AUTO EXPRESS LONG TERM TEST :
The Volkswagen Transporter was the Auro Express Van of the Year in 2016, so you can rest assured that it’s very good at its job. But we wondered how good the Transporter would be at our job. Could Volkswagen’s mid-sized panel van cope with the rigours of life on Auto Express?
The best people to unearth the answer to this question were clearly the Auto Express film team. Our resident Steven Spielbergs were in the perfect position to put the Transporter through its paces, and that's exactly what they did.
If the van could cope with their demanding schedule of location shoots and their precious cargo of camera and lighting equipment on a long-term test, that would set the seal on it as a van to be reckoned with. Now the test is over and the hard-working Transporter has returned to base we can deliver the final verdict on its time on our fleet.
The Auto Express film team need a combination of cargo and passenger capacity so the Volkswagen Transporter Kombi was clearly the best model for them. The vehicle gives a mix of a big load area in the rear and seating for five fully-grown adults in two rows up front.
Access couldn’t really be better with the wide-opening sliding side doors and the huge tailgate at the back. You’ve got to be careful when parking that you leave enough space to get this massive slab of a tailgate open, but once it is, you’ve got a low floor and a big square space inside.
“The van’s capacity has been the big benefit, we’ve got a lot of expensive, bulky equipment to shift around and the low floor makes hoisting stuff in easier,” said film team manager Sarah Hunt.
“When you can’t get the tailgate open because of a parked car or something, there’s plenty of room to get cargo inside through the side doors. Then there’s this spongy floor that helps protect the camera cases and stops them sliding around.”
“You can even lift the second row of seats out, but they’re really heavy and it took three of us shift them. Rather than going through that, we usually just fold the seat backs down and stack things on top when we need more room.”
Now, you might have noticed that this particular Transporter van isn’t exactly in ‘working vehicle’ spec. The Transporter’s interior quality is already very good but what we’re looking at here is the top specification Sportline model. That means you get quilted leather seats and a sat-nav infotainment system inside.
Outside, there are 18-inch alloy wheels and lots of other add-ons to give a more dynamic look. With the Kombi bodystyle, Sportline trim and extras including LED headlamps and a full set of parking sensors, this is a £46,000 van.
“I’ve got to say, it’s not my idea of what van interior looks like but it looks great and is very comfortable," reckons Hunt.
“We’ve had to be more careful than we might otherwise have been when loading up, to avoid scratching the leather seats but that’s a small price to pay.
“The sat-nav system sometimes seems to lag behind a bit and doesn't recognise a lot of postcodes, so we’ve been connecting up our phones for navigation.”
The high specification of the Transporter Kombi Sportline doesn’t end with the sporty bells and whistles, it’s also got the Transporter’s flagship engine and gearbox combination.
Under the bonnet is VW’s BiTDI twin-turbo diesel engine with 201bhp, and the result is that this is a quick van. It can cope with a payload of over 1,000kg and although we haven’t come close to that, the van is regularly fully loaded with five passengers and a lot of equipment. It means the engine has to work hard but you wouldn’t really know it.
It stays quiet and there’s strong acceleration when you need it. The van’s relaxed character on the road is accentuated by the 7-speed DSG gearbox that eases its way up and down the ratios almost imperceptibly.
“We’ve loved driving the Transporter," Hunt continued. There’s a lot of power in that engine and it never seems to struggle, but the best bit is the comfortable ride and smoothness of the engine on long trips. It’s very relaxing.
“Officially it’ll do 45mpg but we’ve only been averaging 29mpg. Considering we’re driving in and out of central London a lot and we’re carrying quite a bit of weight, I don’t think that’s too bad.
“It’s hard to think of a better van for our purposes, but whether we could get such a plush version on our budget is another matter.
“More than anything it shows how upmarket modern vans can be. And still do the job they’re designed for.”
So the Auto Express film team has met the Volkswagen Transporter and they’ve got on like a house on fire. This might be the van in its most luxurious and expensive form, but it’s really the underlying qualities that have shone through on this test. The Transporter’s space, build quality and comfort are common throughout the range and that’s why VW’s mid-size panel van is so hard to beat.
