Long gone are the days when the slowest vehicle away from the traffic lights was likely to be an underpowered, lumbering van. Today's light commercials pack plenty of punch and their firepower seems to be increasing annually. Go back twenty years or so and a diesel engine pumping out 75hp was reckoned to be perfectly adequate for a 3.5-tonner. Today some customers look for almost twice that output in considerably smaller cargo-carriers.
But does all that extra wallop make sense? Certainly it helps drivers to maintain journey times on increasingly congested roads and undoubtedly adds to driving pleasure. If you spent more time at the wheel of your light commercial than you do in your own home, then you're going to want to get a bit of enjoyment out of it.
However, there's a downside too. Drive a powerful van and there's probably a greater risk that you'll attract a camera-generated speeding ticket; and if you get too many of those you'll lose your licence. Let an inexperienced young driver loose in a high-horsepower vehicle and there's always the danger that he'll have a spectacular accident, and bigger engines often — though by no means always — spell higher fuel and insurance bills.
With Volkswagen's new Caddy Maxi you get a straight choice between two TDI diesels. You can either opt for the 1.9-litre generating a politically correct 104hp married to a five-speed manual gearbox — it's available with the optional DSG semi-automatic gearbox too — or a 2.0-litre with a gutsier 140hp on tap and a six-speed 'box. Having sampled the 1.9-litre with a DSG last month, we decided to try out its beefier stablemate. We're not sorry we did.
Choose the 2.0-litre and you'll find that you're sitting behind a four-cylinder lump equipped, like its smaller brother, with unit injectors rather than common rail fuel injection. It features a variable geometry turbocharger and an intercooler and a particulate trap comes as standard. Top power bites at 4,000rpm, while peak torque of 320Nm kicks in across a 1,750rpm-to-2,500rpm plateau.
Caddy Maxi's front suspension relies on McPherson struts while a rigid axle with single leaf springs is to be found at the back. Anti-roll bars are installed front and rear. Our demonstrator sat on 16in steel wheels sporting Dunlop SP Sport 205/55 R16 tyres. Disc brakes and ABS are included in the deal along with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, Engine Braking Control and Traction Control System. Offering a 12.2m wall-to-wall turning circle, hydraulic power steering comes as standard too.
Tipping the scales at an all-up weight of 2,342kg, our Maxi could handle an 800kg gross payload and tow a braked trailer grossing at 1,500kg.
A sliding door on each side plus unglazed asymmetric rear doors with the narrower of the two on the offside provide access to the 4.2m3 cargo bay. Both the back doors can be pushed through 170° if you release the stays and all four doors are panelled with hardboard to half their height.
There's a bit of panelling above the wheelboxes too, but the cargo bay enjoys no further protection from minor dings and scratches. Our test van was, however, provided with a tailored load bed mat for an extra £75; all prices quoted here exclude VAT.
Eight load tie-down points are provided and in theory the solid, full-height bulkhead should afford some protection if you forget to lash the cargo down and it shoots forward under heavy braking. However, the bulkhead is plastic rather than steel and cants backwards into the load bay — particularly the section behind the driver — stealing space.
Maximum load length is 2,250mm; 469mm more than the standard Caddy. Maximum width is 1,558mm, narrowing to 1,170mm between the wheelboxes, while maximum height is 1,257mm. Rear loading height is 594mm. The rear door aperture is 1,181mm wide and 1,116mm high. Dimensions for the side door aperture are 700mm and 1,108mm respectively.
While not wishing to be unkind, Maxi's dashboard looks desperately dull. What's more, as unabashed traditionalists we're not wildly keen on its open-fronted, lidless glovebox, even though we're more than willing to concede that the security a lockable glovebox lid provides is probably illusory.
We've got no other complaints to make about the in-cab stowage facilities provided, however. They include a bin in each door with a moulding to accommodate a flask or a 1.5-litre bottle of water, a deep, full-width, shelf above the windscreen and a selection of trays on top of the facia. In addition there's a tray for small change next to the handbrake lever, no less than four cup-holders between the seats and a cubby-hole at the bottom of the dashboard.
We're greatly impressed with the driving position. A nice big lever makes seat height adjustment a doddle, the steering wheel is height adjustable too and there's plenty of head, leg and shoulder room.
Our Maxi came complete with a driver's airbag and a 12-volt power point. Extra-cost goodies included electrically heated and adjustable exterior mirrors and electric windows in a £255 pack — one passenger complained that the positioning of the button made it too easy to accidentally lower the window on their side of the vehicle — and semi-automatic Climatic air-conditioning for a further £725.
The really big ticket item fitted, however, was satellite navigation for a wallet-numbing £1,420. We suspect a lot of operators will shake their heads and buy a TomTom for a fraction of the cost instead.
Allowing you to lock and unlock the rear doors separately from the cab doors should you wish to do so, remote central locking is standard and includes deadlocks. The doors can also be secured by pressing a button on the driver's door, but it's far too small to be easily seen in an emergency. A big button right in the middle of the dashboard would be preferable; something along the lines of the large and sensibly positioned button that switches on the hazard warning lights.
There's no denying that the solidly-built 140hp Maxi is a hoot to drive, in marked contrast to the van's uninspiring exterior styling. Floor the accelerate pedal and you can feel a steadily growing pressure between your shoulder blades as you surge forwards, and that pressure keeps on coming right the way across the rev range. Before you know it you're reaching highly illegal speeds and have to rein in your progress sharply.
It helps that Maxi is married to a user-friendly gearbox, and that the handling is so good and responsive; better than that of the 104hp Caddy we drove the other month and despite the fact that they're fitted with the same steering system. Highly-manoeuvrable at low speeds, VW's latest offering rides well too.
Drawbacks? Too much tyre noise and a touch too much wind noise too. Otherwise we had no reason to complain.
As far as fuel economy is concerned we averaged 43mpg, slightly better than the consumption returned by the DSG 1.9-litre we drove despite all that extra power.
Good to see that the big Caddy is defended from minor exterior damage by side rubbing strips. Our test vehicle was equipped with rear parking sensors for a further £210.
Pop open the bonnet — self-supporting courtesy of a gas-filled strut — and you'll discover that access to the screenwash reservoir, oil top-up point and dipstick is easy, so there's no excuse for failing to carry out regular checks.
Maxi is protected by a three year/100,000 mile warranty with no mileage restriction in the first two years. The package includes emergency roadside assistance for the full duration, a 12 year anti-corrosion perforation warranty for the body and a three year paintwork warranty.
Service intervals are set at a maximum 18,000 miles, although the maintenance regime in place recognises that vehicles in particularly arduous working environments may need to visit the workshop more frequently. Caddy Maxi falls into insurance group 4A. No CO2 figures are quoted for this particular model, but the window van version emits 169g/km.
Huge fun to drive, the 140hp Volkswagen Caddy Maxi boasts plenty of lovely power and torque, rides and handles well, and doesn't disgrace itself in the fuel economy stakes either. Ideal for the sort of operator who needs something a bit bigger than a Citroën Berlingo, or bigger than a standard Caddy for that matter, it's solidly built and should hold its value well in the used market. It's certainly what you require if you do a lot of express intercity runs — keep a careful eye on your speed, though — or regularly need to make use of the maximum payload capacity and want to maintain your journey times. On the negative side noise levels could stand to be better controlled and we cannot get excited over the interior and exterior styling. Those criticisms aside, Maxi is without doubt an impressive and well thought-out package and a worthy addition to the VW range.