Lug the family in luxury
Whether to make a statement or get there through the mud, there is a German van for the job
VOLKSWAGEN Commercial Vehicles on Monday presented the sixth generation of the popular T-Series model — just in time for me to compare its top- end family lugger, the Caravelle Highline, with the rockstar V-Class Avantgarde from Mercedes-Benz.
Now, before you ask, I did not check for any hidden devices designed to obscure emissions in the Caravelle, because South African car buyers are quick to forgive and faster to forget, even after being left high and dry by an importer, as Hyundai gratefully points out. Secondly, our local emissions limits are so high, in some some towns the smoke from VW’s diesels are actually cleaner than the air. So I focused on comparing bells and whistles.
MARKETING PRAISE SONGS Merc states its V-Class “combines room for up to eight people and exemplary functionality with high-class appeal, comfort, efficient driving enjoyment and safety”, adding this makes the V-Class Avantgarde “the perfect vehicle for everyone who appreciates boundless space but does not want to sacrifice style and comfort”.
VW calls its Caravelle Highline “a unique proposition” among vans. “The core element of its versatility is the hugely variable seating in the back. No matter what it has to transport or carry, the Caravelle has an answer ready to handle almost any task.”
Neither company is exaggerating too much either, as both vans are big, capable and about equally packed with features at entry level. Under the hood, things are however, very different.
DRIVETRAINS The Caravelle has a 2-litre bi-turbo engine that makes 132 kW at 4 000 rpm and 400 Nm from 1 500 rpm, matched to VW’s 7-speed DSG transmission.
The top-of-the-line V 250 BlueTEC V-Class has a 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine with two-stage turbocharging that makes 140 kW and 440 Nm from seemingly just above idle, matched to a sixspeed auto. Put foot and another 10 kW and 40 Nm pops up in “over-torque”. As a result, even I could get the flagship model to do the 0-100 km/h in under 11 seconds, which leaves the Caravelle far behind.
The V-Class wins under the hood with all that power, despite offering one less cog in the gears. (A seventh gear with 7-GTronic is optional and costs R20 500.)
HANDLING Merc offers agility settings to shorten gear changes and stiffen the suspension for a drive that can get quite exhilaratingly even with the ESP on.
VW offers all-wheel-drive through its 4Motion system for those who have to get over sand or mud. The VW rides on 17-inch alloy wheels, while the Merc rolls on 17-, 18- or 19-inch rims. The ride in both big vans benefits from smaller rims and higher sidewalls.
DRIVER ASSISTS Both the Caravelle and V-Class sport a raft of driver-assist systems, like ABS, ESP, Hill Hold Control. Both have voice recognition, sat navigation system and Fatigue Detection.
The V-Class vibrates the steering wheel if you meander close to the lines, the Caravelle flashes a light and sounds an alarm to alert a tired driver. Park assist with a rear-view camera is optional in the VW, costing R7 500, but is standard on the V-Class. For an extra R14 500, Merc owners can, however, spec four cameras that generate a bird’s eye view of the V-Class, and another R11 k buys smart cruise control.
INSIDE To get inside, both vans offer electrical sliding doors. Both have seats that face front or back and both have tables.
The seats and table pillars of both are anchored to tracks in the floor so that they can be turned or shunted forwards or backwards. Both have 1.5 litre bottle and cup holders.
The back bench or seats in both vans move forward to increase the luggage space, or backward to make more leg room, with the bench in the VW moved by simply pulling a lever or loop from either front or back.
Merc and VW claim the seats are also easily removed, but you will need a strong helper to lift and carry the heavy seats should the need arise to turn your luxurious family lugger into a plain panelvan.
Both have climate control systems front and rear, but the Caravelle trumps the V-Class with roller sun blinds in the passenger compartment.
The Merc counters with a rear windscreen that can be opened and closed independently of the tailgate. This makes it a bit easier to load stuff onto the tray in tight parking spaces without opening the large tailgate.
The tray itself can carry 50 kilograms and has two recesses, each of which holds an (optional) removable and collapsible shopping basket.
ENTERTAINMENT SYSTEMS The V-Class has Merc’s latest generation of Comand Online, which combines all audio, telephone and navigation functions, and additionally offers an Internet browser, the Linguatronic voice-control system and transmission of traffic data in real time.
The optional Burmester surround sound system with 16 high-performance loudspeakers, including a bass reflex loudspeaker, does what it says in the handbook to deliver real listening pleasure.
In fact, this system is so good, it may be worth it to add this R10 000 optional extra to the Standard V-Class.
And a nice touch is a microphone in the overhead control panel to transmit conversation between the driver and front passenger to the rear loudspeakers so that the passengers sitting further away can also hear them.
The Caravelle Highline comes standard with a 6,33-inch display coupled with a proximity sensor to sense your hand.
As it approaches the screen, functions appear on the screen and are readily available.
When functional inputs are not required, the full screen can be seen, increasing ease of visibility. The display also responds to wiping and zooming gestures, as used in smartphones and tablets. In the Merc, digital connection happens through a Direct Select lever with steering wheel shift paddles in the automatic models, as well as a touchpad that also allows the driver to gesture at the pad, or enter characters in the same way as on a smartphone.
It has to be said the system is not intuitive, in the same way that Merc requires its automatic brake button to be pulled up to disengage and pushed in to engage, but after a bit of prodding and a lot of muttering, I got things to work.
THE FINE PRINT Dealers for both brands offer guaranteed resale value if the deal is financed in-house.
As with all Mercedes-Benz passenger cars, the V-Class is introduced standard with the class-leading Mercedes-Benz Premium Drive sixyear/100 000 km maintenance contract with no customer contribution.
Caravelle models come standard with a three-year or 120 000 km manufacturer warranty and five-year or 60 000 km Automotion Maintenance Plan. All VW vans have 15 000 km service intervals, while the Merc needs to see the mechanic every 40 000 km.
• V200 CDI Standard R695 981
• V220 CDI Standard R726 875 • 2.0 BiTDI Caravelle Comfortline DSG 132 kW R738 300
• 2.0 BiTDI Caravelle Comfortline 4Motion DSG 132 kW R770 800
• V250 BlueTEC R782 416
• 2.0 BiTDI Caravelle Highline DSG 132 kW R816 300
• 2.0 BiTDI Caravelle Highline 4Motion DSG 132 kW R848 800 • V220 CDI Avantgarde R949 175
• V250 BlueTEC Avantgarde R984 196.
The Mercedes-Benz V-Class updates the Sprinter range with all the luxuries you can find in a C-Class, but the the VW Caravelle takes the fight right back to Merc with a value offering good enough to want to make us forget how the bosses in Wolfsburg lied to the world.
Above: The interior of the Mercedes-Benz V-Class Avantgarde with its standard fold-out tables. Below: The interior of the VW Caravelle Highline with its rounded tables and three-seater bench.