IN the late 20th century, the minibus (also colloquially known as a kombi) was the preferred mode of transport with which to take a family on holiday. The ease of loading, ingress and egress, plus the abundance of space made it the perfect vehicle for hauling adults and their offspring on short or extended trips.

However, with the proliferation of SUVs, the tide turned against MPVs. They now represent only a small part of a market dominated by myriad variations of the sports-utility-vehicle theme.

That doesn’t mean manu­facturers have discarded spacious family buses, however. Recently, Kia launched its new Sedona, Volkswagen brought us its sixth-generation Kombi, aptly called the T6, and Mercedes-Benz introduced its luxurious V-Class range.

All three of these vehicles offer different propositions and experiences; some are better at certain tasks than others. Which is the best family bus, though?

THE MERCEDES-BENZ
There are echoes of the rest of the offerings in Mercedes-Benz’s passenger-vehicle range in the sophisticated exterior appearance of the V-Class (especially when viewed from the front). Although a styling assessment is subjective, a number of testers said the Benz was the best-looking bus of the three.

Furthermore, the V220’s interior seems to offer everything that a prospective buyer could reasonably expect to find in a luxurious people mover. Were it not for the high seating position, you could be excused for thinking that you’re behind the wheel of one of Mercedes-Benz’s expensive SUVs. The swooping, uncluttered facia, freestanding infotainment screen with Comand control pad and roller switch endow this MPV with a level of interior design and luxury that the Volkswagen and Kia simply can’t replicate. Curiously, however, the Benz’s key fob allows its operator to remotely open only one sliding door remotely, but the VW and Kia allow automatic access to both apertures.

The level of luxury afforded to rear passengers is impressive, too. Apart from the cheap-feeling three-piece picnic table that can be used for having meals on or playing board games, the seats’ leather trim is of a quality you would associate with more sophisticated luxury cars. This means the space is tailored for adults and less so for children who might have little respect for shiny finishes and easily soiled upholstery.

Furthermore, swivelling the seats takes time and effort: they need to be removed and reaffixed on the rail system. It is a laborious process compared with that of the Volkswagen (more about that later). Still, the table and seats can slide fore and aft on the rails, which is a plus. Another disadvantage is that the V-Class’ rear side windows cannot be opened; by contrast, the Kia’s sizeable windows slide down and the Caravelle has integrated sliding windows.

The luggage area of the V-Class, with all seats in place, offers the most commodious loading capacity (by a negligible 16 dm3), as well as a useful luggage shelf in the middle that divides the area in two. The utility space can be freed up by folding the seats’ backrests flat in a 60:40-split configuration, or the units can be removed completely.

When you peek underneath the seats, especially at the front, you may be surprised by the amount of wires and motors that are visible to the eye. They stand in stark contrast to Mercedes-Benz’s usually stylish design theme. In the Caravelle, these wires are neatly hidden away behind plastic seat aprons.

In terms of on-road refinement, the V-Class’ ride quality is – somewhat surprisingly – the worst here. The suspension feels overly firm, which is unexpected from the most luxurious MPV in the market, and CAR’s testers noticed a resonance that seemed to permeate the facia at certain speeds.

The V220’s 2,1-litre turbo-diesel produces modest outputs of 120 kW and 380 N.m (eclipsed by those of the Caravelle and Sedona). It has comparable in-gear and 0-to-100 km/h acceleration times to the VW, but is decidedly slower than the Kia.

There is no argument that the Mercedes-Benz is the most luxurious bus of the trio – its standard specification is almost on par with those of other Benz sedans – and indeed in the South African market. However, we can’t excuse its flawed ride quality and bloated price tag, while the challenges of swinging the chairs around make it less practical than the Caravelle.

However, should a business seek an executive people mover, no other MPV comes close to matching the V-Class’ prestige.

THE VOLKSWAGEN
VW has produced family buses for longer than most manufacturers; suffice to say, its formula is well proven.

Now in its sixth generation, the Caravelle design remains decidedly square with extremely short overhangs. As a result, the high-mounted driver’s seat affords its occupant the best possible forward visibility, with very little visual interference from the A-pillars.

The layout of the facia is ergonimically uncomplicated, while below it there is significant foot and floor space, both at the front and towards the rear. The clever utilisation of cabin space also allows easy thoroughfare from the front-passenger area to the rear of the cabin, which can’t be said of the other two MPVs.

Volkswagen seems to have made provision for the capers that kids get up to, because the side pillars are covered in rubber all the way to the floor level for added protection. Overall, the interior’s execution is neat and upmarket.

In the rear-passenger compartment, the second row of seats can be swivelled 180 degrees while their bases stay in the same position. Compared with the dark, executive-class feel of the V-Class, the Caravelle’s interior offers an airier ambience. This effect is achieved by the application of lighter seat trim and carpets, although it should be more of a challenge to keep these parts clean.

