Volkswagen Transporter van review
The Volkswagen Transporter is a class act in the mid-sized panel van class, its refinement, comfort and technology all stand out
The sixth-generation Volkswagen Transporter has been around since September 2015 and proven itself as a star turn for VW in a competitive mid-size panel van market. It took our coveted Van of the Year title in 2016 and has done great service with businesses up and down the country.Of course, the van market never stands still and rivals like the Peugeot Expert and Ford Transit Custom had all upped their games since the Transporter first landed. That’s why VW brought us the T6.1 in the autumn of 2019, a thoroughly facelifted Transporter with updated looks inside and out, plus a range of technology features including a new electro-mechanical power steering set-up.
The VW Transporter T6.1 has a redesigned front end with revised LED daytime running lights, as well as a new front bumper and radiator grille combo. The van now sports ‘lateral model designators’ - the little chromed plates that stick out from the headlight units on the front wings and carry the van’s model name for all to see.
It’s inside, however, where the changes are most keenly felt. The latest VW infotainment system now features technology straight out of the brand’s passenger cars, and the new electronic steering system allows for a variety of advanced safety kit to appear on the Transporter for the first time.
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Volkswagen also simplified the Transporter range with the arrival of the T6.1 by axing the mid-level Trendline trim. Startline is still the entry-level model, then the range jumps straight to Highline. Sportline will retain its flagship status when these models arrive in 2020.
The Transporter is available in multiple shapes and sizes – coming in both short and long-wheelbase forms with four gross vehicle weights and three roof heights. It also comes in a variety of alternate body styles including the Transporter Kombi 5-seater double cab, the Caravelle MPV, the Shuttle minibus, and, of course, who could forget the California camper van!
The allure of the Volkswagen badge is as strong in the van sector as it is in the car market, but the Transporter itself has a lot to offer as a tough workhorse. As well as the Peugeot Expert, Citroen Dispatch and Toyota Proace, the Transporter also rivals the Ford Transit Custom, Renault Trafic, Vauxhall Vivaro and Mercedes Vito in the medium-sized panel van class.
Overall, the Transporter feels a highly sophisticated product with technology and comfort levels that set that standard in the class. The engines are a little noisy and legroom for taller drivers and passengers could be better but there’s little else to fault. The Transporter doesn’t come cheap but businesses will benefit from its robust residual values when the time comes to sell-on.
MPG, CO2 and Running Costs
All Volkswagen Transporter models are powered by versions of the brand’s venerable 2.0-litre, four-cylinder TDI diesel engine, all of which now meet the Euro 6d emissions standards. As well as enabling a raft of active safety systems, the switch to electric power steering in the Transporter 6.1 from the old hydraulic set-up also helps cut fuel consumption.
The range kicks off with an 89bhp unit that returns between 33.6 and 39.8mpg on the WLTP combined cycle in a short-wheelbase, low roof Transporter panel van. If you step up to the 108bhp TDI 110 engine option, the economy penalty is slight - 32.5 to 37.7mpg combined - and at the top end of things the 148bhp TDI 150 unit gets a 6-speed gearbox and exactly the same fuel economy rating as the equivalent 5-speed TDI 110 models.
Choose the 7-speed DSG automatic gearbox option or 4Motion all-wheel drive and efficiency will take a further hit of between 2 and 3mpg. A potent twin-turbocharged 196bhp engine completes the line-up, it’s DSG-only and returns 28.8 to 32.5mpg on the official tests.
To help meet those emissions standards, every engine features Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) technology, which uses injections from a 13-litre onboard AdBlue tank to clean the exhaust emissions. VW’s BlueMotion Technology (BMT) kit is also standard, adding start/stop technology, regenerative braking and low rolling resistance tyres.
The TSI petrol engine option has been completely removed from the Transporter range after only making up 1 per cent of sales for the pre-facelift T6. VW has also confirmed that there will be no hybrid model but there is an all-electric Transporter van that’s set to join the range in 2020. It has been developed by tuning company ABT and features a choice of two battery packs – either 33.8kWh or 77.6kWh. Volkswagen claims that the larger of the two batteries will offer a driving range of over 250 miles.
Load Space and Practicality
The T6.1 may look different at the front with the new grille and LED headlight set-up, but things are pretty much unchanged at the working end. VW continues to offer the Transporter in two wheelbases, with three roof heights and four gross vehicle weights, delivering load volumes of 5.8m3 to 9.3m3 with maximum payloads of between 772kg and 1,309kg.
Transporter model names are derived from the 2,600kg (T26), 2,800kg (T28), 3,000kg (T30) and 3,200kg (T32) gross vehicle weight options. The biggest payload of 1,309kg is carried by the T32 TDI 110 short wheelbase model while the biggest load volume of 9.3m3 is, unsurprisingly, in the long wheelbase, high roof derivatives.
The short wheelbase model has a maximum load length of 2,570mm, which rises to 2,970mm in the long wheelbase. Maximum internal height is 1,410mm in the low roof van, rising to 1,626mm in the medium roof and 1,940mm in the high roof model. All Transporters have a gap between the rear wheel arches of 1,244mm and the long-wheelbase ones can take three Euro pallets.
You can also have the Transporter in a double cab Kombi configuration, with two wheelbase options and two seating layouts. Load volumes for these variants are 3.5 to 4.4m3, with a maximum payload of 1,207kg. Details for the new all-electric Transporter are yet to be revealed, but Volkswagen is promising a payload of almost 1,200kg.
