Updated: Jun 22, 2020
In the van-conversion market in Australia, Fiat’s Ducato rules the roost, followed by the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. But now there's a new player – the all-new Volkswagen Crafter. VW used to be a player and you can still see ex-rental Crafter’s running around, but there were problems with the model’s clunky automated manual transmission and Crafter quietly faded from the RV scene some five or more years ago.
That model Crafter was a collaboration between Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz and it was a twin-under-the-skin with the Sprinter. Both were built on the same production line, with Crafters receiving Volkswagen engines, transmissions and trim items on a separate line later in the manufacturing process. Mercedes-Benz eventually called time on the arrangement as Sprinter production outstripped supply and it needed all capacity for itself. While that left Volkswagen without a mid-range light commercial vehicle for a few years, it's turned out to be a very good thing for the German giant and consumers, as the clean-sheet Crafter is a cracker. Actually, the new Crafter is another collaboration, but this time an internal one between Volkswagen and its heavy-truck subsidiary MAN (which sells it in Europe as the MAN TGE).
MAN brought heavy truck engineering to Volkswagen's clean-sheet Crafter program.
Starting with a clean sheet has enabled use of the same design language, outside and in, as Volkswagen's passenger car range. This not only means the new Crafter is easily identifiable as VW, it gives it the look and feel of an upmarket European vehicle. Buyers transitioning from a Volkswagen or other Euro-brand will feel quite at home, and while the size might take a little adjusting to they’re not going to feel like they've paid big money to ‘just’ drive a delivery van.
In Australia, new Crafter is available in three roof heights and wheelbases, and with front, rear, or all-wheel drive, which VW calls 4Motion. On paper, the super-high-roof extra-long-wheelbase with 4Motion appears to be perfect for conversion, but apparently that isn’t the case. That's because the roof is a fibreglass pod that can't take the weight of solar panels, an air-conditioner, etc. Next contender is the high-roof, which is only available in long wheelbase, although with the option of 4Motion. Unfortunately, accommodating the driveshaft for the 4Motion system raises the floor 100 mm (4”), thus compromising internal headroom too greatly. That leaves the high-roof front-wheel drive Crafter – available in medium and long-wheelbases – as the best motorhome choices, at least for volume manufacturers. Expect to see some custom and low-volume versions of the other models, however.
Three roof heights, wheelbases and drive layouts provide plenty of options for a motorhome conversion, but not all are as practical as you might hope.
Volkswagen obviously has an eye on the motorhome market again and in Europe and New Zealand the first new Crafter coach-builts have emerged. One wonders when we’ll see the first in Australia?
The sole engine option is a choice between the single-turbo 103 kW/430 Nm and bi-turbo 130 kW/410 Nm versions of the Volkswagen’s 2.0-litre diesel. Both require AdBlue to met Euro 6 emissions standards and the 18-litre tank should be good for 5000-plus km. Fuel tank capacity is small at 75-litres, but at touring speeds a range of 750-1000 km should be realistic, depending on terrain, load and driving style.
Post-DieselGate, VW continues to develop small capacity, high-output turbo diesels, but hybrid drive is coming soon – and that includes the Crafter range.
A lengthy options list is offered – Volkswagen claims more than 100 extra features are available – although they mainly focus on the commercial load carrying capabilities of the vehicle. Safety is an obvious priority, but not at any price. Some of the most useful safety and driver assistance systems are optional – things like adaptive cruise control, lane keeping and self-parking. Of course all the basics are covered and then some, including front and rear parking sensors and an eight-inch touchscreen with Apple Car Play and Android Auto.
Crafter is now backed by Volkswagen’s new five year/unlimited kilometre warranty, although it only comes with 12-months roadside assistance for some reason. Match it with VW’s $2300, 5-year Care Plan that covers scheduled servicing at 12 month/20,000 km intervals and you have a winner. Although the Care Plan must be purchased prior to the first service, it’s still a lot of budgetary peace of mind for $460 per year for the whole warranty period.
Having emerged from its ugly duckling years, Crafter appears set to again become a familiar face in the local motorhome scene, and likely a more successful one at that. That's good for consumers because it will keep Fiat and Mercedes-Benz on their toes, while also providing conversion companies – and therefore buyers – with new options.