Road Test

Volkswagen Caravelle

By Bernd Felsche

Copyright © 1998 Bernd Felsche, Perth, Western Australia
All Rights Reserved
This Document may not be copied without the author's written permission.
Bernd Felsche reports on almost 1000 km in VW's definitive multi-purpose people mover.

The new Caravelle is new, not only in being derived from the current T4 generation of the ubiquitous Volkswagen Transporter, but also new in the market it challenges. For it is not only as a people mover, but as a luxury car that it reaches our shores, priced around $50,000 and well-appointed.

Australia only gets one version; with 2.5 litre petrol engine (for now) and a high level of base equipment, the only substantial choice is that of an automatic transmission. All the mod-cons and a whole lot of thought have been put into the Caravelle which is distinguished from its industrial brethren by its longer snout and family-look grille reminiscent of the Polo and the Passat to be introduced in 1998.


It's big. Bigger than the people movers of competitors such as Toyota and Mitsubishi, and this becomes readily apparent when you draw up beside them in traffic. They are embarrassed into an almost toy-like stature in their pretence

But the Caravelle's dimensions are misleading. It still fits into a carport which won't accommodate a Ford Falcon, helped by side mirrors which fold in to allow the vehicle to pass through narrow gates.

The exterior of the vehicle was hard to fault; the test vehicle showing few faults despite it's early life as a Rally Australia runabout for the Volkswagen Motorsport team. A chip in the windscreen indicated that it be changed... a matter complicated by the presence of the radio antenna being incorporated into it.

Caravelle At Melbourne Show
Caravelle at 1998 Melbourne International Motor Show

Volkswagen seems to be adopting a new design for windscreen washers where the "jet" provides a broad sheet of water over the width of the wiper sweeps. This appears to be much more effective at getting dirt off the screen than the pin-point jets of yore.

The colour of the side mirrors didn't look the same as that of the adjacent panels, probably due to a very different surface texture. Inside the wheel arches, the absence of wheel well liners is noted which may be of importance to those who frequent gravel surfaces.

Also conspicuous by its absence is central locking operation on the fuel filler flap. A key-lock of the filler cap is acceptable, for it protects 80 litres of fuel, but in a car otherwise so well integrated, the omission stands out.

The adjustment of the sliding door was found wanting, with wind-noise at speed indicating that its seals weren't given a chance by the abnormally-large closing gap at the front edge.

Alloy wheels reduce the visual bulk of the Caravelle, especially when it's a dark colour such as the Dragon Green of the test vehicle. My dislike of darker colours on cars was reaffirmed by occasional showers, resulting in a speckled-dust look within a few days. Not a pretty sight.


Open the heavy door, step up into the driver's seat and you sit behind the steering wheel which is almost sedan-like in angle. Unfortunately, the steering wheel lacks adjustment for height or reach so the driving position is something of a compromise. And unlike transporters of old, you sit behind the front axle... a novelty for those used to the helm of older Transporters.

The dashboard betrays its utilitarian origins by its unashamed functionality rising to the hard-plastic surface. Not unattractive, but not in keeping with the vehicle's other luxury appointments. The large dashboard provides a range of shelves, cubby holes and compartments which, depending on your state of personal organisation can be a curse or a godsend. If that isn't enough, the front door pockets are almost large enough to hold a bachelor's weekly shopping, with a small sub-compartment provided for knickknacks.

Clear instruments are exemplary in layout, though some of the warning lights are near-invisible with the sun over the driver's shoulder (it'd take a very bright light to show under those circumstances).

Fuel consumption readout is provided by the very convenient MFA (Multi Function Accessory) which normally indicates distance, average speed and fuel consumption, averaged over both journey and long-term; as well as oil temperature and time of day. It can be set to indicate "instantaneous" fuel consumption by a secret incantation so you can be scared out of your pants when it peaks at 99.9 l/100 km when accelerating hard.

