Remember all that hoo-hah back in 2006 about the outrageous front-end styling of the then-new Volkswagen Crafter?
In case you’ve forgotten, here’s what Fleet Van had to say about it in the March 2006 edition: “Brash and brutal – Volkswagen has set out to shock and it has certainly achieved its goal.”
Strong words indeed.
Funnily enough once I’d got over the initial shock, I quite grew to like this macho monster so was quite sad to see that at facelift time, the front end of the Crafter has been toned down to more standard proportions.
Mind you, the changes to the front end – along with a few minor tweaks in the cab – are small beer.
What is really important is that the old five-cylinder 2.5-litre powerplants have been junked in favour of a new range of 2.0-litre engines that at present power both the smaller Transporter and the new Amarok, not to mention certain versions of the Caddy.
These engines, says VW, are up to 33% more fuel-efficient, have greater torque, have SMR costs of up to 25% lower and are more reliable. That’s some boast.
It’s rather curious that Volkswagen is downsizing its engines at a time when most other manufacturers are making theirs bigger and at the launch in Sweden, we asked Crafter product manager Owain Price if such a ‘diminutive’ engine was beefy enough to lug around a five-tonne van full of cargo.
He told me: “We have got to break this myth that cubic capacity is king.
"Technology has advanced to such an extent that this just isn’t true any more and although this engine is the same one as appears in Caddy, Transporter and Amarok, it has been fine-tuned and is quite up to the job.
“Torque is in fact greater than in the old 2.5-litre units and because these engines are lighter, this means that payloads have increased.”
The launch of Crafter in July will also coincide with new dealer initiatives, as Price said he was aiming to scotch forever the view that VW was a two-trick pony in the van field.
For while sales of the Volkswagen Caddy and Transporter have always stood up well, the sales success of the larger Crafter has always been overshadowed by its twin brother the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter.
Both vans come off the same production line in Dusseldorf and differ only in front-end styling and engines.
Price said: “We are fed up with being viewed as a two-van manufacturer and will be talking about Crafter and the new Amarok much more with our van dealers. This is a biggie for us and we want to make sure they are geared up for selling our new model.”
Volkswagen will be instructing its specialist van dealer network to beef up their range of demo models and they will also be expected to carry more ready-to-sell stock, including chassis-cab variants.
The manufacturer is also planning to launch a ‘try and buy’ scheme in which existing and potential customers will be offered models to test for periods of three to six months before they make a buying decision.
One of the disadvantages that Crafter has against Sprinter is that the Mercedes-Benz product is sold through the dealer’s truck network, which offers added attractions such as out-of-hours servicing and a 24/7 repair service.
Price admitted that the Volkswagen dealer network had its work cut out to compete.
He said: “We admit we face challenges here.
"Some of our van dealers, for example, don’t even have high enough roofs to be able to deal with Luton body vans, for example.
“But the factory has really pushed the boat out with new Crafter and we just can’t afford to get it wrong.
“This new model is more fuel efficient than both the Sprinter and the Transit and we need to shout about this from the rooftops.
“Once we can get people to test drive Crafter we are confident that they will go for it.”
Prices are expected to rise by an average of 1.5% over the old models.
Behind the wheel
You have to drive a Crafter to appreciate its finer qualities. It, and its twin brother the Sprinter, sit head and shoulders above the rest while these new engines with their cost-cutting advantages will enhance their reputation ever further.
I don’t really need to say much about the bits of the Crafter that remain the same – the cab is light and airy, the seats big and amazingly comfortable and in the back is the same large cargo area that will hold anything up to 17 cubic metres.
It is the new engine range that we are here to talk about and, yes, the VW engineers are right – even in the smallest 109bhp output, this neat little performer will give plenty of power for most fleet purposes.
We drove all three versions – 109bhp, 136bhp and 163bhp – at the launch in Sweden and unless you happen to lug full loads up and down the M6 every day, the 109 is the one we would go for and is expected to be the biggest seller in the range.
Speedy progress involves rowing around the gears on the hills, but the doughty little powerplant never shows signs of throwing in the towel.
The general road manners of the Crafter are immaculate, with nicely-weighted power steering giving plenty of feel for what’s going on between steering wheel and road.
And don’t forget that this van comes as standard with ESC stability control, unlike some of its rivals, which means that in the event of a sideways skid, the van can be brought safely under control again.
The Crafter has always played second fiddle to the Sprinter despite Volkswagen’s success with Transporter and Caddy.
With these impressive new engines, the tables may be turned – that is, if Volkswagen can beef up its dealer offerings to that of Mercedes-Benz’s levels.