Although the 2,0 BiTDI turbo-diesel engine’s performance figures are slightly better than those of the V-Class, as with the Mercedes-Benz, the VW requires a long, clear stretch of road to affect an overtaking manoeuvre from 100 km/h. With a full complement of passengers, sedate driving will have to be the order of the day.

Parking these buses can be a challenge, even for seasoned drivers. Proximity sensors are included on all three, but the lack of a standard reverse camera on the Caravelle is an unfortunate omission, as are keyless entry and an electrically operated tailgate. The latter is especially conspicuous by its absence if you’re accustomed to the Kia and Mercedes-Benz’s conveniences.

On-road, the Caravelle holds a possibly vital trump card, though. The 4Motion system enables the Volkswagen to traverse roads that are inaccessible by the V-Class and Sedona. This also means gravel driving will be much more surefooted in the Volkswagen than in its rear- or front-wheel-driven competitors.
As with the Benz, the T6 feels somewhat top-heavy to drive, but the VW leans through corners in a progressive, predictable manner. Overall, its ride quality is marginally better than that of the V-Class.

There’s another benefit to the VW’s square design: with the seats removed, it has the largest utility space (2 840 dm3) by some margin, eclipsing the 2 576 dm3 of the V-Class and the much smaller 1 984 dm3 of the Sedona.

However, in terms of its maintenance plan, it almost equals the Mercedes-Benz’s six-year period, but the range is a substantial 40 000 km less.

THE KIA
The Kia Sedona is the wild card in this test. It is, after all, not a true boxy bus in the mould of its two rivals. But, as a large seven-seater MPV, it certainly has its merits. Not only is its exterior design less utilitarian, its interior execution is comparable to that of a large-passenger car.

From behind the wheel, forward visibility is good, but you do miss the high-perched driving position of the other two buses. In terms of accommodation, the Kia doesn’t offer the swivel functionality for the second row of seats, but as with the other two, the pews can be moved forward and back.

The two sunroofs and sizeable (electrically operated) side windows let more light into the cabin than any other hard-top passenger vehicle on the market.

Furthermore, Kia pays the most attention to the comfort of the passengers in terms of climate control. The front seats have a heating/ventilation system, while the second row of seats benefits from a heating function and three-zone climate control.

However, the elementary infotainment system’s small screen is a let down in a vehicle that otherwise ticks many boxes. We believe this system is due to be upgraded later this year.

Meanwhile, the Kia’s 2,2 CRDi has been tuned to deliver a very lively 147 kW and 440 N.m, making the Sedona the most powerful contender in this test. As a result, the Kia was more than 3,5 seconds faster from 0-100 km/h than the VW and Mercedes-Benz on our test strip. Given the Kia’s transportation role, in-gear acceleration is more important than acceleration from standstill, but even here the Kia excelled. In every increment, be it from 80 to 100, or 120 to 140 km/h, the Kia outperformed its rival buses by a notable margin.

You might expect this higher level of performance to result in comparatively high fuel consumption, but bear in mind the Kia has smaller frontal dimensions and as a result is more aerodynamic, plus it weighs around 300 kg less than the Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen. On our fuel route, the Sedona returned the lowest figure, an excellent 8,3 L/100 km.

The Kia is essentially more of a large passenger car than a bus. Its handling is the best of the trio and feels less top-heavy. However, although that lower roof affords sufficient headroom, the testers remarked that you cannot move around with the same ease in the rear of the cabin as in the German competitors. The third row’s headroom is also the lowest (respectively 34 mm and 25 mm less than the Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen).

Although it doesn’t sport a flat floor like the other two, the Kia has easily the most useable boot with all seven seats in place.



TEST SUMMARY

As all three vehicles are loaded with masses of equipment, latches, rails and other moveable parts, you would expect their cabins to exhibit rattles and other undesirable noises. The V-Class and Caravelle test vehicles had a number of squeaks, but the Kia felt rock solid.

In terms of safety, all three cars are well equipped. They have front and side airbags for the driver and passenger, as well as side airbags for rear passengers (except for the Mercedes-Benz, which offers this feature as a R6 530 option). However, the V-Class and the Caravelle boast fatigue detection and lane-keeping systems, while this specific V-Class further offers the company’s vaunted Pre-Safe system.

The Mercedes-Benz is by far the most luxurious, but not the most practical vehicle here.

The Volkswagen, meanwhile, offers the most conventional MPV experience, while being very practical and perfectly configured for transporting a family.

However, the Kia surprised us with its near car-like handling, comfort and overall execution. It is also very well equipped - the Korean company has learnt, in a short period of time, what families need from a spacious bus.

Because it is so car-like, its cabin is smaller and movement thoughout the cabin is somewhat restricted. But, because it costs R170 000 and R270 000 less than the VW and the Mercedes-Benz respectively, the Kia can’t be beaten. There are more affordable versions of the V-Class and the Caravelle, but they would not be able to match the Sedona’s standard specification. Taking all these factors into account, the Kia is the clear winner in this test.