I’ve always had reservations about the VW Caravelle — because of aesthetics, more than anything else.
Multi-purpose vehicles are great for family or group outings such as road trips, camping and music festivals, but they look and feel cumbersome for everyday life, including Johannesburg traffic.
I also had a mental block about this particular vehicle, because I have always felt the introduction of the current shape to South Africa, more than 10 years ago, happened when I wasn’t ready for it.
The history of the Caravelle depends on where you grew up. In the suburbs it was always a family car, whereas in most townships it was a taxi during the week and a party bus on weekends.
Fondly referred to as Caras or Cara-Cara, the 2.6i Syncro, with its trademark wide and low stance, square headlights, and its wide grill, was the accessory for street bashes.
Thus the new shape — narrower and longer — which saw it get a bit more ground clearance than its competitors was too much of a shift from my mindset.
But, over a week of driving it, the car proved to be at home transporting men to watch the Rugby World Cup finals in Soweto and ferrying the family on a Sunday outing to a water park.
The boot, which boasts a mini fridge that is simply plugged into a charging socket, is a bit small. But this is easily rectified by removing the fridge, in an uncomplicated movement. You can even extend it further by moving the back seats forward.
With the cooler removed, one can fit in camping chairs, a baby’s bicycle, a picnic basket and two mid-sized suitcases. Push the seats forward and you could fit in even more. The tracks on which the back seats move run the entire length of the passenger section.
Oh yes, and there’s the table, which also moves along the length of the cabin.
The cabin is built for comfort and to make those otherwise boring road trips more entertaining. The table, which can be folded and also acts as a rubbish bin, is in the middle between the two seats behind the driver and the three-seater at the back.
Its movement also allows it to be tucked between the two individual seats in the second row, allowing free movement in and out of the cabin through the electronically operated doors on either side of the vehicle.
When the table is not in use, passengers still have cup holders that are big enough to hold a 1.5-litre bottle. The table comes with two charging sockets by the door.
The two individual seats can manually swivel 360 degrees and can lock in all four directions, although it is recommended they face either back or front on long trips in case of an accident.
All the seats in the rear cabin recline and are decked out in full leather and recline. The rear bench, which can accommodate three big adults comfortably, has foot rests that can be pulled out and adjusted and the second row comes with arm rests on both sides. But it was a bit of a bugbear that none of the seats came with any visible points to attach a child seat safely.
Opening the doors is as easy as gently tugging on the handles on the inside and outside and watch them do their magic. The doors can also be opened using the key fob, as well as a button in front section.
Up front, no comfort is spared — what you’ve come to expect from a R900 000-plus vehicle, except for a sunroof, which is an extra R11 000 for all models, including the ones costing more than a million rand.
The touchscreen infotainment system allows you to tweak just how loud you want the vocals to be over the music, and climate control unit extends throughout the entire vehicle. The front cabin also boasts three charging ports.
A drawback is the fuel consumption. Over the week I drove the car, I could not get it below 9.4-litres per 100km, probably because it’s a two-litre, bi-turbo diesel engine hauling a big vehicle.
The engine packs a punch and responds quickly and effortlessly, thanks to the turbo chargers and the seven-speed auto DSG gearbox, which gives you a sports-mode option.
The steering wheel was surprisingly light for a vehicle of this size and, together with the rear camera and an intelligent blind spot warning system — which is a light on the side mirrors that blinks during lane changes — make manoeuvring in traffic easier. The camera and distance sensors make reverse parking the first option every time.
Even though leg room for the front passenger is ample, it is a bit constricted for the driver because of the cup holders and one of three cubby holes in the centre, which jut out from the dashboard.
This makes the footrest position limited and uncomfortable, and leaves too little space between the accelerator and break for people with big feet. Over long distances it can prove to be a real annoyance.
All in all though, the vehicle did the business and ferried friends and family to our destinations in true comfort.