Volkswagen Crafter CR35 ShiftMatic mwb h/r - Tested May 2007

Date: Thursday, May 03, 2007

Anybody who has driven a van down the traffic-clogged streets of London, Birmingham or any other major UK city you care to mention must have lost count of the number of times they've had to change gear. Constant cog-swapping is tiring and does little for clutch life, and drivers in this predicament would surely happily exchange a manual 'box for an automatic or semi-automatic any day of the week.

 

Their bosses aren't quite so enthusiastic, alas. Vans with non-manual transmissions account for a fraction of the total number of light commercials sold in the UK each year.

So what's the problem? Operators don't like having to pay more for fancy gearboxes — think in terms of another £750 to £1,000 — and worry that anything that doesn't have a conventional manual 'box will suffer in the second-hand market. Despite the promises of longer clutch life, they fear that maintenance costs will rise.

They fear that fuel consumption will increase too, even though it should be better with a semi-automatic.

Volkswagen's LT was not offered with anything other than an ordinary manual 'box. Its Crafter successor, however, can be ordered with a semi-automatic six-speed ShiftMatic gearbox so we decided to sample it.

Technical

A semi-automatic gearbox can be used in either automatic or manual mode and does not require the driver to depress a clutch pedal. That's just as well, because no clutch pedal is provided; all you get is one for the accelerator and one for the brake.

The ShiftMatic 'box we sampled in a CR35 3.5-tonner was married to the 136 bhp version of Crafter's 2.5-litre TDI five-cylinder common rail diesel engine. Maximum power bites at 3,500rpm, while peak torque of 258 lb/ft kicks in at 2,000rpm.

Crafter's 2.5-litre is additionally up for grabs at 88 bhp, 109 bhp and a stonking 163 bhp, but only the 136 bhp and the 109 bhp variants can be specified with ShiftMatic. It imposes a modest 6.0kg weight penalty.

Rear-wheel drive like its predecessor, at 3.5-tonne Crafter comes with transverse leaf spring independent suspension at the front along with an anti-roll bar. At the back you'll find a rigid axle with single-leaf springs.

Our Crafter rode on 16ins steel wheels shod with Michelin Agilis 81 235/65 R16C tyres.

Disc brakes are fitted all round — ventilated at the front, solid at the rear — and ABS is a standard feature along with Electronic Brake Assist, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, traction control and an electronic differential lock.

What's more, Crafter comes with a second generation Electronic Stabilisation Programme as a standard feature. If the driver has to swerve suddenly on a wet or icy road surface it does its level best to prevent the vehicle from turning over.

While making its split-second calculations it takes into account the height and position of the load and the effect it's having on Crafter's centre of gravity.

Power steering is fitted as standard.

Our demonstrator was a medium-wheelbase high-roof van with a 13.6m turning circle between walls and an 11.0m3 cargo area. Gross payload was 1,363kg and our Crafter could tow a braked trailer grossing at 2,800kg.

Load Area  

Entry to Crafter's cargo bay is by means of twin side-hinged unglazed rear doors plus an unglazed sliding nearside door. You can swing the former through 90° and through 180° if you release the door stays.

Clambering in through the back doors isn't all that easy because there's no grab handle to cling on to — you might be tempted to seize one of the door stays, potentially causing damage — but at least you benefit from a non-slip step. There's one inside the side door as well.

Once aboard you'll spot 10 load tie-down rings; eight set into the floor plus two at the base of the full-height steel bulkhead.

Our Crafter's load box was comprehensively timbered out, adding a further £265 to the bill; all figures quoted here exclude VAT. The load bed was protected by a tailored rubber mat adding a rather steep £375 to the final invoice.

Maximum load length is 3,265mm. Maximum width is 1,780mm, decreasing to 1,350mm between the rear wheel boxes, while maximum height is 1,940mm.

Rear loading height is 670mm. The rear door aperture is 1,840mm high and 1,565mm wide, while dimensions for the side door aperture are 1,820mm and 1,300mm respectively.

We're still not keen on the positioning of the big VW badge that dominates the back of the vehicle. Mounted on the offside door, it overlaps its nearside stablemate and there's the risk that it will be used as a handle and end up being snapped off. A triumph of styling over practicality? We reckon so.

Cab Comfort

Few drivers will moan about a lack of in-cab oddment storage space. Facilities include big bins in each of the front doors with a moulding that can clasp a large bottle of water or a flask. Below each of these bins is a compartment that can be used to accommodate maps and other documents.


You'll find assorted compartments on top of the dashboard, one of which will hold an A4 clipboard. They're in addition to a roomy lidded, but not lockable glovebox plus a clip on the facia to keep paperwork tidy.

