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This VW Crafter is the winner of the Best New Van Award in the Parkers New Car Awards 2018. Read our full review to find out why we rate this large van so highly.
Launched in 2016 and on sale in the UK from 2017, the second-generation Volkswagen Crafter is unusual in light commercial vehicle (LCV) circles for being entirely new from the ground up.
Not only is the fundamental structure of the latest Crafter completely different from the vehicle that went before, the 2.0-litre TDI turbodiesel engines that power it are all brand new as well.
More than that, while the previous Crafter was built by Mercedes-Benz as a variant of its own Sprinter large van, this one is all Volkswagen’s own work, and assembled in an equally brand new VW Commercial Vehicles factory in Poland.
This exceptional newness has given Volkswagen an opportunity to do things a little differently.
This means technical innovations, including a number of class firsts and unique selling points, but VW also says it has involved prospective customers in the development of this Crafter from the very beginning of the project back in 2012.
It has made a particular effort to understand how different sorts of van buyers and operators use their vehicles, and sought to build the Crafter to suit.
As a result VW has paid particular attention both to the usability of the van – attention that can be seen in the ergonomics of the cab and the reduced height of the cargo area sills – and to the so called 'total cost of ownership', leading to what it claims are significant real-world improvements in fuel economy as well as service intervals extended to 30,000 miles.
VW has also placed great emphasis on safety, an area where the Crafter now has a clear lead over rival large vans such as the Sprinter, the Ford Transit, the Citroen Relay / Peugeot Boxer / Fiat Ducato trio and the Nissan NV400 / Renault Master / Vauxhall Movano triplets.
In fact, the only large van that currently matches it is the MAN TGE – but since the TGE is a re-branded Crafter, built in the same factory and launched several months later, that's hardly a surprise.
Active safety systems are especially impressive here, many of which are only made possible by the Crafter’s electro-mechanical power steering (which is one of those class firsts).
The Crafter received a further safety boost when VW made autonomous emergency braking (AEB) technology standard across its entire van range in June 2017.
With three power outputs plus manual and automatic gearbox options, three lengths, three heights and a choice of front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive or 4Motion four-wheel drive, there are no less than 69 basic variants of the Crafter.
Add a number of body-builder derivatives planned as direct factory conversions, and you certainly can’t deny it’s versatile.
Initial UK availability of the Crafter was, however, limited to front-wheel drive (FWD) manual gearbox models, with the first four-wheel drive (4WD) and rear-wheel drive (RWD) examples arriving late 2017. There are more to follow in 2018.
We have now driven examples of every drivetrain layout, as well as both manual and auto transmissions. See the On the Road section below for further details
UK versions of this Crafter are sold in three trim levels: Startline, Trendline and Highline. Standard equipment is good throughout, though the difference between Startline and Trendline in particular is well worth the extra outlay.
Here at Parkers Vans we've now covered thousands of miles in the second-gen Crafter, in part thanks to a long-term test. This means we have a great deal of experience with this model.
Our verdict is simple: the Crafter is exceptionally easy to drive, comfortable with arguably the best cab enivronment of any van on sale, technologically advanced, and it offers a vast load area.
It's not the cheapest large van you can buy. Neither does it offer the greatest possible payload, nor the best on-paper fuel economy. But the impression of quality is exceedingly high, meaning you still feel like you're getting substantial value for money.
It swallows long-distances with ease, yet is nimble enough to make urban driving a doddle. The Crafter was the clear choice for our 2018 Van of the Year.
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We’re just going to go ahead and say it: the VW Crafter has, in our opinion, the best cab environment of any large van on sale.
In fact, from the quality of the plastics to the intelligence of the design, it’s not even a close contest. The instruments are clear, there’s a large touchscreen infotainment unit familiar from Volkswagen cars fitted as standard on all but the entry-level Startline model, and a vast amount of storage.
This last includes triple-decker door bins, large dash-top cubbies, sensibly-lipped overhead bins and a narrow shelf that runs across front of the dashboard
There are four cupholders on the dash at different heights, too, and as is increasingly typical, the middle seat back folds down to reveal a secure storage tray that can function as a desk.
Add to the this numerous power points ranging from 12v to USB to 230v, not to mention a wide selection of available creature comforts including air-con and not just heated seats but a heated windscreen and heated steering wheel as well, and you’ve got a van that’s genuinely a joy to spend time in.
You can even add on-board Wi-Fi and various VW Car-Net online functions should you wish.
This is not to say the Crafter is perfect inside, however.
While there is plenty of storage, not much of it is lidded. Over-enthusiastic pilots may find their contents redistributed somewhat haphazardly, while anything lighter-coloured – such as paper and phone cables – placed in the open dash-top areas will reflect in the windscreen.
We also found the (optional) sat-nav to be a touch slow-witted and difficult to interpret at roundabouts, and although the Highline's heated windscreen is lovely on a cold winter’s morning, at night the tiny elements in the glass tend to diffract on-coming headlights in a rather distracting way.
The Crafter comes in three trim levels: Startline, Trendline and Highline.