Our Sportline van spends a fair proportion of its time weaving its way in and out of central London through our capital’s usual hellish traffic congestion. Unfortunately, that fact of the Transporter’s life in its role as a workhorse for the Auto Express film team has a number of undesirable knock-on effects.
First, fuel economy has hovered around the 29mpg mark, some way below the official 43mpg figure. Second, the Transporter’s size can make it a handful to squeeze through gaps in traffic. Third, the busy streets with their miniscule parking spaces, careering bikes and over-eager taxis can put the Transporter’s pristine bodywork at risk of minor knocks and scrapes. It was this final hurdle that our Transporter fell foul of.
The minor knock sustained was not, we hasten to add, our fault. In fact, it wasn't even the result of London's traffic crammed streets. We returned to the van having left it parked on the street overnight to find a horizontal dent in the rear bumper and not so much as a note from the culprit. A trip to the body shop, yielded a quote for a complete new bumper costing just under £1,000, ouch.
It was the kind of cosmetic damage you might well just learn to live with if it was your own van, especially in the absence of the guilty party’s insurance details, but we had the work done and the Transporter is now back in tip-top condition.
It’s worth noting that Transporter vans come as standard with unpainted plastic bumpers that are more cost-effective to replace. Higher spec models, including the Kombi 5-seaters of which our van is one, get the more upmarket body-coloured items. At least there’s a full set of parking sensors on our Transporter to help keep the chances of another ding to a minimum.
The Volkswagen Transporter Kombi is a van and, true to form, it’s been working hard with the Auto Express film team, helping with the logistics of getting our video content created. But our team of expert camera operators, editors and directors haven’t exactly been roughing it in their commercial vehicle.
The our Transporter Kombi Sportline hails from the glitzy Hollywood end of the UK van market with list price a shade under £46,000 and an equipment list to cosset our creatives in the manner to which they’re accustomed.
As that price tag might lead you to believe, the 2.0-litre BiTDI engine and DSG 7-speed gearbox are the top pairing in the Transporter range and Sportline trim is plush to the point that there are very few worthwhile options left on the list to add. Our particular van gets LED headlamps (£1,662), a towbar (£606), the full suite of parking sensors (£318) and VW’s App Connect phone integration (£150). Most of the other essentials are standard and there are a lot. Five quilted leather seats, climate control, cruise control and a Discover Media touchscreen sat-nav system give a car-like quality to the cabin. Outside, meanwhile, there are 18” alloy wheels along with a series of other sporty add-ons inline with the Sportline branding.
Our first report came while the van was still bedding-in with the film team and their busy schedule but having had more time to spend with the Transporter over recent weeks, the team have come to know it better and understand what it can (and can’t) do.
If we had to pick one standout feature that really helps Volkswagen’s panel van meet the demands of the AE film team it would be the ride quality (not he quilted leather seats). The team are out filming cars on a daily basis and a large part of this is filming car tracking shots from the back of the van. Stiff suspension really makes this a difficult task for the camera as every bounce and bump translates into a shaky, unusable image.
The Transporter is a heavy duty vehicle with a 1,031kg maximum payload but even with a fraction of that weight on the back, the shocks and springs serve up a superbly smooth and surprisingly un-van-like ride. Even on rough surfaces, the Transporter is a composed platform for those all-important tracking shots.
At the rear of the van, the huge tailgate lifts up, swinging far out of shot when the team are filming from the back of the van and providing unrestricted access to the load area. The large back window is also fantastic for suction mounting the camera stabilisation rig to allow more creative freedom in choosing shots. Up on top, the Sportline roof bars add a further level of reassurance when strapping on a camera rig to ensure safety and protect the equipment should any mounts fail.
The van’s leather trim adds an element of luxury to the cabin that everyone appreciates but, while its easily cleaned and comfortable, it’s always a worry that the soft fabric may potentially get damaged given the speed at which awkward equipment often has to be loaded and unloaded. As it stands, the seats are still in pristine condition but the price for that is constant vigilance and we do wonder if they’re really necessary in a Transporter that’s getting the kind of hard use the film team are putting it though.
In terms of space, there are no such doubts and the 5-seat layout is proving perfect. The detachable three-seat passenger bench has yet to be removed, as the space on offer in the back behind it is ample for our needs. The sheer capacity of the vehicle has been a real bonus when ferrying crew around. It’s usually not possible to fit the entire team in one vehicle with all the kit as well but the big VW does it with ease.
