Review and road test of the Volkswagen Caravelle (1991 - 2010)
WIDE OPEN SPACE
By Jonathan Crouch
All too often, even full-sized MPVs fall into a familiar trap. Load them with a few people and there's nowhere to put the bags. Some manufacturers such as Renault and Chrysler partly answered the question by introducing long wheelbase 'Grand' versions of their wares but the true solution was staring many customers in the face in the form of the Volkswagen Caravelle. With acres of interior space and a range of great engines, the Caravelle is a model which has subsequently spawned some imitators. The real thing remains in a class of its own however. As a used buy, the rugged Caravelle makes a lot of sense but demand remains strong.
Second Generation 1991- 2003 (2.5TDI diesel 2.5, 2.8 petrol [Sedan , Variant, Limousine, Multivan]
Third Generation 2003 to date (2.5TDI diesel, 3.2 petrol [SE, Executive]
How far back do you want to go? It's possible to trace the genesis of the Caravelle right back through the rear engined T3 generation of Volkswagen vans, but to keep things manageable, we'll kick off with the first of the 'modern era' Caravelles, with roots starting in 1991. This model was developed steadily over its lifetime with the latter models being powered by either a 102 or 130bhp 2.5-litre TDI diesel engine if you were practical or 2.5-litre or 2.8-litre VR6 petrol engines if you weren't. Earlier cars can be found with an 88bhp diesel option. A whole host of different body styles were available on both short and long wheelbase chassis.
This model was replaced in late 2003 by an all-new model which featured 130 and 174bhp versions of the 2.5-litre TDI Pump-Duse engine, the more powerful version offered with the option of 4motion all-wheel drive. Both diesel engines were also available with Tiptronic automatic gearboxes. Volkswagen also reprised the theme for a rather thirsty petrol engine, in this case a 3.2-litre V6 that was fitted as standard with the Tiptronic 'box but which was curiously not offered with a 4motion variant.
What You Get
The second generation model offers a dizzying amount of variety but in the passenger area itself, there are between seven and eight seats (depending upon which model you choose) and a ninth is an option. The middle row of seats can be removed at the flick of a couple of levers to create even more luggage room and a few minutes with the spanner will have the back seats out too.
At that point, you're back (albeit in carpeted form) to the VW Transporter van on which the Caravelle is based. Even without removing the seats, you'd probably realise that once you climbed behind the wheel. The steering column is more upright than a car's and you sit with your knees bent at right angles. There are an enormous number of derivatives available in seven, eight or nine-seater format, with the choice of Sedan or plusher Variant trim. There's even a luxury Limousine trim option complete with leather, air conditioning, alloy wheels, tinted windows, an electric sunroof and front foglights.
Sedan buyers can choose between eight-seat short wheelbase or nine-seat long wheelbase bodystyles. Air conditioning (usually pretty essential in a car with this much glass area) was a pricey option however, so check if the vehicle you're looking at has it. Variant buyers get an even wider choice of five different choices of seating configuration and enjoy air conditioning, electric front windows, remote central locking and velour upholstery. The Limousine models come only in 7-seat form. If you want an even more versatile Caravelle, there's the home-from-home Multivan. In the spirit of the VW Camper vans that were all the rage in the Sixties and Seventies, this seven-seater comes with offers a foldaway table and seats that convert into a large double bed. There are also a range of 12-volt sockets that can be used to power anything from a kettle to a TV. To give overnighters some privacy, this version comes with snap-on curtain blinds, too.
Opt instead for a later shape Caravelle and there's less choice but better kit. The SE trim level is popular but if you're going to buy a Caravelle, it's worth stretching for the Executive models. The Climatronic air-conditioning system works across three zones in the vehicle so the people in the back can enjoy a separate temperature to those in the middle and the front. There is also cruise control, 17" alloy wheels, leather upholstery, sports suspension and heated washer jets for the windscreen. Then there's the crowning glory of the electric sliding side doors and tailgate. These can be opened and closed remotely so you can play with them from your office window and surprise passers-by in the car park.
Externally, the Caravelle looks like the van with windows that it actually is, the chassis platform also forming the basis for Volkswagen's Transporter panel van. On the inside, however, it's up there teetering on the cutting-edge of MPV design in terms of innovation and practicality. The basis of the rear seating area is a rail-mounting system designed so that each chair can be individually manoeuvred or removed for greater flexibility. The seats slide along, and slot in or out of, rails cut into the cabin floor. So you can create the legroom, luggage space and passenger provision that you want. There are trays, storage options and cup-holders in abundance, including draws beneath each seat and a 'refuse bucket' (bin, to you and me) incorporated into the rear bench. There's also a freestanding table attachment that folds out to various sizes and offers yet more storage beneath, plus the bench seat at the back can transform into a flat sleeping surface - after a bit of pushing and pulling.
