VW Caravelle adds a splash of colour to the Karoo with its Heritage red-and-white paint job. Picture: DENIS DROPPA
VW Caravelle adds a splash of colour to the Karoo with its Heritage red-and-white paint job. Picture: DENIS DROPPA

There may be a strong antidiesel sentiment in Europe after the sordid Dieselgate saga that cost Volkswagen a lot of money and caused reputational damage, but oil-burner engines aren’t ready to exit stage-left just yet.

Though VW, along with the motor industry at large, has committed to an electric-vehicle future in the mid- to long-term, combustion engines will continue to power a majority of vehicles for years.

Whatever harm it may be doing pollution-wise, for now it’s still hard to beat the combined performance and fuel efficiency of a diesel engine, a fact I was reminded of during a road trip with VW’s Caravelle and Caddy in the Eastern Cape last weekend.

I have been asked, as a motoring journalist, which of the umpteen number of engines available gives the best combination of power, driveability and economy; and my answer has been a 2-litre turbo diesel. No brand in particular, although I am quite partial to BMW’s and VW’s TDIs.

If budget doesn’t stretch into Caravelle territory, the VW Caddy is a smaller but still versatile family alternative with up to seven seats. Picture: SUPPLIED
If budget doesn’t stretch into Caravelle territory, the VW Caddy is a smaller but still versatile family alternative with up to seven seats. Picture: SUPPLIED

In the road trip that VW SA staged in the Eastern Cape, it was the middle-spec 2-litre TDI that powered the Caddy Alltrack I allocated for the 260km Port Elizabeth to Graaf Reinet trek. The engine is available in a number of outputs and this version develops 103kW of power and 320Nm of torque, which puts it in the middle of the family.

Those numbers don’t sound terribly exciting but the appeal of this TDI is its gutsy, easy-to-drive nature. With its minimal turbo lag ensuring brisk and pause-free pulloffs, the Caddy Alltrack sliced and diced efficiently through Port Elizabeth’s urban traffic. Then, when we hit the open road, the car swept effortlessly through the Karoo carrying four people and their luggage. It’s a smooth-voiced car, gulping distance without any droning, and the rated 6.2l per 100km fuel consumption completes an appealing performance-refinement-economy trifecta.

The Caddy range includes Panel Van and Crew Bus derivatives catering to commercial buyers with needs for loads of packing space. The more family-focused Caddy Trendline comes in five-seater short-wheelbase or seven-seater Maxi lengths, while the short-wheelbase Alltrack combines utility with more style. It comes standard as a five-seater but for extra money you can opt for a two-seater rear bench as well. It’s a versatile vehicle and both rows of rear seats can be variously folded, or removed altogether, to cater for varying-size loads.

Priced at R426,900 for the manual and R461,000 for the automatic, and well-equipped with luxuries, the Alltrack makes a practical “mini-Caravelle” for families.

Our drive back from Graaff Reinet to PE was in the actual Caravelle, perhaps one of the best long-distance family haulers there is. With its seven seats and stretch-out cabin space, combined with a full deck of comforts, VW’s luxury bus has earned a reputation as one of the world’s most coveted luxury people movers.

I drove the Caravelle Comfortline base model — if one can use such a term for a vehicle priced at R911,500. Still, it’s a useful 108 grand saving over the flagship Highline 4Motion derivative which sells for R1,020,100.

The Comfortline is not short of luxuries, and I was particularly impressed with how effectively the climate control system was able to cool that big cabin in Graaff Reinet’s  39ºC heat. There are a host of extra-cost features if you go down the options rabbit hole, my favourite being the R33,289 Heritage dual-colour metallic paint which harks back to the original mk1 Kombi.

Pop-up table is a R5,245 option in the Caravelle Comfortline. Picture: DENIS DROPPA
Pop-up table is a R5,245 option in the Caravelle Comfortline. Picture: DENIS DROPPA

Another extra fitted to the test vehicle was the R5,245 multifunction centre table for the middle row of seats, which can be slid fore and aft on guide rails in the floor. It tends to rattle but it’s a handy piece of furniture, and the table also contains storage nooks and cupholders.

Access to the Caravelle’s middle and rear seats is made easy with sliding doors on both sides, and for an extra R14,527 they can be electrically powered.

Hauling this bus is a more powerful incarnation of VW’s 2-litre TDI engine, this one mustering 132kW and 400Nm. The same unit used in the Amarok bakkie, and paired with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, it’s an energetic and refined performer with plenty of low-down torque and easygoing cruising pace.

VW quotes a 188km/h top speed for this bus, along with a modest thirst of 8.8l/100km (we just about matched that consumption on the long open-road cruise), which gives it a range of more than  900km on its 80l fuel tank.

One day our grandchildren in their electric cars will probably look back on these diesel-powered relics with dismay, but for now there’s no better way to tackle those long family road trips.