The new bronze-and-white dual-tone colour was introduced with the Caravelle’s latest update. Picture: DENIS DROPPA
The new bronze-and-white dual-tone colour was introduced with the Caravelle’s latest update. Picture: DENIS DROPPA

Since its launch in 1950 Volkswagen’s iconic minibus range has had nearly as many names as it is had uses. It has been variously called the Kombi, Bulli, Transporter, Multivan, Microbus, and the SA-specific Volksie Bus as popularised in 1980s and 1990s TV ads by David Kramer in his red veldskoens.

Some refer to it by its sequential monikers, starting with the T1 of 1950 up to the current T6 generation, launched in 2015. No doubt, for anyone outside the Kombi fold it is a confusing conglomeration of aliases, but name-drop the Caravelle and almost everyone will know you are talking about VW’s most luxurious people-hauler.

The executive seven-seater has had a recent upgrade with the rest of the T6 range, which is now dubbed the T6.1. The vehicle retains the basic bread-loaf-with-a-slanted-nose shape, but the snout is restyled with new headlights and a larger grille that blends more naturally with the new bumper. The headlights and daytime running lights are now full LEDs.

Rounding off the exterior updates are novel wheel designs and new colours, including the new bronze-and-white dual tone of the test vehicle.

Versatility is the buzzword in this bus, which has as many seating permutations as it has names. Its three rows of seats can be tilted, slid, and folded in all manner of passenger and cargo configurations, the second row can swivel 180° for rear passengers to face each other, and there is a rear folding table with cup holders.

Unlike some multipurpose vehicles that offer decent space for either a full load of humans or cargo, VW’s bus has stretch-out room for seven people and a good stack of luggage. With the third row tipped down and moved forward, the boot swallows a truly cavernous heap.

You can also turn the vehicle into a two-seater van, though removing the heavy rear seats is a tricky task and not a one-person job.

Inside, the Caravelle has been updated with a new digital instrument cluster with customisable screen configurations, and a full-featured Discover Pro Media system with navigation.

Luxury is in good supply and all three rows of leather-clad seats get their own ventilation controls, with the front two seats electrically adjustable. USB ports and a wireless smartphone charger make for family happiness on long trips.

There is no storage console between the front seats but both front doors have two spacious shelves for clutter.

The Caravelle features cavernous space and many passenger and cargo permutations. Picture: DENIS DROPPA
The Caravelle features cavernous space and many passenger and cargo permutations. Picture: DENIS DROPPA

The Caravelle uses the most powerful 2.0 turbo diesel in VW’s family, boasting a punchy 146kW and 450Nm. Once moving, the big vehicle delivers gutsy responses and effortless open-road cruising even with a full load of passengers, and the DSG automatic fires smoothly through its seven speeds.

The bus is less likable in urban stop-start driving at Gauteng altitude where turbo lag prevents the vehicle moving from standstill in any kind of hurry, and it is not great for nipping across busy intersections.

In fuel consumption we didn’t come anywhere near VW’s optimistic claim of 8.2l / 100km but the test car averaged 10.6l, an impressively economical figure for a hefty vehicle with 4Motion permanent all-wheel drive.

The 4Motion provides some added wet-road traction and mild off-roading ability, and an electronic differential lock (XDS) at the front wheels reduces understeer when cornering. The bus doesn’t handle too badly and leans less than you would expect for something with its bulk and height. Crosswind assist automatically stabilises the vehicle in strong gusts by independently braking the wheels.

The ride quality is generally good but potholes and rough roads do cause some jolting. Owners seeking better waftability can shell out extra money for an optional chassis control system that allows the driver to adjust the Caravelle’s suspension firmness between comfort and sport.

With light steering and good visibility this bulky family Volksie is easy to drive. The challenge of squeezing it into bays is taken care of by an automated parking system that takes over the steering. A reversing camera is also part of the deal, and trailer assist makes it easier to reverse with a caravan or boat hitched to the back.

Spacious, flexible, and with all the executive trimmings including electrically operated sliding doors, the R1,184,100 Caravelle is squarely aimed at hotels seeking a luxury shuttle, or well-to-do families who don’t wish to skimp on comfort.

The T6.1 update keeps it on point in terms of technology while we await the arrival of the new-generation T7. That bus is being launched overseas later this year and Volkswagen SA has yet to confirm when it is destined for local shores.

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