Glance upwards and you'll see shelves above the windscreen on both the driver and passenger side of the vehicle. Crafter can carry three people and if you pull down the centre of the middle seat's back you're immediately faced with a desk complete with two cup holders and a pen tray. Pull up the seat cushion and you'll discover two roomy bins.

Not that you have to go dismantling the seats to find somewhere to put your steaming cup of Gold Blend. There are cup holders at either extremity of the dashboard and the pull-out ashtray has an integral one.

As well as a radio/CD player — the sound quality is particularly good, by the way — our Crafter boasted satellite navigation with a colour screen. Very nice too, but we're not sure how many customers will want to part with a wallet-numbing £1,460 to avail themselves of its benefits, even though the deal includes remote controls on the steering wheel.

Further extras included heated and electrically-adjustable exterior mirrors for £130 — indicators are integrated with them — a CD autochanger for £225, a passenger airbag for £195 to supplement the standard driver's airbag and an adjustable lumbar support for the driver's seat for £55. You can adjust the seat's height; just as well given that the steering column is fixed.

Electric windows are standard, as is remote central locking; the cargo area can be locked and unlocked separately from the cab. The anti-theft package additionally features an alarm, immobiliser, tow-away protection and an electronic steering wheel lock.

On the Road

It's not immediately obvious how ShiftMatic operates, so drivers would be well advised to spend a few minutes with somebody who knows the ropes — or even, dare we suggest it, to read the handbook — before they try to move the vehicle.

Not that ShiftMatic is difficult to use once you understand the basics. Tap the dashboard-mounted lever to the left and you are in automatic mode. Tap it to the right and you instantly switch to manual.

Push it further to the right and you are in neutral. Do that, then pull it towards you and you're in reverse.

When you're using the 'box as a manual all you need to do is pull the lever towards you to go up a gear and push it away to go back down again. A dashboard display will tell you which gear you are in, making the whole exercise a doddle.

While ShiftMatic greatly reduces the amount of hard work a driver has to do in heavy traffic — say bye-bye to an aching left leg — it does not like to be rushed in automatic mode.

Try to hustle it along and you can look forward to making jerkier progress than you might ideally like. As a consequence we found that switching to manual mode made a lot more sense in urban areas outside the rush hour.

You soon learn to switch to manual mode if you're approaching a speed restriction.

Leave it in automatic and you'll discover that the 'box won't change down quickly enough, leading to embarrassing consequences if the restriction is backed by yet another speed camera. Switching to manual means that you can whip down the 'box much more quickly, although it's useful to note that it will change down automatically even in manual mode as the vehicle slows.

Good to see that ShiftMatic features a hill-hold device. It stops you rolling backwards if you're pulling away on an incline.

As far as fuel usage is concerned we averaged 36.0mpg.

With 136 bhp on tap Crafter offers ample performance, zooming away from rest and easily keeping pace with high-speed motorway traffic. For a biggish van it rides and handles well, and while the engine can sound harsh under acceleration, the otherwise muted noise levels will trouble few drivers.

What may trouble other road users is Crafter's aggressive appearance. Its snarling front grille makes it look like the sort of van that eats cyclists and little old ladies tottering across pedestrian crossings for breakfast.

As we would expect from a VW, build quality is rock-solid.

Service intervals are variable, but can be stretched to 25,000 miles depending on the work the vehicle is on.

A three-year/100,000 mile warranty with no mileage restriction in the first two years is included in the deal along with a three-year paintwork warranty and a 12-year anti-corrosion warranty. A three-year emergency roadside assistance package is provided too.

Our Crafter was finished in metallic paint for an additional £910.

VERDICT

VW's Crafter won our Van of the Year award last year — jointly with Mercedes-Benz's Sprinter — so you might have gathered that we're rather impressed with it. With 136 bhp on tap the version we've just tested provided bags of performance, rode and handled well, offered a high degree of safety thanks to ABS and Electronic Stability Programme, and was built like the proverbial brick out-house. OK, some people don't like Crafter's looks and there are one or two minor design features we'd like to change. Otherwise, it's top-notch. But what about the ShiftMatic box? Is it worth the £750 price premium you pay? To be honest, we're not entirely convinced. If you spend your entire life in bumper-to-bumper traffic then it may make sense to specify it, but if you're on more mixed work — bit of urban, bit of rural, bit of motorway — then you're probably better off sticking with the, rather good, standard six-speed manual 'box. We enjoyed slightly better fuel consumption than we would have got with a manual, but the margin wasn't sufficient to swing the argument in ShiftMatic's favour. So opt for it by all means if you have to make city centre deliveries when congestion is at its worst. Otherwise, save your pennies.

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