When the end of Volkswagen’s longstanding agreement with Mercedes-Benz to build its Crafter on the Stuttgart manufacturer’s Sprinter platform was announced in 2013, a decision apparently taken by the three-pointed star brand because it needed the extra capacity for its large van, VW did not resort to half measures in finding a solution to its own model’s impending homelessness.

It decided not only to take production back in-house but to build a brand new plant from scratch in Wreznia, Poland, in which to assemble the next generation Crafter.

An investment of €800m (£688m) in a new facility makes a pretty strong statement that VW plans to seize control of its destiny in the large van sector, so it is hard to overstate the importance of the new Crafter to the brand’s light commercial vehicle operation.

Historically, VW has underperformed in the large van segment where the Crafter has failed to match the impact of the Caddy in the light van sector and, especially, the Transporter, which enjoys a bullet-proof reputation in the medium van market.

VW defines “the basic thought behind the (Crafter) vehicle concept” as “giving the agile and popular Transporter range a big brother”.

The exterior design of the Crafter is reminiscent of the sixth-generation Transporter with a front end that rises in a straight line, the family grille (a scaled-up version of those on the Caddy and T6), and sharp lines defining the bonnet.

“We have to build our own successor to go forward,” says Bernd Graf, VW’s member of the board for LCV Quality Assurance.

He claims the new van is now “a step ahead” of the competition and sets new standards in its class”.
Punters got their first chance to cast their eyes over the new Crafter at the Hanover IAA CV show in September.

The model will make its public UK debut in April at the CV Show but order books will open in December. The first vans will arrive with customers in May in front-wheel drive format, but rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive 4Motion versions will join the line-up in late 2017.

The purpose-built Wreznia factory covers an area of 540 acres and when working to capacity it will employ 3,000 staff. When at full tilt VW claims the plant will be able to churn out 100,000 units a year – up to 20% of which will be MAN TGEs – the Volkswagen-owned heavy truck maker’s Crafter-based van, which will be MAN’s first foray into the LCV market.

The Wreznia site is close to VW’s plant in Poznan, where it builds the Caddy and from where it has therefore been able to transfer key management employees.
Master of all trades

One of the strengths VW claims for the new Crafter is versatility. The brand says it consulted 900 customers with a wide range of operational requirements – from small traders to large fleets – before designing the model.

“We invited key customers and importers into the development process,” Graf explains, in order to attain “realistic feedback” about operators’ expectations.

In short, the brand claims it reversed the usual development process by taking the customer as the starting point and then moving onto the vehicle – rather than vice versa.

The new Crafter will come in three wheelbases, three roof heights, and as a single- and double-cab chassis cab. A 2.0-litre EA 288 Nutz diesel engine, which VW claims it has developed especially for the model, will power the range with outputs of 102hp, 122hp and 140hp, plus there’s a bi-turbo TDI with 177hp.

The powertrains come mated to a six-speed manual or, for the first time, an eight-speed automatic gearbox.

VW found total cost of ownership (TCO) and suitability for myriad specific jobs and functions to be key customer requirements – claiming 69 body/drive derivatives are available and stressing the wide range of conversions enabled by the chassis cab versions.

With environmental impact a consideration linked to TCO, VW claims the new Crafter will emit 25g/km less CO2 than the current model and will be 15% more fuel-efficient.

The panel van range is available with load volumes of 9.9m3, 11.3m3, 14.3m3, 16.0m3, 16.3m3 and 18.3m3. The manufacturer claims the largest model can accommodate six Euro pallets while the core L3H3 11.3m3 van driven here can take four.

VW has not yet confirmed payload capacities but claims they will be increased from the outgoing Crafter, which carries weights from 950kg to 1,430kg. It has revealed, however, that the front-wheel drive 3.5t van we tested has a maximum front axle load of 1,800kg and maximum rear axle load of 2,100kg – this rises to 2,250kg on rear-wheel drive derivatives to facilitate the application of conversion bodies.

The brand is likely to adopt its familiar three-tier trim level scale with the new Crafter but has not yet finalised the standard kit that will come within the Startline, Trendline and Highline bands.
In addition, a range of optional driver assistance packages will also be up for grabs.

The 140hp six-speed manual van we tested was not short of practical features and creature comforts designed to take the strain out of the driver’s day. These included the Ergocomfort driver’s seat with 14 setting positions encompassing shock cushioning with weight adjustment to minimise back pain, an electric four-way lumbar support and an armrest.

The cabin is full of robust-looking materials and practical storage spaces for mobile phones, laptops, sunglasses, work gloves, water bottles and coffee mugs. A generous shelf above the windscreen adds to interior functionality as does a lockable glove box, but while there is a place for everything the overall effect is a little dull and lacking the style of rivals such as Ford, Iveco or Mercedes.

That said, the automatic air-conditioning system is excellent, the two 12V plug sockets come in handy, and the satnav/ infotainment system debuted in the Transporter and controlled by swipe movements like a smartphone, is cutting edge.

Aside from VW’s Automatic Post Collision Braking System and side wind assist, which come standard on all models, a vast array of driver assistance systems are up for grabs, such as Lane Assist – an active lane-keeping system, adaptive cruise control, Front Assist emergency braking, automatic Light Assist, Park Assist, and Trailer Assist.

The last two of these involve the driver surrendering the steering function to the automatic system. Trailer Assist is activated by a button on the dash that then turns the electric mirror dial on the driver’s side into a joy stick with which to direct the system into aligning the trailer into the desired space.

Although these systems are clever and, in some cases, extremely useful and, most importantly, improve safety, they will all come at a cost so it is debatable how many fleets will sanction the extra investment.
On the road the Crafter is impressively refined with the 145hp engine delivering more than enough power with a load of about 600kg in the back when on the motorway and on winding routes with steep inclines. It is quiet, comfortable and when in town negotiates narrow streets and roundabouts with sure-footed dexterity.

Maximum torque (340Nm) kicks in early enabling the big van to pull away sharply in all circumstances, much like the Euro6 Ford Transit.

The transversely mounted FWD engine takes up less space lengthways so provides more space in the cab and load bay. At 570mm, loading height is 100mm less than on the previous Crafter.

A significant innovation on the new Crafter’s running gear is the introduction of electromechanical steering – a sector first, according to the manufacturer. The speed-adjusted system delivers sharp handling and better agility on challenging roads than the hydraulic steering it replaces and works well in conjunction with the crisp and precise six-speed manual gearbox.

It is even better with the smooth eight-speed automatic transmission we also got to sample with the 140hp engine in FWD, which should appeal to multi-drop supermarket delivery fleets and offer a rival to the automatic ‘boxes used by Mercedes in the Sprinter and Iveco in the Daily – albeit in RWD mode.

VW pulled off a cute trick by providing a current Crafter with hydraulic steering for us to compare, unfavourably, with the incoming electromechanical system, which is also, of course, employed by Mercedes on its Sprinter – the donor model for the outgoing VW van.

Price (ex VAT) tba
Price range (ex VAT) £23,500-£tbc
Insurance group 41 (est.)
Warranty 3yrs/unltd miles
Service intervals 12,000mls
Load length 3,450mm
Load width (min/max) 1,380/1,832mm
Gross payload tba
Load Volume 11.3m3
Engine size/power 1,968cc/140hp
On sale May 2017
Combined fuel economy 46.3mpg
CO2 159g/km