18 JANUARY 2003, Page 44


Transporters of delight

Alan Judd

Ithink I am becoming a god,' said the dying emperor Vespasian, assuming the posthumous promotion that emperors expected. Lower down the celestial ladder. I think I am becoming White Van Man.

Not that I wish to become Toad in the dirty Transit, filling your mirror by driving six inches from your rear bumper and cutting you up at the lights. It's just that I like vans. My father had several: a little prewar Morris, a former ice-cream van and a string of Bedford Dormobiles, those snubnosed things with sliding doors, many seats (or cookers and beds) and a column gearchange with which you had to doubledeclutch from second to first. I learned to drive in an old London Evening News delivery version.

I once bought a Transit myself, using it to move house and afterwards selling it for a small profit to a couple of blokes who wanted it 'for a job'. Vans appeal not only for the childlike pleasure of finding how much you can get in them but because they're often more comfortable to drive than cars and because their height and width make them commanding and relaxing.

I was reminded of all this recently when testing a Mazda MPV. Of course, modern MPVs don't like to be considered vans. Ever since the innovative Renault Espace arrived in the mid-Eighties, they have sought to combine car-like feel with vanlike capacity, as useful for the school/Sainsbury's runs as for the family dash to Provence. To me, however, they always seem a lesser version of the real thing, and the real thing has been around in various forms for about half a century. Thus it was that 1 spent a comfortable Christmas and New Year in a VW Caravelle Limousine.

Remember those flat-fronted, rearengined Caravelles and Variants of the 00' Fifties and Sixties, popular with large families, pop groups, campers and antipodians over here for the grand European tour? Like their modern successors — which now include the Multivan — they were adaptations of the Transporter van, higher and wider than most MPVs, more spacious and better built. You can choose from six to nine

seats some removable, some swivel — or you might prefer kitchen cupboards or double beds. Prices range from £19,997 for the eight-seater Caravelle Sedan to £39,085.75 for the seven-seater 204 bhp V6 Caravelle Limousine. I made do with the £34,261.50 Tdi, with manual gearbox and 102 bhp.

First impression was that this big square beast makes no concession to the fashionable MPV long-snouts (one of which, of course, is VW's own Sharan). Second impression is that it's all the better for it. With its wide doors (the rear two slide) and high roof-line, you step in and out with barely a nod of the head. The leather armchairs are superbly supportive and comfortable, the 2.5 litre diesel is willing and torquey (184 lbs.ft. at 1900-2300 rpm) and the driving position is excellent. If, however, you have a long back and short arms, you might find the gear lever a touch low and the handbrake, when released flat on the floor, something to reach for.

It handles surprisingly well. Its legroom, headroom, storage space, turning circle and combined urban/extra-urban mpg of 35.8 would make it a good taxi. Climate control (with separate front and rear adjustment) and cruise control are standard on this model and rendered the 700plus miles I travelled more than tolerable, though there was noticeable tyre noise at speed. To be fair, it varied with the road surface; German autobahns are probably quieter and smoother than our hot-rolled tarmac. Overall, you may feel you're White Van Man, but you're a pretty cosseted one.

I did, however, suffer an humiliation. As one who regularly drives tractors and a 4x4, getting stuck has no place among my personal myths. Others may get stuck but the laws of physics are not supposed to apply as much to me. To do so, therefore, by parking unthinkingly on a friend's sodden verge before his bay window crowded with New Year celebrants, to come to a halt as the front wheels bed in (the Caravelle is front-wheel drive, of course), then to churn up trenches in futile attempts to escape is bad enough. But to have to he publicly rescued by a one-armed Catholic priest and a man with a geriatric Land-Rover is not how any motoring correspondent likes to advertise his arrival. That's how it was, though: comfortable, solid and capable as this vehicle is, don't assume it's an off-roader.

Don't assume, either, that its sophistication disguises the fact that it's essentially a dressed-up van. That is how it looks and feels. None the worse for it, as far as I'm concerned, but if car-like MPVs are more to your taste, stick with them. If, however, you want to carry more in greater comfort and very likely in greater safety — or if you have ever been in the slightest hit envious of White Van Man as he crowds you out — then this is for you. But stick to the road.