First Drive: Volkswagen Crafter

Date: Friday, July 22, 2011

Volkswagen has unveiled a revamped version of its Mercedes-Benz Sprinter-rivalling Crafter. Changes include the debut of a new, smaller-capacity engine offering almost the same choice of power outputs as its predecessor, a restyled exterior, a slightly revised interior and higher payload capacities. The newcomer will start arriving in UK dealerships in late July at prices around 1.5% higher than those charged for the outgoing model.
Power now comes courtesy of the 2.0-litre TDI four-cylinder common rail diesel already deployed in the Caddy, Transporter and the new Amarok pick-up, but tuned for the rear-wheel drive Crafter so that it delivers higher levels of torque at lower engine speeds. This means, for example, that the 163hp BiTDI twin-turbocharger version produces 400Nm at 1800rpm rather than the 360Nm at 2200rpm available from the 163hp version of the 2.5-litre five-cylinder BlueTDI engine previously used.
Married to a six-speed manual gearbox, the 2.0-litre can also be ordered at 109hp, 136hp or 143hp – the Crafter is no longer on offer at a somewhat-inadequate 88hp – with single turbochargers fitted. Unlike the 2.5-litre it does not require periodic doses of AdBlue, and fuel economy is said to have improved by up to 33%. Emissions are down as a result.
Worthy of note is the availability of low-emission Bluemotion technology, albeit solely on the CR35 3.5-tonner. The technology includes stop/start, energy recovery during braking, cruise control and a longer back axle ratio. All versions of the engine comply with the latest Euro5 emission regulations and meet the EEV – Enhanced Environmentally friendly Vehicle – standard.


New front end

The new, less-aggressive, front-end styling brings the Crafter in line with other members of the VW LCV family. The modest changes to the cab’s interior include an altered instrument cluster with white illumination, an indicator on the dashboard to tell you which gear you should be in for optimum fuel economy, and darker upholstery.
Bluetooth connectivity is among the new options on offer, although something that will no longer be available in the UK, is the Shiftmatic automated manual transmission. Given that Tesco will be operating some 1600 Iveco Dailys fitted with Agile automated manual transmissions on home-delivery work by the end of this year, and that other supermarket groups are running similar vehicles, this has to be classed as a somewhat surprising decision considering VW’s sales ambitions for the new Crafter. Shiftmatic is still available in mainland Europe in combination with the old five-cylinder engine, which of course requires AdBlue. VW’s UK operation felt, however, that to offer it would dilute the message it wants to get across to British customers that the Crafter is now an AdBlue-free zone; something the firm deems on balance to be more important than offering an automated ’box.
A Crafter with a full, torque converter, automatic gearbox is likely to debut in Britain next year however, and the auto box used could be the one currently offered in Mercedes-Benz’s Sprinter. What will certainly not be offered, alas, is the fabulous twin-clutch Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) fitted to both the Caddy and the Transporter. The reason given is that it is engineered for the transversely mounted engines fitted to both of these vehicles. The Crafter’s engine is mounted longitudinally.
Not wanting to be cut out of a number of home-delivery fleet orders entirely, VW is considering introducing a Transporter with an AL-KO chassis conversion plus a DSG box that it hopes will meet their needs.
Something else being dropped from the Crafter line-up is the passenger-carrying Kombi as a consequence of poor sales. Otherwise the line-up remains the same, consisting as it does of the CR30 3.0-tonner, the aforementioned CR35 and the CR50 5.0-tonner, with three wheelbases, four lengths, three roof heights and load cubes ranging from 7.5-17.0cu/m.
Payload capacities have, though, improved by up 82kg. The Crafter is also continuing to be sold in chassis cab, chassis double-cab and window van guise, and tipper, dropside and Luton bodies will be available as they were previously. A 15-seater minibus produced by UK converter Mellor will be available for purchase too.
VW aims to use the new Crafter’s arrival as an opportunity
to rejuvenate its Engineered to Go and Engineered for You special bodywork and conversions programmes that have languished somewhat in recent years.
A 4x4 version of the latest Crafter will be sold on the Continent, but its high cost means that is only likely to be available in the UK to special order.
So what is new Crafter like
to drive? We took to the highways
of southern Sweden in a medium- wheelbase 136hp CR35 to find out.
While the 2.0-litre is slightly noisier than we expected, in 136hp guise it offers just the right level of performance to meet most requirements. It certainly doesn’t lack torque, which is now available over a broader rev range than was previously the case. Show it an incline and it digs in nicely, even with a fair amount of weight on board, allowing the driver to power up the slope without the need to drop down a couple of gears. It’s equally effective when it comes to motorway cruising.
We sampled the 109hp engine too, this time in a CR30, and rapidly concluded that the performance it offers is inadequate in anything other than short-wheelbase models. In anything bigger, it struggles, and noise levels rise accordingly. But in the short-wheelbase Crafter it offers a lively and enjoyable drive.
Packing plenty of punch, the 163hp twin-turbo engine is the most enjoyable of the trio, but is probably only justifiable if you do a lot of long-distance high-speed work at maximum payload, if you regularly haul heavy trailers, or if you’ve opted for the CR50.
The Crafter has retained its existing virtues of rock-solid build quality, a decent ride, surprisingly good handling and a precise gear change. Notwithstanding the lack of an automated box, the changes VW has made should boost both registrations and market share – always assuming the brand can convince dealers to put rather more effort into selling Crafters than they have done in the past.
Prices start at £20,450 (CR30 109hp short-wheelbase) and go up to £32,150 (CR50 long-wheelbase Maxi high roof).  
The newcomer carries a three-year unlimited-mileage warranty along with a three-year roadside assistance package that reacts in mainland Europe as well as the UK, a three-year paintwork warranty and a 12-year body warranty. Service and maintenance costs are said to drop by up to 25%.

 

Overtaking Vauxhall to slipstream Ford

The new Crafter’s arrival should go some way towards helping Volkswagen in its ambition to achieve 45,000 UK registrations a year by 2015 and possibly replace Vauxhall as number two in the market behind Ford. So says Alastair Hemmings, UK national fleet manager at Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles.
“This year we’ll sell 3000 Crafters – the new model will account for 1800 registrations – rising to around 4000 in 2012, the first full year of the newcomer’s availability,”
he says. Longer-term he believes 7500 sales annually will be possible.
“We reckon the best-seller will be the CR35 136hp long-wheelbase high-roof van,” he adds.
The run-out of the old Crafter has been managed well, he says: “We’ve only got 200 left.”
Boosting sales will involve ensuring VW’s 70 Van Centres concentrate a little more on the Crafter but without diluting the effort placed behind the Caddy, Transporter and the new Amarok, says Hemmings. That is likely to involve, among other things, a major training exercise to give dealer sales people the confidence to sell the Crafter against rivals such as the Mercedes Sprinter and win deals – quite a challenge given the strength of the Mercedes van and truck network, but one Hemmings believes VW’s Van Centres can overcome.
This summer will see UK operators able to order the low-emission, more fuel-efficient, Bluemotion technology Transporter, with deliveries commencing late summer/early autumn. Features include stop/start, battery regeneration during braking, low rolling-resistance tyres and various aerodynamic tweaks, with economy reckoned to be enhanced by approximately 3mpg.
However, they will not be able to order the newly unveiled LPG-powered version of the Caddy. There are no plans to market it on this side of the Channel although an electric Caddy might debut.

 

Verdict
A well-put-together package with increased payloads that is now a more convincing rival to the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter.  



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