Each successive trim level builds on the equipment of the one before, unless otherwise stated. For details of the extensive level of safety equipment, see the Safety and Security section.
VW offers a suspended driver’s seat upgrade that’s independently sprung like those fitted in trucks and buses.
It takes a bit of getting used to, as you’ll find yourself moving in the opposite direction to the van when driving over rough surfaces. But it should save your lower back from the pain of constant repetitive compressions.
The ergoComfort version is weight-adjustable and comes with four-way lumber support, while the ergoActive upgrade adds an electric massaging function. Indulgent, but a boon on particularly long journeys.
The second-generation VW Crafter launched with front-wheel drive and a choice of three 2.0-litre TDI turbodiesel engines:
The first 4Motion four-wheel drive versions became available in September 2017, with the first rear-wheel drive examples following before the end of the same year.
We have driven examples of every format, as well as both the standard six-speed manual gearbox and the optional eight-speed automatic transmission.
An additional 122hp single-turbo option will be available on some RWD Crafters in 2018.
VW is not alone in using 2.0-litre engines in its large van range – the Ford Transit is down to 2.0 litres following the introduction of Euro 6 emissions regulations, as are the Citroen Relay and Peugeot Boxer – but should you be worried about it?
Our initial impressions of the Crafter's new engine range weren't overly favourable. Around the mountain roads of Spain on the original launch we found the 140hp versions had to be worked hard and while the 177hp version was unsurprisingly pokier, both sounded reedy and coarse under power.
As we've spent more and more time with the 140hp model – the projected best-seller – we've come to better appreciate the new motor. Once 1,000 or so miles have been covered, the noise reduces and the smoothness increases.
In fact, we've come to prefer this engine over the 177hp BiTDI twin-turbo.
We're yet to test either of the less powerful choices, but anticipate these will feel rather slow.
The engines perhaps don't produce quite the same level of instant urge as Ford's new 2.0-litre EcoBlue engine in the Transit.
But driven back-to-back with the previous-generation Crafter there's a clear improvement, and you soon come to appreciate how quiet the new model is on the motorway, with little wind or road noise in the cab.
Our earlier concerns about the manual gearbox have also been overcome. On right-hand drive Crafters the action feels precise, and is so light and easy you could be driving a car.
Our opinion of the eight-speed automatic has also improved with further exposure.
The extra gears make these Crafters even quieter when cruising, and they will happily trickle along in eighth gear at low rpm, which is good news for fuel economy.
The auto costs more, of course. But in exchange you get added convenience in traffic – reducing drive fatigue – and the potential for reduced servicing costs as the automatic transmissions prevent excessive clutch and tyre wear.
Front-wheel drive makes a lot of sense for most uses. This configuration is the lightest, which helps with payload, and the most fuel efficient, and it also has a load area 100mm lower than the alternatives, which is easier on operators.
We've experienced no traction issue with FWD, either – though it is easy to imagine why tyre wear might be higher.
The 4Motion four-wheel drive Crafters are based on the FWD models, but add a Haldex system that delivers power to the rear axle as well. This is an 'on-demand' setup, which means that in normal road driving as much power as possible is sent to the front wheels alone, in order to maximise fuel economy.
However, as soon as the front wheels start to slip, up to 60% of power can be sent to the back, making light work of low grip situations, including light off-road work. You can add an optional locking rear differential for additional traction, too, but be aware that ground clearance isn't significantly increased.
VW is spinning this as an advantage – making these new 4Motion models easier to get in of out of and much less expensive than the previous generation. But they aren't as suitable for hardcore countryside bashing. They weigh around 150kg more than an equivalent FWD Crafter.
The rear-wheel drive Crafters are significantly different to both of the above. Though the basic 2.0-litre engine is the same, it's mounted longitudinally inline with the prop shaft, rather than transversely in the direction of the axles.
Having drive at the rear wheels is good for loaded traction, as the weight of the load helps push the tyres into the tarmac. But it's less efficient, and heavier, adding around 100kg to the weight of an equivalent FWD model.
We have to say, the RWD Crafters are also the ones we've enjoyed driving the least; they transmit noticeably more vibration and harshness into the cab, making what is an otherwise extremely pleasant larage van to drive in all other guise, somewhat less agreeable.
Regardless of drivetrain, one of the Crafter’s biggest strengths is its ride quality.
Both loaded and unloaded it deals very well with uneven road surfaces and bumps – regardless of whether you’re in a suspended driver’s seat or a regular item. This makes it an excellent long-distance companion.
It’s also nimble and responsive to steer, whether faced with narrow streets or winding country roads. Even the highest roof variant resists rolling around too much in the turns and the large, split-view mirrors make it easy to keep track of the rear overhang on the longest body length as well.
The electro-mechanical steering – which uses an electric motor in place of the traditional hydraulic pump – also allows a number of safety-related enhancements (see the Safety section). It doesn't give masses of feedback, but it's light and accurate, and you quickly get used to it.
Overall, the Crafter is very fine large van to drive.