There are many vans that claim to be all things to all people but Volkswagen's newly revised Crafter range comes closer than most. Jonathan Crouch tries the mid-sized 109.
Ten Second Review
So you need a big van, the next class up from a VolkswagenTransporter or a Vauxhall Vivaro - and preferably something built to last a bit longer. Well here's one that delivers - Volkswagen's Crafter. Unless your business really needs an HGV, it's hard to see how any operator might want a larger van.
If you've been looking around the various large van options in the market, you might feel a sense of nagging familiarity when you first clap eyes on a Crafter. This is Volkswagen's version of the Mercedes Sprinter van and, from the A-Pillars back, the two vehicles are largely identical, built side by side at Daimler Chrysler's Dusseldorf and Ludwigsfelde plants in Germany.
Crafter buyers get Volkswagen's latest 2.0-litre TDI common rail engine, already proven in the new Transporter and Amarok. It's available with power outputs of 109, 136, 143 and 163 PS, with BlueMotion Technology models offering further savings in fuel costs and emissions, yet delivers the same or higher levels of torque at lower engine speeds than the previous five-cylinder, 2.5-litre BlueTDI engine. The new engine is also lighter, and this weight saving not only helps the improvements in fuel economy, but also increases payloads by up to 100 kg. For example, the new Crafter CR35 2.0-litre TDI 109 PS BlueMotion Technology, medium wheelbase panel van achieves 15.6 per cent better fuel economy on the combined cycle than the previous 2.5-litre BlueTDI engine with the same power output. This is the equivalent of almost 5 miles further per gallon, which could add over 76 miles to the range of the 75 litre fuel tank. Get out and about in the Crafter and the driving experience should impress. The general quality feel is continued by the effective sound insulation in the cab and the smooth ride, while performance is strong across the engine range. The usual advice that operators who regularly run with significant payloads onboard should spend the extra to progress up the engine line-up holds true as the entry-level unit will struggle if pushed too hard. The driving position is quite car-like with an upright steering wheel while the seating is supportive and equipped with an armrest to prop a weary elbow on longer trips.
Design and Build
Let's start with the bluff front end. No, it isn't what you'd call pretty - but then vans - especially large vans - aren't meant to be beautiful. What's important is that the Crafter is available in the massive range of body options that has become the norm with large panel vans these days. So, to the spooky decision of which Crafter. The strong performance, improved refinement and class-beating fuel economy should be enough to put it on the shortlist of anyone needing a large van, window van, chassis cabs, or a conversion such as a tipper, dropside and Luton body. The comprehensive model range continues to offer three wheelbases, three roof heights, four body lengths and three gross vehicle weights of 3.0, 3.5 and 5.0 tonnes. Up to five euro pallets can be accommodated if you go for the biggest models and the best-in-class sliding door aperture means that pallets can be loaded through the side door and that two can actually be stored next to each other across the van floor. A second sliding door is optional. Maximum payloads range up to 2,770kg in the panel vans (1412kg for this MWB 109 model) while chassis cabs and double cab crew vans with optional dropsides are also offered. If you want to go further, you can even talk to your dealer about ready-made dropside, tipper or Luton conversions of your Crafter. Access with the conventional van variants is via the twin side-hinged rear doors or the sliding side door which has a particularly wide aperture of 1,300mm.
Market and Model
Prices? Well, excluding the dreaded VAT, they lie mainly in the £20,000-£35,000 bracket that you might expect for this class of large van, though in today's cut-throat market, that is slightly more than you'd pay for some mainstream rivals. The 109PS medium wheelbase maxi high roof version tested here retails at around the £25,000 mark. With an options list brimming with choice titbits, there's plenty of scope for making your Crafter a real technological showcase but most businesses will want to show restraint in this area. Remote central locking is standard as are electric windows and a driver's airbag. Then you've got an active safety provision that runs to ABS, electronic brakeforce distribution, brake assist and a highly advanced version of the ESP Electronic Stability Control system.
Cost of Ownership
Is there a better quality large panel van out there than the Volkswagen Crafter? Assuming you prefer the Volkswagen's engine range and pricing structure to that of its Mercedes Sprinter stablemate, then you'd have to say not. Yes, the Crafter is priced at a premium compared to rivals but you can see and feel where the extra money goes. Forward-thinking businesses will accept this on the basis that residual values are very strong and the whole vehicle feels - and is - built to last, enabling companies to spread the up-front sticker price over a longer operating period. In ten years time, I'd wager that this vehicle will still be going strong at a point when most of its rivals will be falling to pieces. Enough said.
Practicalities and Costs
Space and build quality in the cabin must count among the Crafter's most impressive features. Two or three people can comfortably travel side by side in the front, while the driver's seat is available for height and reach, as is the steering wheel. To make the driver's everyday life easy, there are areas to house shipping documents, food and drink, tools and maps, with a noteholder for the little bits of paper that it's so easy to lose. The spacious cab door compartments can house a full sized atlas as well as a 1.5-litre drinks bottle. Many of the controls and instruments will be familiar to owners of Mercedes-Benz passenger cars and that is no bad thing for any light commercial vehicle. Storage is fairly well catered for with door pockets, an overhead shelf and a glovebox that can be air-conditioned to keep drinks cool. The Crafter's doors automatically lock once you hit 10mph to prevent undesirables stealing your lunch while you're stopped at the lights. Emissions have dropped by between 10 and nearly 20 per cent. For example, the CR35 2.0-litre TDI 109 PS BlueMotion Technology model has carbon dioxide emissions of 218 g/km, compared to 252 g/km for the previous engine with the same power output. The new Crafter no longer uses AdBlue to achieve these low (EuroV) emissions, yet still qualifies for EEV (Enhanced Environmentally friendly Vehicle) status as standard.