The cab area up-front is similarly cleverly constructed, to the usual Volkswagen standards. It features a dash mounted gear stick plumbed into the centre console that frees-up floorspace for better walk-through access to the rear. This configuration shaves vital seconds off the time it takes a parent in the passenger seat to reach the back bench and apprehend a wayward child before they can 'make-over' their brother or sister with a felt-tip pen. The driving position and steering wheel are infinitely adjustable. So much so that, from Kylie Minogue to Jonah Lomu, virtually anyone's optimum driving position is attainable - it's just a matter of finding it. There are armrests on each chair too, along with supportive cushioning and fetching two-tone fabric.
What to Look For
Check that the timing belts on the VR6 engine have been changed according to service specifications and that coolant levels are topped up religiously. The diesel engines virtually look after themselves and higher mileage TDI Caravelles offer a cost effective entry point for cash-strapped used buyers. As Caravelles developed, they grew in complexity and later models have a wide range of electronic functions, all of which possess the scope to go wrong, so check carefully. The all-wheel drive models are generally trouble free, but listen for whining differentials and uneven tyre wear. Finally check the interiors for signs of kiddie damage.
(Based on a 2000 Caravelle 2.8 VR6) For a new clutch, expect to pay around £70. A set of front brake pads will set you back £30 to £35 and a headlight lens should be about £20. Some parts prices will scare you, though. Try £790 for a full exhaust system - the catalytic converter alone is over £425.
On the Road
The second generation Caravelle offered the choice of four engines (two petrol, two diesel). If you're happy with petrol-power, then you can select between a 2.8-litre 140bhp VR6 unit and a five-cylinder 2.5-litre unit. The TDI diesels were more appealing to the majority of buyers though, for their combination of economy and performance that beats most of the competition. Limousine models come only with VR6 petrol power or the more potent of the two turbo diesels. All Caravelles could be specified with the option of permanent Syncro four-wheel drive. This system is based on a viscous coupling which automatically shifts drive away from the front wheels to the rear wheels when the onset of slip is detected. Drive is then smoothly and gently shifted to the wheels with the best grip. The Syncro models are highly prized by dirtbag skiers the world over.
The highlight of the third generation Caravelle is probably the 3.2-litre V6 engine that generates 232bhp at a high 6,200rpm. You'll rarely find yourself venturing into the upper echelons of the rev-range, though, because the 315Nm maximum torque is available just below 3,000rpm. There's strong acceleration available from low revs but under normal driving conditions, the V6 never comes across as anything but relaxed and unflustered despite the bulk of the vehicle it's propelling around. If you do put the hammer down, the 6-speed Tiptronic gearbox and the engine will contrive to get you to 60mph in 10.5s. There's a 127mph top speed to be explored where conditions allow too, marking the Caravelle V6 out as a vehicle with an unexpected turn of pace. What's more predictable is the average fuel economy figure of 21.9mpg and CO2 emissions that measure in at 310g/km. The Caravelle V6 is not a cheap vehicle to run but you must weigh this up against the benefits in performance given by its petrol engine.
The range-topping diesel unit in the Caravelle develops 173bhp and is a little less than £800 cheaper than the V6. On the road, it's noticeably less refined with a harsher engine note that will prove more intrusive for passengers on long trips. The diesel is marginally more torquey than the petrol at low revs but the V6 unit's better top-end means it gets to 60mph around 2 seconds quicker. You'll get approximately 35mpg from the oil-burner which is impressive but its 216g/km CO2 emissions still place it in the top tax bracket. The diesel option gives most of the petrol's performance with markedly better economy but the type of customer who buys this sort of people carrier may well value the smoothness of the V6 enough to tip the balance in its favour.
If space is a key priority and you want a people mover that's rugged, reliable and which never intended to be fashionable, the Caravelle makes a very interesting option. The diesel models are the most sensible bet, with the 130bhp variant offering probably the best compromise. Buying a Caravelle is an adventure in itself as no two vehicles seem to be specified identically. Take your time, drive a few and pick a well looked after example that vaguely approximates what you're after.
Volkswagen Caravelle (1991 - 2010) review by Jonathan Crouch