Parkers overall rating: 4 out of 5 4.0

What is VW’s plush people carrier like to live with? We’re testing one over an extended period to find out whether being van-based makes the Caravelle the best MPV on sale.

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Update 1: welcome to Parkers 

Is this the best people carrier money can buy?

Copper and white 2021 Volkswagen Caravelle front three-quarter

Okay, okay, I’m deeply indulging in my somewhat obscure passion for van-based people carriers now that I’m the custodian of this eye-catching Volkswagen Caravelle for the next few months, but we’re running it for good reasons.

In part, it’s because I’ve had a fascination for the Caravelle and its forebears since I was young, often whiling away an unhealthy amount of time drinking in the gloriousness of a neighbour’s purple and white second-generation version, then known as the VW Microbus.

More pragmatically, having previously run a Mercedes-Benz V-Class as well as the Vauxhall Vivaro Life more recently, I’m keen to determine which is the best of this type of vehicle.

Recently ‘my’ Vivaro went toe-to-toe with a Caravelle and the VW was found to be exceptionally good and largely justified the price differential between the two. But that comparison was over the course of a few hours – will its glister remain undimmed after half a year of motoring?

Which Caravelle have we gone for?

In order to determine just how accomplished the Caravelle is at the people carrying game, I’ve plumped for a model displaying the finery of its specification – Executive trim, with the 199hp 2.0-litre diesel engine, standard seven-speed DSG automatic transmission and front-wheel drive. Topping the range is a 4Motion four-wheel drive version of the same engine and gearbox.

Since my Caravelle was built, VW’s adjusted the mechanical specification with power now modestly upped to 204hp as part of a set of revisions to get it through the latest round of emissions regulations. In terms of real-world performance and economy, the differences are negligible.

It’s a heavy wagon at 2410kg, which goes someway to explain why the 0-62mph time isn’t much to write home about at 10.1 seconds. However, as I’ll describe in forthcoming updates, the engine produces a lot of pulling power – 450Nm from just 1400rpm – meaning once you’re up to speed overtaking manoeuvres can be as swift as they are deft.

2020 Volkswagen Caravelle rear seating area

Before optional extras were added, the Caravelle Executive is already pricey at £58,071 on the road, but that price does include a wealth of standard equipment and a high level of fit and finish all round.

Some of the key pieces of kit that are included in the asking price are adaptive cruise control, an electrically heated windscreen (already proving to be a delight on freezing mornings), electric sliding side doors and tailgate, full LED lighting inside and out, three-zone climate control and VW’s fully digital Active Info Display.

It’s a comfy, plush seven-seater wherever you happen to be sat in it.

Let’s have a rundown of the extras

Spending a fortune on options for the Caravelle is easier than running up a tab in a Bond Street jeweller – and its something fans of this VW, along with its Transporter van sibling, seem keen to do. You don’t need to drive far anywhere in Britain to come across one that’s been heavily modified or gussied-up.

Consequently, I didn’t feel a pang of shame for spending a small fortune on extra-cost options for my steed. In ascending price order, they comprise of:

  • Storage compartment package – £60. Two neat waste bins that sit in the front door pockets. 
  • 80-litre fuel tank – £78. An increase of 10 litres to reduce the need to visit filling stations so frequently. 
  • Woodstock black and diamond-turned 17-inch alloy wheels – £144. An upgrade in style, but not size from the standard Aracaju wheel design. 
  • High Beam Assist – £162. Upgrading the LED headlamps with automatic main beam. 

2020 Volkswagen Caravelle dashboard

  • Discover Pro navigation system – £678. This package includes internet access and streaming services. 
  • Driving profile selection (DCC Dynamic Chassis Control and Drive Select) – £1,182. Different driving modes with adaptive suspension to vary the softness or firmness of the ride quality. 
  • Premium front seat package – £1,450. Multi-way electrical adjustment of the very comfy front seats that include lumbar adjustment, three levels of heating and integral armrests on both sides of the seat. 
  • Two-tone paintwork – metallic Copper Bronze over Candy White – £2,880. Chosen simply because I think it looks bloody fabulous. 

In total those extras come to £6,634, pushing the asking price of this particular Caravelle to £64,705. Gosh.

Needless to say I’ll be keeping a close eye on resale values – as well as how useful the options proved to be – over my time with the VW.

Initial impressions are broadly positive

Every time I’ve driven a Caravelle previously I’ve been beguiled by its combination of sumptuousness and practicality. Yes, it looks like a van with windows, but it rarely feels like one.

