Attuned as I am here to the needs of the consumer, I presume that you will, no doubt, be required to hire a van at some point, as I was recently. As a result, you’ll want to know what kind of options are available to you. This is the third time I’ve hired a van, but my first experience with the Volkswagen Crafter (both previous van hires have been short-wheelbase Ford Transits). In my experience, most van fleets are full of Transits, which means you will probably end up driving one of those. But if you get a Crafter, here is what you can expect.
No van is going to drive well, nor are they particularly designed to. Vans are designed for utility, not driving experience. Still, a few comments on how the Crafter drives are in order. In the first place, it feels more rugged than the Transit. In part, that’s because the Crafter is overall a heavier-duty van, this particular model having a GVW of 3.5 tonnes. Being a heavy-duty vehicle means it comes with the attendant features of a rough ride and lots of noise, but it also means it comes with the sensation that this van is really up to the job of lugging around a lot of stuff. I only had to move a small flat’s worth of furniture, but I could hardly notice the extra weight at all. All that being said, the Crafter manages to feel quite a bit more refined than the Transit overall.
This particular van came with the least powerful of the Crafter’s range of 2.0L TDI engines, rated at 108bhp and 221lb.-ft. The numbers don’t sound big, but the engine feels up to the job, especially as panel vans are fairly light weight when empty. By no means is it fast, but given the way it is geared, it uses the power it has well. First gear has an especially low ratio which helps it get off the line quickly, although the gap between first and second is a bit too much to make second-gear standing starts a possibility. You can do it if the van is empty, but you feel the engine protesting a bit. Altogether, though, ratios are well-spaced and sixth gear places the engine perfectly in the middle of the power band for easy motorway cruising. Gear changes aren’t slick, but I like the real mechanical feel and sound they make. The clutch takes some getting used to, as it has both a heavier feel than your average car, and engages very quickly after beginning to release the pedal. And when it does, it grabs the flywheel quite hard, making it easy to stall if you’re not prepared. As with any big high-sided vehicle, the Crafter does not like crosswinds on the motorway, and with a fairly high steering ratio, this means you’ll be using your hands quite a bit to keep the van going in a straight line.
Inside, the Crafter is very basic. It has the gauges you need, a radio, and a few climate controls. The three seats in the cab will accommodate big people, and though I could have done with the driver’s seat reclining just a bit further, my 6’4” person had no problem comfortably driving the van. Controls are all within easy reach, and the only one I struggled to make sense of initially was the cruise control, in part because there is no light on the dash indicating it is on (perhaps the bulb on this particular gauge panel was burned out). Visibility in the van is excellent; the tall profile means the windscreen is huge and because you sit up so much higher, you have a commanding view of the road in front. Big mirrors on the side mean visibility around the van is good too, and the small convex mirrors on the bottom help when you need to reverse. As it was 23ºC the day I drove the van, I could have used air conditioning, as the lack of insulation means it gets warm inside the cab very quickly, and at 70mph with the windows down it is impossible to have a conversation, let alone hear yourself think (although thankfully the wind moves in such a way that it does not blast you in the side of the face). It’s also not helpful when you’re parked on the A1(M) for an hour on a warm, humid evening.
But what is a van ultimately for? Storage space. And of course, in the back, there is tons of room, given the medium-length wheelbase and high roof. I could even stand upright between the support braces across the roof. I packed it loosely as I didn’t have that much stuff to move, but packed well, you could fit a lot of cargo in this van.
I have always enjoyed driving big vehicles, and driving the Crafter was no different. Though I would not want to do it every day, I have to acknowledge that I occasionally enjoy indulging the sense of power and responsibility that comes with driving a vehicle like this. And in the end, although I only have the Transit to compare it to (and not even the latest version of it), I would pick the Crafter. It feels more solid and refined overall, and again, whilst utility is your primary concern in a van, why not opt for the best packaging of that utility you can get?
Engine: 2.0L TDI I4, 108bhp, 221lb.-ft.
Gearbox: 6-speed manual
Mileage at pickup: 12,920
Distance driven: 280 miles
Photo location: 54°45’11.6″N 1°35’19.4″W