The VW Caravelle. Picture: DENIS DROPPA
The VW Caravelle. Picture: DENIS DROPPA

Some time ago, the kind marketing folk at Volkswagen SA (VWSA) gave me a show reel of the great VW brand advertising campaigns of the past. 

Readers of a certain age will remember the “V-W-You and Me” corporate ads with singing employees spelling out the brand logo,  brightly coloured Citi Golfs flying in formation, the “Memories” ad in which a couple hand their son the keys to their beloved Beetle, and a father and son rebuilding their relationship during a road trip through SA.

Then, of course, there was David Kramer, hitching rides in VW Kombis while pedalling his bicycle through mountain passes, catching thieves and helping the fire brigade put out nonexistent blazes.

I mention all this because I wonder what Kramer and his red velskoens, or vellies, would make of VW’s top-of-the-range bus, the Caravelle. The vehicles in which Kramer ran riot were family buses, packed with people, pets and luggage.  On TV, his bicycle fitted easily out of the way, behind the back seat.

Not in the Caravelle. When I brought my own bike back from the Eastern Cape last month, I had to rearrange the passenger compartment to fit it on top of the flattened seats.

To be fair, the Caravelle is not your average VW bus. At prices starting just shy of R1.2m, it is aimed squarely at the high-end market. 

Mark Handley, head of VWSA’s commercial vehicles division, says it’s popular among hotels, golf estates and others for guest shuttle services. There’s also demand from families demanding extra comfort. Handley reports that of six vehicles recently sold by one dealer, four were to medical doctors.

Many customers like the all-leather seating configuration, which allows five passengers to face each other over a central table. 

The two individual seats in the second row, which normally face forward, can rotate backwards in a matter of moments. (Memo to VW: that’s 180°. “Rotating by 360° in the blink of an eye”, as the marketing blurb suggests, would face you forward again.)

Interior space is impressive. Leg- and headroom for the five rear passengers are plentiful. Unless your passengers are planning five changes of clothes a day, the covered luggage bay behind the back seats is more than adequate for family and guests.

Up ahead, the driver and front-seat passenger can also have no complaints about comfort. What may make them less happy is the lack of secure spaces for personal items. Apart from the small lockable cubbyhole in front of the passenger, all the other spaces are open to view. 

I also don’t like the fact that driver and passenger have to crouch down into the depths of their doors to reach cold drinks during a journey.

Once you put these niggles out of your mind, however, the Caravelle – launched at the end of 2020 – is a pleasure to drive. It may be over 5m long, 2m wide and nearly 2m tall, but it handles like a light car. 

The 2l diesel engine, feeding a seven-speed automatic gearbox, is fast and responsive. It’s also frugal. After filling the 80l tank in Bloemfontein, I arrived in Port Alfred with over 300km of range in hand.

When I say it handles like a small car, I mean on the straight and through gentle bends. Don’t get carried away on sharp bends, particularly through mountain passes. As I quickly discovered, high-speed cornering is not advisable in a vehicle this tall.

The high driving position offers panoramic vision and a greater sense of control. The permanent four-wheel-drive, which allows the vehicle to travel offroad, adds to the sense of stability. 

Drive comfort is top-class. After my 10-hour journeys to and from the Eastern Cape, I was physically fresh; none of the aches and pains that usually follow long-haul solo drives.

Handley says the ease of driving extends to parking. Not in my experience. 

Even with the side-mirrors folded away, I struggled to fit it into my garage. I wasn’t the only one challenged by the physical bulk. A few minutes after taking delivery, I was in the right-hand lane at a traffic light, waiting for it to turn green. A cyclist trying to slip between the Caravelle and the vehicle on its left underestimated the passenger mirror and barged it off its bracket before riding off as fast as he could.

An accident? Or was it the spirit of Kramer proving that wherever there’s a VW bus, he will always be part of the action? We’ll never know. All I’m certain of is that the culprit wore red shoes.

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