There has been a compromise in terms of fuel economy with Volkswagen’s 43.5mpg official combined cycle claim proving a little optimistic. We are averaging around 29mpg, which is significantly lower than we expected. In fairness it will be partly a product of lots of miles in London traffic, as well as the weight of the equipment and people the van has to carry to and from shoots.
The front and rear parking sensors are hugely useful for the team when parking such a large vehicle, especially in tight spaces in London. A few of the drivers have become accustomed to reversing cameras on our other vehicles, though. That added level of assistance when parking is something they have mentioned they miss in the van and it’s one additional option (for £306) that we would probably spec.
Overall, the Transporter Kombi is proving a joy to drive and to work with on a weekly basis, it’s standing up well to the requirements of the film team and continually surprises us with it’s versatility when it comes to attaching camera rigs and getting shots that would have been impossible in other vehicles. It’s not cheap but for our specialist needs, it’s currently hard to think of a better vehicle as the long-term test continues.
Our video team get keys to their brand new daily workhorse and it's already getting stuck in
Video is a huge part of everything we do at Auto Express and our film team are out in far-flung locations in all weathers getting the footage that populates our website, YouTube channel and social media presence. It’s a tough job and they need a tough vehicle which is why we called upon our 2016 Van of the Year - Volkswagen’s Transporter - to fill the void as film team utility vehicle.
The need to carry four people and an absolute mountain of heavy kit precludes most passenger cars from the role of AE film team runabout but the Transporter is a van that can take it all in its stride, at least that’s the theory.
We picked out the the 5-seat Kombi model in the Transporter’s short-wheelbase bodystyle and if you’re worried that a commercial vehicle might be a bit Spartan for conveying our much-travelled videographers in the manner to which they’re accustomed, fear not. We’ve specced it to the max.
In the plus column for this Transporter Kombi is VW’s 201bhp 2.0-litre BiTDI twin-turbo diesel engine matched to a 7-speed DSG twin-clutch gearbox and Sportline trim. Sportline means this is the Transporter at its plushest with satellite navigation, DAB radio, quilted leather seats, 18” alloy wheels and a rear roof spoiler. In the minus column is a list price of £46,000 that jumps close to £48,000 with the LED head and tail lamps (£1,662), a towbar (£606), parking sensors (£318) and App Connect phone integration (£150) added from the options list.
So the Transporter Kombi is not cheap, but our first few weeks with the car have revealed it’s nigh-on perfect for the film team’s particular needs. Out on film shoots for all of Dennis’ automotive titles, they get to drive a lot of cars but even so, the Transporter has stood out.
The van is being used on a daily basis specifically for carrying the video cameras, kit and crew to shoots. The film team’s vehicle had to be reliable, versatile, occasionally able to tackle tricky terrain and roomy enough for a lot of expensive equipment plus a minimum of 3 crew - on that basis it’s exceeded expectations.
The Transporter is very comfy to drive, the driving position has a wide range of adjustment for all shapes and sizes, its automatic gearbox is smooth and the steering is precise. The suspension is soft enough to film tracking shots out of the rear and the side sliding door has been perfect for easy accessibility to the cargo area. The forward visibility is particularly good and despite its size, the van is easy to manoeuvre with its optional parking sensors almost making parking a joy.
The leather trim adds a touch of class to the cabin and so far, has coped well with the (sometimes muddy) all-weather work. The fact that the rear seats can be really easily removed means that reconfiguring the van interior as it’s needed is very simple, too.
As the whole video team uses the van, it’s been great to be able to sync phones to media centre so we can communicate with base without pulling over or messing about with phone cradles.
On its first day with us the Transporter was thrown straight in at the deep end out on a shoot with car rigs attached to it. It was sturdy enough to take our large Movi rig and camera, as well as extra kit loaded behind the main camera set-up. Since then it’s worked extremely hard as part of the team and it hasn’t disappointed yet.
The next big adventure is only around the corner when The van is going to house our mobile broadcast unit on a London to Paris shoot so we’ll keep you posted on how its gets on.