As we’ve said, the load bay design and dimensions are unchanged from the T6 model. You get the usefully square shape with minimal wheelarch intrusion plus the choice of either a lifting tailgate or side-hinged rear doors. The long wheelbase models can be ordered with side hinges that allow opening to 250 degrees for better access and wide-opening sliding side doors are available across the range.
Reliability and Safety
The Volkswagen Transporter has always been at the forefront of van safety tech, but the facelifted T6.1 has stepped it up even further. There is a very generous amount of safety kit available as standard and beyond that there are still plenty of option boxes that can be ticked to boost your van’s safety credentials.
Adaptive cruise control, automatic post-collision braking, high-beam assist, hill-start assist, front assist with city emergency braking, driver alert and trailer stabilisation are all carried over from the T6. Now, however, driver steering recommendation and crosswind assist (first seen on the Crafter) are also present on the Transporter.
Park assist can be added for those spending a lot of time squeezing into tight spaces, while regular motorway users can benefit from lane-keeping assist. Side protection sensors, trailer assist, traffic sign recognition and rear traffic alert can also be found on the options list. Making for one of the most comprehensive arsenals of driver assistance aids on any van.
Those looking for the ultimate in road holding, or who regularly have to deal with rough surfaces and poor weather conditions, can order the Transporter with VW’s 4Motion four-wheel-drive system, including a mechanical differential lock.
Driving and Performance
The Transporter continues to be a hugely impressive performer on the road, particularly in terms of its ride comfort. We tested a series of models with light loads on board and all served up a smooth ride while taking the edge off the bigger bumps and potholes.
The switch from hydraulic power steering to the electro-mechanical set-up has had little impact on the driving experience with the van responding smartly to inputs on the open road while feeling generally stable and relaxing to drive. There’s possibly a slightly lighter, more maneuverable feel in low-speed corners and when parking.
The Transporter puts its driver in a high, upright position similar to that which you’d find in larger panel vans from the class above and quite different from the more car-like approach of the likes of the Mercedes Vito and the Citroen Dispatch. You get a commanding view of the road and easy access, with the main controls all well-positioned once you are inside.
In general, the TDI engines are smooth and free-revving but they do kick out quite a bit of noise, especially before they’ve had a chance to warm up. Performance is pretty good across the line-up, so much so that light-duty, low mileage users should not dismiss the 89bhp TDI 90 model out of hand. Around town, it’s adequate with 220Nm of torque to waft around on but the lack of power is exposed on faster roads where you have to work the engine and slick-shifting 5-speed gearbox hard.
The 0-62mph sprint takes 12.2 seconds in that entry-level model but upgrading to the TDI 110 with 108bhp and 250Nm of torque gets you a far more satisfactory 9.5-second performance. This unit is more pleasant to use on flowing B-roads and motorways but we’d recommend the next jump to the TDI 150 if you plan on carrying big loads or doing lots of motorway miles. With this unit there’s 148bhp, 340Nm and a positively brisk 6.9-second 0-62mph time, it turns the Transporter into a very capable machine and the standard 6-speed gearbox has an even more pleasing action.
At the top of the range, the BiTDI 199 engine is a brute with 196bhp, 450Nm and a hot hatch worrying 0-62mph time of 5.8 seconds or 5.7 seconds if you opt for 4Motion all-wheel drive. A great fit in the Caravelle and California models, it has the pace to turn the standard Transporter into one of the quickest panel vans on the road.
Cab and Interior
There wasn’t much wrong with the interior in the T6 Transporter, but the T6.1 boosts the van’s cabin environment even further out of reach of rivals. The dash is ultra-modern and wouldn’t look out of place in most Volkswagen Group passenger cars - mainly because many elements are borrowed directly from those models. All models get a large infotainment screen giving the interior a striking appearance and VW has taken steps to improve the storage options even further.
T6.1 models come with a choice of three different infotainment systems. The range kicks off with the basic Composition Colour, which is still a cut above those found elsewhere in the mid-sized panel van class, but step up to Discover Media or top-spec Discover Pro and the cabin is transformed. The clear graphics and easy-to-grasp interface will be familiar to anybody who has spent any time inside one of Volkswagen’s latest cars.
It’s a shame the 10.25-inch digital cockpit set-up is not available on the Transporter vans though, as it’s available on the passenger-carrying Caravelle and Shuttle models as well as the California camper van. Nevertheless, the analogue dials you do get do their job well, with the small centre screen still displaying the extra info you need.
Connectivity is also a big part of the T6.1’s appeal, as all models now come with a fully integrated SIM card. This opens up a wide-range of online functions via VW’s We Connect or We Connect Plus systems, such as eCall, online route planning, remote locking and even info on filling stations and car parks.
Build quality is strong throughout the Transporter cabin with tough plastics that look like they can withstand plenty of punishment. Legroom is an issue for both passengers and driver in the latest models and anyone much over 6ft tall would be well advised to try the van for size to make sure they can get comfortable before making that buying decision. At least those wanting the 3-seat cabin layout will find that the middle berth is more spacious than on many rival models.
Electric windows, central locking and heated electrically adjustable wing mirrors are standard, while the driver’s seat has height, lumbar, reach and rake adjustment. There’s also a 230-volt socket next to the driver’s seat and, when specified, a lockable compartment sitting under the double bench seat on the passenger side.
A strange quirk is that all T6.1 models are only available with USB C ports (up to four are available). Volkswagen is looking ahead and future-proofing the range, but USB A is easily the most-popular connection at the moment so many people will be unable to hook up their phones.