This long-termer doesn’t feel like a mouldbreaker in that regard, and all the better for it.

It’s genuinely relaxing as a long-distance journey muncher, the interior doesn’t rattle about like in-car tinnitus when you’re the only one in it, plus the copper and white paint is a real eye-catcher – not always positively commented upon, granted, but it’d be a dull old world if we all liked the same things.

Copper and white 2021 Volkswagen Caravelle rear light and badge detail

While no fault of the car, unfortunately my first few weeks with the Caravelle were blighted by both a cracked windscreen and a puncture, but the VW itself isn’t completely fault-free.

Its steering wheel has been attached a few degrees right of the straight ahead position, plus one of the interior lights has an iffy connection, only illuminating occasionally.

Very minor gripes in what’s been a very enjoyable car to settle in with.

Over the coming updates I’ll be poring over the options in more detail, examining just how flexible the interior space is and discovering more of its talents and foibles.

Mileage: 1,244

Fuel economy: 31.4mpg

Copper and white 2021 Volkswagen Caravelle rear three-quarter

Update 2: maximum waft 

Lockdown’s meant little driving lately, but each occasional journey is superbly comfortable

As much as I desperately miss going on long, exploratory drives for the sheer pleasure of it, keeping myself and loved ones Covid-free is infinitely more important.

2020 Copper and white Volkswagen Caravelle front three-quarter driving

Consequently, opportunities to enjoy the Caravelle have been few and far between in 2021, but each essential journey drive I have in the Volkswagen is a reminder of why this is my favourite van-based MPV. 

Before the drive

Aside from there being no squidgy plastics for the dashboard as you’ll find in many of VW’s conventional cars, the Caravelle’s dashboard looks bang up to date, with a comprehensively detailed pair of screens, buttons and controls that are satisfying to operate and a variety of finishes to make it look upmarket.

2020 Volkswagen Caravelle dashboard screens

Those glossy plastic decor panels – as well as the multimedia touchscreen – have a propensity to reflect sunlight, but such is the angle of the main dashboard plane, it rarely causes any dazzling distractions to the driver.

Bright, slick, colourful and clear and remaining on the right side of showy, the main instrument screen can be adapted to vary the range of data on display, as well as the positioning of the dials.

Pity then that they are set low compared with your eyeline, meaning you have to adjust your focus more acutely than you would in Vauxhall’s Vivaro Life and its close cousins. The VW’s crying out for a head-up display projecting key information onto the windscreen, but there isn’t one on the options list.

With a wide range of seat adjustment, a high-rise view of the road ahead and dual armrests on the front seats, it’s a confidence-inspiring and comfortable perch, barring two factors that have come to light with greater familiarity.

While the driving position is broadly fine, the steering wheel is positioned at a more horizontal angle than in most cars, making this family bus reminiscent of a, err, bus. It’s not uncomfortable, but it can feel a stretch to reach the top of the wheel.

Additionally, there’s no specific foot rest for your otherwise unemployed left leg. The shape of the Caravelle’s internal structure around the gearbox and engine eats in to where one would go, meaning I invariably drive with my left foot flat to the floor. 

Pace aplenty

One thing this long-term Caravelle isn’t short of is grunt, which is readily available courtesy of the standard-fit DSG automatic gearbox.

2020 Volkswagen Caravelle DSG gearlever

Manual selection can be actioned by nudging the gearlever to the side and rocking it forward and backwards for sequential changes – there are no paddles behind the steering wheel in the Caravelle – but I’ve rarely felt the need to, such is the expediency of the automatic kickdown into a lower gear whenever you need it.

As a result, overtaking manoeuvres are swiftly and safely dispatched, while pulling away from junctions hasn’t posed any moments of tardiness, either.

At cruising speeds the 2.0-litre diesel engine is relatively unobtrusive, only becoming tiresomely vocal at prolonged periods of higher revs. If I was specifying a Caravelle again, I would give serious consideration to the laminated, double-glazed side window option to reduce that noise impact, although at £462 it’s not an inexpensive decision. 

Championing comfort

When buying cars myself I’ve tended to prioritise comfort over sportiness, as illustrated by a number of hydropneumatically suspended Citroens over the years.

2020 Copper and white Volkswagen Caravelle side elevation driving

Neither such a system or air springs are available on the VW, so instead I opted for the Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC for short) package, which has adjustable dampens to soften-off or firm-up the ride quality depending on preference, as the next best thing.

