First Drive

First Drive: Volkswagen Crafter

The story:
It’s rare that something comes along in the world of vans that is entirely new, with component sharing and partnerships leading to similarity between brands. Get into a 2017 Volkswagen Crafter, however, and you’ll find little that’s familiar.
Key rival:Mercedes-Benz Sprinter
On sale:Now
Volkswagen Crafter 2.0 TDI CR35 MWB Trendline
Price:£29,200 (ex VAT)
Load length/height/width:length/height/width: 4300mm (L), 2590mm (H) width min/max: 1380mm (W) /1830mm (W)

The 2017 version of the Volkswagens large panel van is new from the ground up, with new engines, a new cabin, new technology and a new look.

While the old Crafter was built in conjunction with Mercedes (and was essentially a rebadged Sprinter) this new one is pure VW, and is built at the brand’s factory in Poland.

The 2017 Crafter comes with a six-speed manual or an eight-speed automatic gearbox, and front, rear or four-wheel drive, plus a wide array of safety kit, much of which is new to the class.

Volkswagen said that it consulted with a wide array of commercial vehicle operators before finalising the Crafter, and this focus on the people who will spend their working hours with this van is most evident in the cabin. It has a much finer interior than you would expect in a large van.

2017 Volkswagen Crafter - cabin image

Much of the fit, finish and equipment will be familiar to anyone that has spent time in a VW car of late, with clear instruments and large dials that allow for easy adjustment of the climate and other basic controls.

On all but the entry-level Startline these controls include an eight-inch touchscreen with voice control and DAB digital radio, while all models get a USB connection and Bluetooth. Other standard-fit highlights include a pair of 12v sockets, a multi-function steering wheel, a driver’s seat that adjusts in a wide range of directions with a decent amount of rearward travel. Options include a 230-volt plug, heated seats and even a massage function in the front seats.

The cabin materials might not be up to the standard of a Passat, or even a Golf, but it doesn’t simply shout practicality. There is a great amount of storage around the cab, with cubbyholes aplenty, though if there is a quibble it’s that some are too shallow.

The loading bay is as cavernous as you would hope, and capable of taking six Euro pallets in this medium-length variant. Rigging tracks also allow a range of securing options in the rear.

2017 Volkswagen Crafter - rear doors open image

As with the cabin it is the little touches that set the Crafter apart, though, and the addition of the front-wheel-drive layout means that the loading height is reduced by 100mm. The rear-wheel-drive versions arriving later in 2017 are the better option if you are looking for an increased carrying capacity, though, with a permitted total weight ranging from 3.0 to 5.5 tonnes.

Once inside, the loading width is 1380mm between the wheelarches, growing to 1830mm, which makes it marginally larger than the Mercedes Sprinter, while the bay reaches 2590mm upwards even on this lower H2 version. The H3 grows to 2798mm.

The huge side sliding door gives a 1311mm-wide opening, but is hefty enough that it can take some effort to ensure it is shut properly, while the rear doors offer an optional 270-degree opening angle.

This 140hp 2.0-litre diesel sits right in the middle of the range and might seem small for a van this size, but it certainly never labours when carrying light loads.

It is a quiet engine, too, even when worked harder, and it pulls smoothly through the fantastic six-speed manual gearbox. The Crafter’s ride is one of its real triumphs, though, because it smoothes out bumps superbly, even when the rear bay is left empty, and adds a real sense of composure around corners, making it a pleasant and easy drive around town and on long-distance trips.

The new electromechanical steering set-up helps make the large van feel and handle like a smaller vehicle, getting heavier at higher speeds and lighter for low-speed manoeuvring around town. The standard-fit blind-spot mirrors also do a great job of showing up smaller vehicles or bicycles positioned either side in town.

The biggest benefit of the new steering set-up, though, is that it allows a whole range of new safety equipment to be added as standard. The standard-fit driver alert system, cross wind assist (closed body models only) and emergency city braking is joined by the optional adaptive cruise control and trailer assist, meaning the Crafter has taken a massive leap forward
in safety stakes.

Official economy of 38.2mpg is not great for the class, with the likes of the Citroen Relay, Fiat Ducato and Peugeot Boxer all claiming an mpg in the mid to high-40s.

Tom Webster 

The verdict

There are some fantastic elements to the Crafter, with the well thought out cabin and wide range of comfort and safety kit making it a really compelling choice for anyone that spends a large amount of time behind the wheel. The FWD/RWD/4WD options, choice of engines and the huge selection of body sizes mean there will be a version to suit, no matter how much weight and bulk you need to carry around. It is a shame that it is not able to move the game on in every area, though, and the official fuel economy is disappointing for a brand new model.