For its manufacturer, the large van’s importance can hardly be overstated, giving VW a chance to finally make its mark in a segment where it has for a long time lagged behind rivals such as the Ford Transit, Mercedes Sprinter, on which the previous Crafter was based, and the Renault Master, along with its Vauxhall equivalent, the Movano.

When the termination of VW’s large van agreement with Merc was announced in 2013, apparently at the behest of Mercedes, VW did not waste time licking its wounds. It invested £688m in a new plant in Poland to build the next-generation Crafter, from which the first examples emerged early this year – going on sale in the UK in May in front-wheel drive mode, with rear- and all-wheel drive variants to arrive before the end of 2017.

Engine and gearbox

The FWD Crafter is offered with a 2.0-litre TDi powertrain with three outputs, 102hp, 140hp or a bi-turbo 177hp.

Having been suitably impressed by the 140hp version we were keen to try out the 177hp engine driven here in a medium-wheelbase, high-roof model.

The 177hp drivetrain is the motorway mile-eater best suited to operators needing to undertake long-haul, intercity assignments.

An eight-speed auto transmission, which is likely to appeal to supermarket and multi-drop delivery fleets, is available, but tested here is the six-speed manual derivative. It’s a classy system with slick gear changes getting the most out of the ample power on tap, and combined with the speed-adjusted electromechanical power-assisted steering that boosts its agility, the Crafter is now one of the best-handling and easiest large vans to manoeuvre – for driveability it even gives the Ford Transit a run for its money.

Interior and equipment

We also got to sample the top-of-the-range Highline trim for the first time and were immediately relieved to discover the presence of both front and rear parking sensors – a glaring omission on the otherwise well-specified mid-range Trendline van, on which you have to fork out £425 (all prices exclude VAT) to add them as an option.

As is VW’s way, this Crafter’s interior is functional in sobre black with good-quality materials and sturdy fittings, but is in no way flashy. There are decent storage facilities, including overhead shelves with two (somewhat superfluous) 1-DIN slots for additional audio kit included as a £155 option, and a space beneath the passenger seat. As is the case with nearly all new vans these days, the centre seat back folds down into a table with additional cup holders and a strap to hold paperwork, thus creating the fabled ‘mobile office’.

Other options on our van were Discover Media Navigation (£672) and Climactic air-conditioning (£1,320), although it seems a little mean that you have to pay extra to keep cool.

But generally the Highline is well kitted out, coming with an excellent adaptive cruise control system, which is a great advance on the standard cruise you get with Trendline, a Comfort-Plus driver’s seat with electric four-way lumbar support, and a heated windscreen plus front fog lights with a cornering function.

You also retain useful features from Trendline such as load floor covering, rear doors that open to 270°, as opposed to 180° on entry-level Startline, multi-function steering wheel, and a media system with DAB radio.

VW Crafter Highline CR35 MWB 2.0TDi 177hp 6-spd manual FWD

Price (ex VAT)     £32,255
Price range (ex VAT)     £23,920-£33,655
Insurance     43A
Warranty     3yrs/100,000mls
Service intervals     12,000mls
Load length     3,450mm
Load width (min/max)     1,380/1,832mm
Load bay height     1,940mm
Load volume     11.3m3
Gross payload     1,227kg
Engine size/power     1,968cc/177hp
Combined fuel economy     37.7mpg
CO2     199g/km