Volkswagen Caravelle on long-term test: 'a multi-talented all-rounder, which puts most SUVs to shame'

Volkswagen Caravelle 2019
The 2019 Volkswagen Caravelle is the antidote to the current craze for SUVS and, as we discover, could be the best people-mover money can buy

It's big, boxy and not very cool, but the Volkswagen Caravelle is a quietly compelling option for large families who value space and practicality over everything else. The VW 'microbus' has come a long way since it first launched 70 years ago but remains one of the best (and, dare we say, most underrated) piece of automotive design on the market.

  • Our car: Volkswagen Caravelle Executive 2.0 TDI 4Motion
  • List price when new: £54,260
  • Price as tested: £64,234
  • Official fuel economy: 29.6mpg (EU Combined)
Part three

Fuel economy: 28.6 mpg

Moving home is stressful enough but when the heavens open the whole experience is extra-miserable. Huddling for shelter under the huge tailgate of the Caravelle, I’m watching the last of the removals squeezing into the garage.

The track to my new house passes through various stages, from tarmac to gravel, then dirt to grass. Even the postman hates it, his Fiat van thrown out of shape on the ruts and bumps along the way.

How necessary is four-wheel drive?

I didn’t imagine the 4Motion, all-wheel-drive ability of the Volkswagen would serve any purpose during the summer. However, with a little extra ground clearance it has negotiated the deep puddles that have attracted a couple of moorhens to this corner of Gloucestershire.

The Caravelle may be the ugly duckling of SUVs – it is based on a van, after all – but the VW has proved indispensable over the last couple of months. Sure, it’s a battle removing the heavyweight seats but for sheer space and practicality, it’s second to none.

This roominess has been brought into action for a series of removal chores. One involved collecting a sofa from London, then on to pick up an ancient chandelier in Brighton. The latter we suspended from a clothes rail inside the Caravelle to prevent damage – possibly the most ornate interior light you will ever see.

The 4Motion all-wheel drive came in handy on rain-soaked Cotswold lanes

Then there was a pair of heavy, annoyingly bendy mattresses which need to go to the dump. Both fitted neatly inside with the rear bench seat and two middle row armchairs still in place, with the seat backs just folded down.

The lane is too narrow for lorries, so when John Lewis arrived with a new mattress, the VW was again used as a shuttle bus to cover the last half a mile – with both delivery men resting on top of it in the rear.

How practical and flexible is the interior?

Even my dog has found a cosy spot on the floor between the front seats, where there’s enough space to allow them to swivel 180 degrees when the VW is parked up and in ‘meeting room’ mode. 

An ingenious table between the middle two seats rises up on dampers and folds open. It can be slid fore and aft on rails in the middle of the cabin, just like the rear two rows of seats, depending on how many passengers are onboard.

There are cubby holes and door bins galore. So much so that I’m going to have to make a forensic sweep of the interior when the Caravelle finally disappears off the driveway. The bespoke cups provided in the doors are the only items I’ve yet to use. They fit perfectly but are a bit too chunky to grip.

The sliding rear doors are fabulous, the bed extension frame (foreground) less so

My favourite features are the electrically-operated rear sliding doors. There’s no need to apply any pressure when you pull on the handle, the electric motors kick in as soon as they have been touched. It would be useful to have an auto function on the rear tailgate but the lid is so large and heavy, I doubt it would be practical. Still a great place to shelter from the rain.

In Executive specification, the Caravelle has been loaded with all manner of goodies, as you might expect at more than £64,000. On top of the standard spec, our car has 18-inch alloy wheels (£1,662), LED headlights (£1,620) and the Discover navigation system (£1,482), the latter I would have expected in any vehicle costing this much.

The Volkswagen remains a multi-talented all-rounder, which puts most other SUVs to shame. VW fans accept the van-like shape as part of the Caravelle’s character but I wish it was just a little easier on the eye.

Part two

Fuel economy: 25.6mpg

Space may be the final frontier but there appears to be no limits on how much the Caravelle can swallow. For transporting stuff from A to B, this is the most cavernous load-lugger I’ve driven in years – albeit with a rather ‘hefty’ caveat.

Of course, with the Caravelle’s full complement of seven seats in place, there isn't much room behind the third row for more than a suitcase or two. That isn’t helped by the bed extension shelf – great for when you want to lower the rear bench seat and sleep stretched out, but rather pointless otherwise.

With all seven seats in use, there isn't much luggage space - while the frame of the bed extension shelf further eats into load volume

I imagine most Caravelle owners undo the two retaining screws and deposit it in the garage ASAP (where it takes up a equally large space). That then reveals a huge luggage area, further extended by rolling the rear bench seat forward on rails that run three-quarters of the length of the interior.

The downsides of a highly configurable interior

The pair of individual seats in the middle row can also be taken out – remove one or both of them, depending how large you want to go. It’s just remarkable the options available but I’d advise a trip down the gym first to limber up for the experience!

Nothing in the weighty owners manual prepares you for the actual experience of stripping the seats and centre table from a Caravelle. Instruction for the removal operation starts on page 84 but I was suffering from a sense of humour failure by page 85.

It all reads simple enough and there are handy diagrams, too. But even with a team of friends on hand – multiple degrees and a PhD in engineering – the air was turning blue.

It sounds simple enough, but stripping the interior to create a van is infuriating

The floor runners have covers at the front end that need to be prised off gently with a screwdriver. This then allows first the middle seats and then the rear bench to move forward on their runners and be lifted clear, via the floor slots.

The problem is that because all the seats are heavy and unwieldy, it’s very difficult indeed to line up the slots and the seat runners. And once you do, lifting the seats is a major workout.  The individual middle seats are a struggle but the rear bench really requires three or four people.

