How many vehicles can you think of that have five seats, truck-like loading space, all-wheel drive, sip less than ten litres per 100km, and that you can drive with an ordinary car licence?
That sounds about as far-fetched as Sanral admitting e-tolls were a bad idea, but true nonetheless.
Quietly residing in VW’s vast model line up, and attracting almost no attention among the SUV and MPV-buying public, is the VW Transporter Crew Bus.
One can be forgiven for this blip not showing up on one’s leisure-vehicle shopping radar. With its van-like, blue-collar styling the Transporter Crew Bus looks like it should be schlepping crates of ball bearings between factories, not families to their holiday destinations. The cool thing is that this bus can do both.
A more workhorse-oriented cousin to the VW Kombi and Caravelle ranges, the Transporter Crew Bus is essentially a five-seater kombi up front and a panelvan at the back.
A LOADING VORTEX
Graced with an enormous 4800 litres of stowage space (a standard long-wheelbase Kombi has 2100 litres) and a 925kg payload, the Transporter swallows vast amounts of whatever you wish to load through its super-sized maw: weekend adventurer toys of the two-wheeled, four-wheeled or floating variety; trips to nurseries, furniture shops or hardware stores without having to pay delivery charges; heaps of holiday luggage; and even crates of ball bearings.
And that’s just getting started. If you remove the rear seats it liberates 6 700 litres of cargo space and you can just about play table tennis in the back.
We took a Transporter Crew Bus on a family camping trip over the December holidays. It was the 5.3 metre long-wheelbase version (there’s also a 4.9 metre standard-wheelbase one) powered by a 2-litre turbodiesel engine and equipped with permanent four-wheel drive and a rear diff-lock. Selling for R447 700, it comes with a two-year unlimited kilometre warranty.
Four peoples’ luggage, including holiday paraphernalia of fold-up chairs, gazebo, portable fridges, fishing gear, inflatable dinghy et al, barely touched sides in this mammoth. You can just pile it all in without any special Tetris skills. We could have stacked at least another two similar layers before the pile started impeding rearward vision.
So large is this bus that before heading off I joked that I felt like breaking a bottle of champagne on her bow, as one does with a ship on her maiden voyage. From then on the bus was nicknamed Mother Ship (not least because the official model designation – VW Transporter Crew Bus 2.0 BiTDI 4Motion LWB – is a bit of a mouthful).
Heavily-laden with four people and all that luggage, I’d feared the two-litre turbodiesel engine might feel somewhat asthmathic, but the 132kW and gutsy 400Nm outputs kept the big bus ticking along merrily. There’s some low-rev lag, but you soon get used to keeping it in the powerband with timeous shifting of the six-speed manual transmission.
Even with a big load this bus has very ample cruising legs and hill-climbing ability, and easily sweeps past the national speed limit if you’re not constantly concentrating on the speedo (it has a rated top speed of 188km/h and a 0-100km/h sprint of 10.6 seconds). With the festive season freeways lined with revenue-generating speed traps, the Transporter’s cruise-control function came in very handy.
But the powerplant’s shining moment came when it was roped in to rescue our holiday companions when their double-cab bakkie broke down en route back to Gauteng. The VW, already heavily laden with four people and our pile of luggage aboard, had to tow a heavy bakkie carrying another four people and their own stack of holiday gear – and handled it without a sweat.
On top of it all, the Mother Ship averaged an economical 9.4 litres per 100km during her time with us. Quite a remarkable 2-litre engine, this.
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
The 4Motion all-wheel drive system, together with a half-decent 165mm ground clearance and a lockable rear diff, gives this big bus some adventuring ability even though it’s not really an offroader. It had no problem churning through soft sand and deep ruts when we drove to some out-of-the-way places on KZN’s north coast.
This is more of a commercial than a lifestyle vehicle but it has the necessary knick knacks to ensure occupant comfort, including a radio/CD audio system with steeringwheel controls, electric windows, remote central locking, and an aircon system that just about manages to cool that giant interior.
Still, to make it more family-friendly it would be nice to also have armrests for the front seats, an additional 12v socket so passengers didn’t have to fight over the single ashtray-mounted socket to charge their cellphones, and most of all a rear parking sensor. Squeezing this behemoth into parking bays without acoustic assistance can be a tad stressful. Manoeuvring this big bus in close confines is a bit of a handful, and you need to take a wide arc to compensate for the long wheelbase.
Ride comfort elicits no complaints and the Mother Ship glides along smoothly, while handling’s not as ponderous as the size and bulk suggest.
No one’s going to attempt cornering heroics in this behemoth, but it gets through turns without feeling like imminently toppling over, and providing electronic crash-avoidance are traction control and ABS brakes.
If you can get past the fact that it has the styling charisma of a barn, this Swiss Army knife of a vehicle has multiple talents and is suited to small-business owners as well as adventurous families with a need for vast luggage space.