Keeping to the smallest 17-inch alloy wheel diameter, complemented by taller tyre sidewalls to aid with bump absorption, I’ve ended up with the comfiest Caravelle driving experience I’ve yet encountered. I’m calling that a win.

Inevitably in today’s world of inexplicably wide choices, there are not the usual trio of firmness settings – Comfort, Normal and Sport – but an array of 15 along that scale.

As a creature of habit, I always keep it in the softest setting, apart from when I’m ferrying my daughter about. She’s not the best traveller and doesn’t appreciate the VW’s waftability on the school run (she’s enjoying the lack of that a bonus during this period of remote learning), so I have to ramp it up to the firmest of positions.

At least between these opposite ends of the scale there’s a discernible difference, with bumps and lumps in the road surface being felt much more readily in the sportiest of settings, something that seems to keep motion-induced nausea at bay.

2020 Copper and white Volkswagen Caravelle front three-quarter driving

Back in my preferred setting, there’s little that disturbs the equilibrium, with some road surfaces imperfections not being felt, but heard as the tyres percussively pass over them, a factor that seems even more obvious the quicker it’s driven.

By contrast, in that same soft setting, lower-pace hurdles, such as car park speed bumps, tend to be felt surprisingly sharply.

Next time I’ll be exploring the Caravelle’s comfort from the passenger perspective, which means this will serve as notice to my kids that they’re going to be roped into an update. 

Mileage: 1,856

Fuel economy: 31.8mpg

Update 3: school bus 

The end of home-schooling gave an opportunity for a passenger’s perspective on the VW

Copper and white 2021 Volkswagen Caravelle front three-quarter

Monday 8 March 2021 will be forever etched in the minds of parents of school-age kids, more forcibly than ‘Mr Jones is ace IDST’ carved into a rickety desktop with a pair of compasses before being indelibly sealed with ink syphoned from a biro.

Okay, it didn’t say I was ace, but artistic licence and public decency forbid me from recalling the precise outpouring of student angst from my teaching days.

I got away with the home-schooling experience easier than most. Although all three of mine are in full-time education, only my youngest, Lily, is still at school. Throughout time when school’s been out of bounds, she’s been remarkably self-disciplined and self-sufficient.

What has this gushing paternal praise got to do with the Caravelle? Good question. The sad reality is that it’s not seen a huge amount of action, lately barring journeys up and down the A1, so the school run presented an opportunity to get it into the rhythm of some shorter-haul trips.

Come the end of the day, I decided to lace the father-daughter conversation with questions to determine what she thought of the Volkswagen.

Keith WR Jones and daughter in a Volkswagen Caravelle long-termer

Keith: Hey, how was your day?

Lily: [Clambering in] Yes, good thank you. I’ve got so much to tell you!

Keith: Aaah that’s good – I’m also going to ask what you think of the car as we go along, by the way.

Lily: What for?

Keith: So that I’ve got some notes for a long-term update on this.

Lily: Are you going to include everything we talk about?

Keith: Erm… No?

Lily: So, first I had Photography and, he said he didn’t want us to start anything new, he just wanted us to carry on and finish anything that we were still working on. So, I did some of my split presentations in Photoshop – one was with a rose and a cow, with a chequered background and another with some lines going horizontally with a picture of Ambrose [the cat] and some berries.

Keith: You’ll have to show me on the computer later as I can’t imagine how that looks.

Lily: I will, yeah. Oh! When Elwyn and I were walking out of school then there were two cute cats on someone’s drive, one tabby, and one black and white. Both of them were laid out sleeping in the sunshine.

Keith: What do you think of how it drives, by the way – is to too floaty for you or do you like it like that?

Lily: Floaty? We’re not in the air!

2021 Volkswagen Caravelle adaptive suspension control

Keith: No, I know that, what I mean is you can make it feel softer or firmer by sliding along this scale [brings the on-screen menu for varying the Dynamic Chassis Control on screen as Lily swipes the bar across to Sport].

Lily: [Silence as a distance is covered before making an observation] Oooh no, that’s rough.

Keith: Rough?

Lily: Yeah. You can feel all the bumps and things in the road [slides it back far left into Comfort]. See this one’s much comfier.

Keith: Oh right – you never used to like other cars in that kind of setting.

Lily: [Rolls eyes] Well…

Keith: What else did you do besides Photography and seeing some cats on your way out?