Selection of individual MFA functions is less than nice; by means of a button on top of the wiper stalk; press too hard and you get an intermittent wipe! This inconvenience has been brought to you by the relegation of the button at the end of the stalk to a rear window wash function - something that was done previously by pushing the stalk away from the steering wheel for a second or more. (Still described as such in the owner's manual.) It seems that somebody decided to make the wash function easier to find for drivers when they first step into the car; instead of providing for those who live with the vehicle for some time. A negative improvement in this reviewers eye.

The MFA and digital odometer's liquid crystal displays are illuminated whenever the ignition is on, to improve readability under varying light conditions.

The driver' door sports controls for the electrically-adjustable mirrors (though these don't tilt down when engaging reverse like some of its German cousins'), and a pair of switches for the front power windows. The latter can be raised or lowered at a touch, allowing the driver to keep hands on the wheel for longer, or to forage around in one of the various bits pockets for security keys to enter a car park, or the like. The front passenger side door has only the switch for that door's window.

The dual-zone climate control is very effective, especially when electric windows used to vent hot air. controls are located towards the passenger side of the dash, so they are not immediately in the driver's field of vision. It's a BIG, wide dash!

Volkswagen's Climatronic (note no "x") can be operated automatically in set-and-forget mode, or features can be selectively over-ridden. Front and rear cabin temperatures may be set independently, though they limited to a 3 degree difference, presumably to limit fog buildup and monsoons. Adjusting the front temperature causes the rear temperature to change by the same amount, maintaining any prior difference between the two. Very swish.

Fan speed is adjusted automatically by Climatronic to get to the desired conditions as rapidly as possible. Adjusting the speed manually results in cancellation of automatic mode, which means that the driver has full control of speed in both areas.

Pressing the ECON button switches the air conditioning (cooling) off, but allows the heating to be used on colder days.

Air is circulated to the rear cabin by both roof and low-level vents, giving even, rapid distribution of air to all occupants for maximum comfort.

Internal heat buildup is less than expected with the huge glass area of the Caravelle. But with 8 people on board most of the air conditioning load is probably due to the occupants.

Both driver and front passenger seats feature adjustable armrests which fold up and out of the way for easy access. They do however obstruct the traditionally useful passage between the seats to the rear cabin for the horizontally enhanced and the less-nimble. The seats lack the side and lumbar support when compared to smaller VW sedans. There is also no footrest for the driver's left foot so cornering is limited by the driver's level of confidence when faced with mounting lateral forces and little means to counter them.

Accommodation for passengers in the back is by the rear-most bench seating three, a centre bench seating two, and a single seat with folding backrest beside it. Access to the rear seats is via the large, heavy sliding door. One doesn't need to be Arnold Schwarzenegger to open and close it, but it could help if parked on a steep incline!

There is about 2 cubic metres of space behind the rear bench, providing ample space for the luggage of all occupants. A shelf, about 60 cm above the floor conceals precious goodies below; or it and the whole rear bench can be folded forward to transport large items.

The Caravelle's tailgate lifts high to form a horizontal roof over the opening. Access is good, and a strap hangs down from the raised gate allowing those of shorter stature to reach up and to exert the necessary force against the strong counterbalance of the tailgate.

Tools and jack are kept in a side compartment to the left of the vehicle and the spare wheel is suspended under the back of the vehicle on a drop-down bracket.

Those not often carrying the full complement of passengers may choose to remove the centre row of seats, providing a huge area between the rear bench and the driver's compartment. These are only a few of the possible permutations on the interior of the Caravelle.


Releasing the bonnet by pulling on the lever in the passenger-side foot well causes the bonnet to lift slightly, presenting a small red button at the leading edge of the bonnet. Push the button and the safety catch releases, much neater than having to grope around under-bonnet for a lever.

The 2.5 litre, 5-cylinder engine nestles low within the compartment, with long inlet manifold tracts indicating a tuning bias for low-end torque.

Common service items are readily accessible, with plenty of room around the front of the engine. Fluid reservoirs can be inspected at a glance. The battery resides in its own compartment to the side of the engine, requiring the release of a few clips to gain access. Although this might seem to be contrary to good design for service, it does have the benefit of keeping the battery cleaner and cooler compared to exposing it to the full extremes of the under-bonnet environment.

