By: Alexander Parker
Some readers of CAR will have spent their childhood summer holidays rattling about in the back of a Kombi as it laboured through the heat of the Karoo, on their way to the beach or, for coastal folk, upcountry to the Kruger National Park and other destinations.
This idea is a bit outdated, though. In recent years, modern families have been far more likely to fly to their far-flung Southern African haven but this has all changed over the past year. The final figures aren’t in yet but at the time of writing, the Airports Company South Africa (ACSA) reckons passenger numbers fell by two-thirds in 2020 and predicts volumes to recover to pre-pandemic levels only in 2024.
We all understand COVID-19 and the resulting economic devastation is the culprit. However, for those who still have the means to fly, coronavirus protocols – masks, distancing, swabs, antigen tests, declarations and temperature checks and ever more queues – have added another layer of unpleasant procedures between an individual and their aircraft seat. The idea of subjecting three children to this twice in a month for a festive family holiday was not on my agenda. So, a road trip it was to be! Question is, what car?
These days most opt for a large family SUV, a seven-seater if required. Such is the popularity of this type of car that suitable options abound at almost all but the lowest price brackets. From a Honda BR-V to a Bentley Bentayga, there’s an SUV for just about any motorist’s wallet. But what about that family transport staple of yore? How does the Kombi stack up against its 4×4 competitors? To establish this, over Christmas I drove a VW Caravelle T6.1 with six people and all our luggage, devouring 6 000km of our national roads. We braved the appalling potholed R-roads of Mpumalanga, the sodden and glutinous dirt roads in the Kruger Park and a variety of temperatures and road surfaces, from the wildest bush to the confines of downtown Cape Town. A real test, worthy of the moniker: Epic Drive.
The seven-seater Caravelle in question is equipped with a 2,0-litre twinturbodiesel, good for 146 kW and a meaty 450 N.m of torque. Mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic and Volkswagen’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive system, it’s a confluence of engineering that promises much.
Our journey began in Cape Town, where the Caravelle’s sheer size plays against it. Yet, if your life is more suburban than urban, this shouldn’t bother you. To help mitigate the bulk of the car, it’s equipped with an impressive turning circle and excellent park-distance control, a reverse camera, rear traffic alert and a manoeuvring braking function. This will help avoid scratching the car’s paintwork in urban locales. This tech-fest prepared us for the fact that while the idea of a Kombi is old-fashioned, there is absolutely nothing old-fashioned about the car.
Before we hit the long road north, we had to plan carefully with three kids, three adults and all their clothing and catering equipment for a month on the road. I wanted to avoid towing a trailer. This would save us time on the longer stretches, reduce our fuel consumption and eliminate any additional risk on busy roads populated by people who have creative interpretations of the rules of the road.
This is where the sheer flexibility of the Caravelle’s interior came to the fore. We travelled with both “conference seating” and the more traditional manner, with the middle row facing the direction of travel. The kids loved both and used the pop-up table in the rear to store drinks and play games. Adjusting the position of both rear rows of seats accommodated all the passengers with excess legroom and the boot swallowed a profusion of suitcases, camp chairs, sleeping bags, jaffles and even a SodaStream.
We hadn’t even joined the N1 and already had a big tick in favour of the Caravelle over a seven-seat SUV. Truly spacious for six people (no third-row short straw here) and a gargantuan, versatile boot had eliminated the need for a Ventertjie. That felt like a win.
The Caravelle goes for almost R1.2 million. I won’t lie, there were times when I hankered after the additional cylinders and shunt that kind of money can buy. The Caravelle was heavily laden and once we’d reached altitude, it did feel breathless when overtaking. Of course, no SUV would have the capacity for the people and cargo we had onboard. Swings and roundabouts, then. By the time we hooked a right from the N1 and pointed east towards the Drakensberg escarpment, I had adopted a more relaxed approach. I was rewarded with fuel consumption of below 10,00 L/100 km that eventually settled around 9,00 L/100 km. Given the car’s large frontal area, full load and the frequent bursts of full throttle to get past the trucks that characterise SA’s long-distance driving, this was an excellent figure.
After a week in Durban, we headed to the Kruger National Park. The Caravelle’s commercial vehicle underpinnings made themselves apparent as we battled pockmarked surfaces destroyed by coal trucks. The car felt robust enough to handle the battering though, which was reassuring, if not poised.
In the Kruger, torrential rains had turned several unsealed roads into quagmires and on one particular drive, we would have struggled without the 4Motion all-wheel drive. Another tick for the VW. For the average family not interested in serious overlanding, the 4Motion is all the 4×4 you will ever require in the real world. It’s even equipped with a rear-differential lock although I never needed it despite the swampy conditions. Its talents gave me pause to consider the serious off-road kit plying the Kruger’s immaculate tarred roads. What is it all for? I also noticed how good the dust management was in the Caravelle. After hundreds of kilometres on dirt, the inside of the car was in pretty good shape.
Almost a month after leaving Cape Town, we turned tail at Pretoriuskop and faced the 1 800 km return journey, once again resting for two nights at Gariep Dam. The Caravelle could not hide its weight and van origins up the escarpment – this is no corner-scything uber-SUV – but I let the cruise control lean on those 450 Nm and simply enjoyed the open road.
The Volkswagen Caravelle is compromised. It is not as powerful, good to drive nor as quiet as similarly priced luxury SUVs. However, it’s important to note they are just as compromised. They cannot seat seven in comfort, never mind while carrying a useful amount of luggage. Passengers get tossed about because they are on top of unnecessary and heavy 4×4 hardware. They do not have the stowage, the airiness or the space.
Where the luxury cars would once win with their safety and convenience technology, they no longer do. On the open road we were protected by lane-keeping assist, crosswind assist and blind-spot monitoring, and curtain airbags for every precious head in the bus. The top-spec Discover Pro Media system infotainment and navigation offering – with full digital cockpit – is as bang up-to-date as you might find anywhere in any Volkswagen Group product. Electric sliding doors operable via the key fob are a nifty trick for the crowds at the One-Stop.
The question is: what do you need? Because if you don’t need an SUV for its serious off-road abilities, the truth is you don’t need one at all. If the road trip is back in vogue, perhaps it’s time to reconsider a perennially excellent family car: the good ol’ Kombi.
Volkswagen Caravelle 2,0BiTDI Highline DSG 4Motion T6.1
Price: R1 149 400
Engine: 2,0-litre, 4-cyl, twinturbodiesel
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch
Power: 146 kW @ 3 800-4 500 r/min
Torque: 450 N.m @ 1 400-2 400 r/min
0-100 km/h: 9,8 seconds
Top speed: 198 km/h*
Claimed fuel consumption: 8,20 L/100 km*
CO2: 214 g/km*