Can it carry lots of stuff?

Once my blood pressure returned to normal, I was left with the most luxurious van in the Cotswolds. I’m in the middle of moving and the Volkswagen has been a brilliant workhorse, shipping furniture and boxes on a daily basis.

The low loading height at the rear makes heavier items easier to pack too. I managed to squeeze a two-metre table and six chairs in the back, while on another journey, two full-size chests of drawers and an ancient chaise longue were dispatched.

The twin, automatic sliding side doors aid loading, while the luggage area is completely flat. Loads can be tied securely to hoops fitted in the floor. I’m also certain removing the seats has boosted fuel economy from the 2.0 TDI engine too.

Once you've persevered with the seat removal, you have a spacious van at your disposal

As my everyday drive, the Caravelle continues to impress. I like the fact that despite being a van-based vehicle, there are absolutely no rattles or squeaks from the cabin – better than the luxury Mercedes coupe I’m currently testing alongside it.

The multi-adjustable front seats also come with armrests that make long distance journeys extra relaxing, while the dog appreciates the integral sun shades in the rear.

Less impressive is the seven-speed DSG automatic gearbox around town. The take up on the accelerator is sluggish, especially with the stop-start system operational. There’s an awkward, disconcerting gap between pressing the pedal and actually moving off. Not much fun at busy junctions.

Once up to speed, the Caravelle moves along nicely for such a big vehicle. With almost 200 PS under the bonnet, it cruises silently on motorways, or with the gearbox in ‘sport’ mode, the VW overtakes confidently.

Finally, the Caravelle not only comes with cup holders – it has its own cups too. The screw-top travel cups are designed to fit snugly in the door pockets, while there are multiple storage cubbyholes and spaces dotted around the whole cabin.

My only concern now is how I am going to put the interior seating back in place. Time for another drive to the gym…

Part one

Fuel economy: 24.5mpg

I once owned a hippy-happy VW camper called Van Morrison. Named after a grumpy Ulsterman who lived down the road in County Down, my 1962 V-Dub didn’t offer cupholders or interesting seat arrangements like our latest long-term car, instead focussing on performance and cool looks.

Equipped with a big-valve 1.8-litre engine and Porsche gearbox it would tickle the ton – until Van reached a corner, leaned hard and fresh pants were required. That air-cooled lump provided the backing vocals for many adventures across the Emerald Isle and I still miss it to this day.

Looks and appeal

The original VW van appeared at the Geneva motor show in 1949 as the Type 2 – and the current 2019 Caravelle version is parked on my driveway right now. Our test car isn’t a camper (you’ll need the pricey California model for that) but is still regarded as one of the trendiest multi-purpose vehicles money can buy.

Honestly? Well, yes. You only have to plod down the A303 to Cornwall on a Friday afternoon to understand this van-based, multi-purpose vehicle has serious street cred. And while the Caravelle is more about bum space than being a home from home like the California, it majors on practicality and roominess.

The Volkswagen Caravelle has a degree of swagger, though it is very van-like

However, for those who want everything including the kitchen-sink and the versatility of the camper, VW has just launched the humungous Grand California too. This XXL model is naturally much bigger, carries an on-board bathroom for the first time but somehow doesn’t look anywhere near as good.

Is there enough oomph?

Many would mistakenly brand our Caravelle an SUV, although a seven-seat people-mover based on a bog-standard Volkswagen van is hardly sporty. This one is powered by a range-topping 199 PS 2.0-litre diesel engine, with a seven-speed DSG auto gearbox – it slowly winds up to 62mph in 10.1 seconds.

It’s offers perfectly adequate performance, lazy around more demanding country roads but a fast cruiser on the motorway. From a standing start the engine needs a bit of coaxing to initiative forward motion – although in ‘S’ sport mode the gearbox is a tad more lively.

The van-shaped dimensions are there for all to see of course - I’ve already been mistaken for a taxi dropping Mrs T off at the railway station. But there is still something desirable and charming about the Caravelle design that will be lost on readers who think their jelly-mould SUV is the dog’s doodahs.

Volvo, Mercedes, Audi and just about every other car manufacturer has flooded the market with faster, slicker SUVs but none, not one can complete with the versatility and feel-good factor that comes with the Caravelle.

Huge space and immense practicality

And what makes the huge VW so very brilliant is that if you have a large family, or want a vehicle that can carry wardrobe when required, or ferry a posse of bicycles, canoes, whatever, it will swallow the lot.

Okay, you will need to reach for the instruction manual to remove the assorted seats and other fittings but soon it becomes second nature. One minute I’ve been driving a luxury minibus, the next I have a flat-bed van with acres of carrying space. How brilliant is that?

It’s also a ‘proper’ seven-seater, unlike most SUVs. The rear bench seats three and isn’t just the naughty space for children only.

The middle pair of individual seats swivel and the front two turn 180 degrees to form a proper little office if required. The VW offers masses of legroom for everyone – oh and there’s that ingenious pop-up table that slides fore and aft in the middle too.

It's one of the only proper people movers with a back bench suitable for adults

Today I’ve been reading the instruction manual – crucial with this vehicle - because there is what can only be described as a massage bench behind the back row. Turns out that when the third row is laid flat, this bench helps the seats become a handy double bed. You might never use it but what a great feature for festivals or the occasional camping trip.

And then there’s build quality. Fifty odd years ago when my Van Morrison was born, I can guarantee that the driver and passenger would have been plagued by rattles and squeaks on anything but a flat road. So far, the Caravelle doesn’t make a sound – amazing with such a multi-function interior.

Judging by the features I’ve discovered so far, there still a lot more to learn about this VW. For now, I’m just enjoying writing this on my laptop inside the coolest, most practical multi-purpose vehicle money can buy.

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