The engine air filter element can be changed easily by unclipping part of the housing, with a condition indicator in the centre of the dashboard indicating when a change is needed.

Various ducts on the underside of the bonnet direct cooling air around the back of the engine, towards the exhaust manifold; and towards the ventilation intake.

Other markets see the longer nose fitted with different engines, including a popular 2.4-litre direct-injection, turbo-diesel (TDI) and the comparatively thirsty but powerful VR6. There is certainly room for the latter in the engine compartment

On the Road

The lack of driver support is a shame as the wide tyres and alloy wheels combine with the competent chassis to provide obedient handling with plenty of cornering reserves when driven sensibly. It takes very rough roads to upset the vehicle, even when lightly-loaded. Ride is well controlled and comfortable.

Usually quiet cruising is disturbed by tyre rumble on some surfaces, causing resonance in the front of the cabin around the firewall, resulting in a sharp increase in noise levels at front.

Fuel consumption averages around 12.5 l/100km with a 70%/30% outer suburban/urban mix. Over 14 l/100km is more typical in urban/inner suburban traffic with just a driver. More than 30 l/100km can be consumed on long climbs.

The 2.5 litre, 5-cylinder engine prefers premium unleaded petrol and higher octane results in easier, smoother and more quiet operation. Although "remote" in its sound, the engine can be heard to be working hard when accelerating briskly.

Previous generations of the transporter had the engine in the back, which made for quieter cruising in the Microbus of old. However, that was at the cost of stability in cross-winds. And the Caravelle, despite it's slab-like sides excels in cross-winds. There is a rocking of the body with gusts and some steering correction required, but it's nothing like the sensitivity to avian flatulence exhibited by the Kombi and Microbus of old.

Having the engine directly over the front wheels is of obvious benefit in the stability department. And having front wheel drive doesn't automatically imply understeer; the Caravelle going where it's pointed.... even tending to oversteer depending on load distribution and the driver's technique.

The Caravelle accelerates (all too) well to freeway speeds and coupled with the smooth-changing automatic can result in a roadside conference on speed limits with a member of the constabulary, complete with obligatory consulting fee. Engaging the cruise control on the freeway is highly recommended. Speedometer calibration is to 220 kmh, which is not all for show even with this "smaller" engine as it only turns 3000 rpm at 100kmh. With maximum power around 5500 rpm, the Autobahn-storming abilities of this people mover become evident... but not to be experienced in Western Australia.

Strong low to mid-range torque combines with the automatic transmission to provide respectable performance when lightly loaded. A green zone on tachometer indicates preferred operating range from 2000 to 4500 rpm, its upper bound only exceeded rarely on kick-down and wide-open-throttle acceleration if the 4-speed automatic is left to its devices.

Cruise control is well suited to long, flat stretches without too many sharp bends. Its tight control of speed does not make for the most economical cruising when there are rises and dips (see side-bar) and it definitely should be disengaged in hilly terrain, and not just for safety reasons, as fuel consumption will rise to astronomical levels (60 litres/100 km "instantaneous" consumption seen in Lesmurdie) with engine and gears work hard to maintain a perhaps unreasonable speed uphill for a vehicle with a kerb mass of around 1.8 tonnes. Fully laden with another tonne on board, the equation becomes even more frightening!


It should go without saying that one shouldn't consider buying a vehicle such as this on the odd chance the one day, one might have to carry 5 or more passengers. It doesn't make sense on that basis unless you plan to fit it out with a spa, or to convert it in some other way.

Fuel economy is not one of its strengths unless you usually carry more than a few passengers. A turbo-diesel does much better in this sort of vehicle, but ingrained prejudice against diesel-fueled passenger cars in Australia already sounded the death-knell to the Golf TDI, and the risk of another flop was probably too much for the importer to contemplate.

The Caravelle offers all occupants a great deal of comfort and space, probably unrivalled by competitors, and at a comparable price. It is thoroughly pleasant to drive, especially cruising where the kilometres pass by all too quickly.

Originally Published in ViaWest, April 1998
Copyright © 1998 Bernd Felsche, Perth, Western Australia
All Rights Reserved