven the van abroad and came away impressed, but you really need to get your hands on a right-hand drive model in Irish specification before you can truly judge what a new vehicle is like. Therefore, there was a considerable degree of anticipation ahead of its launch in County Meath.

One of the major advances is that the Crafter is now offered in front wheel drive for the first time, as well as 4MOTION all-wheel-drive, and the previously offered rear wheel drive. This opens the large Volkswagen up into a whole new territory, and pitches it squarely against the dominant segment player, the Ford Transit. One notable advantage of the front wheel drive vans is that the floor is 10cm lower than RWD/4-Motion versions, something that delivery drivers constantly climbing in and out will doubtless appreciate.

With a payload capacity of up to 5.5 tonnes GVW, two wheelbase lengths, three roof heights and three vehicle lengths, plus a choice of manual or torque converter automatic gearboxes, it’s clear that not only is this the most flexible and capable Crafter to date, but that there is now a Volkswagen van to meet every need and type of operation. In fact, ever before you get into trims and specialist adaptions there are sixty-nine Crafter derivatives available to Irish customers, including pick-up/dropside versions with three different body lengths as well as chassis cab models.

Vans of this type are often adapted for specialist use. Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles is highlighting that the new facility in Poland will be offering an unprecedented number of full factory conversions that historically would have required after-market modifications.

Front wheel drive manual versions are on sale now, with auto gearbox models arriving in June. 4MOTION vans with manual gearbox are also available to order now as are chassis cab models. The first RWD manual models get here in September followed by 4MOTION Auto versions in November. Finally, RWD Auto models will arrive in Ireland in March 2018.

On the engine front a new 2.0 TDI diesel has been developed especially for the Crafter. It comes in power outputs of 102, 122, 140 and 177 hp, the latter a Bi-Turbo version. The Euro 6 units boast class-best fuel consumption and emissions, according to Volkswagen CV.

There’s plenty on offer on the tech front, ranging from LED headlight options to integration with a range of apps. Active driver assistance systems include ESP with trailer stabilisation, ACC Adaptive Cruise Control, a post-collision braking system, a sidewind compensation system, and Volkswagen’s trailer manoeuvring assistant system. Front, side and head airbags for the driver and passengers offer passive safety, while the likes of a reversing camera, a parking distance monitor and the Rear Traffic Alert system all help to make a driver’s life on the road simpler and safer, as will an optional ErgoComfort seat with 14-point adjustment.

Driving Impressions

A 177 hp Crafter 35 LWB High Roof model with six-speed manual gearbox was available to test-drive on the roads around picturesque Bellinter House, close to Navan.

Seeing it in the metal reiterates that this is a pure Volkswagen from the ground up. Just as the family lineage between the Caddy and Transporter is obvious in styling details like headlights and grilles, visually the Crafter fits seamlessly into the Volkswagen Commercial Vehicle family.

Climb in, and the door closes with a pleasingly solid clunk. It puts you in mind of that advertisement for the Golf where salesmen of rival cars try to convince their potential customers of the solidity of their product by slamming the door shut.

“Sounds like a Golf.”

“Sounds like a Crafter”……Hmmm, note to self to get in touch with Volkswagen’s marketing department…

The feeling of familiar solidity extends to the dash. It’s a place where anyone who has driven a Caddy or Transporter, or indeed any Volkswagen passenger car, will feel instantly at home. Controls and switchgear are ergonomically placed, and the instruments are easy to read. There are plenty of storage spaces too, though we did note that while there are adequate USB and 12 Volt charging points, there isn’t any dedicated slot to securely house a smartphone without it moving around. Volkswagen is far from alone in this omission, but surely it should be a standard feature of any modern dash?

The bench seat is broad enough to seat three comfortably without the middle passenger getting in the way of the driver controls. In the absence of a third passenger the middle seat base will flip up to provide useful storage, while the back sits flat to offer a tablet/notebook area and cup holder.

Once on the move two things are quickly apparent. Firstly, for a big van, the Crafter feels surprisingly compact and agile. One sits in a commanding driving position with good visibility ahead and behind. There was also a useful reversing camera fitted on our test vehicle, surely something that should be standard on all vans. For the delivery driver having to manoeuvre in tight urban centres, the Crafter should prove to be a valuable companion.

Secondly, it’s clear that Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles has done an excellent job in providing a refined driving experience. Noise levels are noticeably muted, and for a van it’s remarkably car-like to drive. Of note here is a new electro-mechanical steering system, the first on a vehicle in this class, which provides direct and responsive feedback. Overall there’s the same solidity and sense of ability to take a lot of abuse and keep smiling that you get with the smaller Transporter. The family genes are clear to see.

Fitted with the most powerful engine in the line-up, and without any payload, the performance of our test Crafter was unsurprisingly lively, offering effortless acceleration from low down in the power range. In reality most customers will probably opt for the 122 hp or 140 hp power units.

Competitive Pricing

Having a good product is only half of the story though, and what matters to hard working customers is how much the Crafter will cost to purchase and run. The news here is positive. One of the benefits of all that in-house investment is that Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles is able to offer the new Crafter at a significantly reduced price. Its starting price of €23,157 ex-VAT is €2,900 or 8.3% cheaper than the equivalent model it replaces, and places it favourably against key rivals.

The company is also keen to highlight its financing options, and uniquely in the van world it offers  PCPs as well as HP solutions, both currently at 3.9% APR. It’s possible to put a Crafter on the road for as little as €75 a week/€325 per month pointed out Alan Bateson, Brand Manager at Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles in Ireland, who added that it can be had with a minimum deposit of 19%, equal to the possible VAT clawback. Another attractive feature is a three years unlimited mileage warranty.

Conclusion

The outgoing Crafter was a well-respected workhorse, but Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles’ new large van is set to shake up the segment in a way that hasn’t been seen for some time. Rivals will be watching its progress very closely indeed.