Lily: Erm, well, after that I had a break and then I had Science, where we were doing about blood. We made some notes, then did a table about the structure, so like white blood cells protect you against bacteria and stuff like that.

Keith: Did you not have to give a donation?

Lily: A what?

Keith: A blood donation..?

Lily: [Rolls eyes again] No. I did not. It wasn’t like the most exciting lesson, but it wasn’t boring. He brought out two massive glass containers of old blood that has separated and gone manky, all yellowy at the top and like black at the bottom. Then I had lunch.

Keith: Nice! Hey, you almost always sit in the front in this – do you prefer it here?

Lily: Yeah, it feels better and I feel less… I don’t know. Less like I might be ill. But I like the view out better here, you can see so much over the hedges and everything. And it’s easier having a conversation if I’m sat next to you, not right at the back.

Keith: Aaah! That’s nice.

Lily: Just means I have to shout less. Anyway, Ninja boy was fairly quiet at lunch today – no playground gymnastics.

Keith: Oh! Has he stopped doing it now?

Lily: Well, kind of. He still does it if people go up to hm and say ‘can you do some tricks?’, but today he just slouched down eating his lunch. He downed an apple in five bites! Considering he’s quite small, he must have got a big mouth!

Keith WR Jones and daughter in a Volkswagen Caravelle long-termer

Keith: [Pulls the car over] Right, what I want you to do now is sit in one of the middle seats, facing backwards and tell me what you think of it sat there.

Lily: Urgh! [Some time passes before she offers an opinion] Actually, it’s not too bad really. I mean, it feels weird because I keep wanting to look forwards, but it’s strange seeing everything disappearing into the distance. Not sure I’d want to do a long journey sat here.

Keith: Those seats can spin around, though, so you can face forwards.

Lily: I know, but I’d still sit in the front if it was a long journey.

Keith: What about your brothers?

Lily: They’re fine in the back! Anyway, after lunch I had English where we were doing a mock exam. Now, when Gabby and Elwyn did it they said they went to a computer room, but we just did it on paper. It was only a practise mock, though, but it was the first time we did it all together. I ran out of time, though and didn’t get onto question four. I took ages reading it and then got different coloured highlighters out, and my hand my hand was hurting after not writing so much during lockdown. It just wasn’t the best time for me to do it, really. Tomorrow we’ve got to write a story based on a photograph. I’ve already seen what the picture is so I can think about that tonight.

Keith: Right, I’ll tell you what it is a good time for you to do – I want you to try the very back now [pulls over again].

Lily: [Scuttles across to swap seats] Right, we can go again. You feel very ‘on show’ back here.

2021 Volkswagen Caravelle rear passenger area

Keith: What do you mean?

Lily: Eh? I can’t hear you very well now…

Keith: [Louder] – What do you mean – ‘on show’?

Lily: Aah, well, the glass isn’t as dark as that black one you had [the Vauxhall Vivaro Life with its very dark tinted glass] so it feels as though anyone could see in easily. Even if you pull the blinds up they don’t go up to the edge of the glass and the back window’s not got one, either.

Keith: The glass at the front’s very see-through, though?

Lily: Yeah, I know! But the back’s like a private space in cars like this. You don’t want people looking in. And, the suspension feels too bouncy sat back here.

2021 Volkswagen Caravelle rear passenger area blinds

Keith: Well, that generally improves the more weight there is in the back. If your brothers were in the car…

Lily: Then I’d be sat in the front. Anyway, then I had Maths with algebra, but the teacher was in a mood and he wasted 10 minutes with a speech about not wasting time in lessons by talking and how people without GCSEs end up in prison!

Keith: Eh?

Lily: I know, he’s weird. Anyway, after Maths I had Business Studies and we were finishing off about discrimination legislation, but just as we were finishing it off, my computer died so I couldn’t print it off. I spoke to her at the end and she said ‘just bring it to the next lesson’. She was quite chilled, but I’ll have to re-do it tonight. It was an okay day I suppose.

So, what have we learnt from a 15-year old passenger with no interest in cars?

Well, the Caravelle’s comfiest in Comfort setting when you’re sat in the front, where the lack of darkened privacy glass doesn’t matter.

We also know that older brothers should sit in the back and demijohns of old blood are probably best not studied just before lunch.

And I also know it’s good to get her back to school.

Mileage: 2,464

Fuel economy: 31.7mpg

Keith WR Jones and daughter in a Volkswagen Caravelle long-termer