The passenger van, or people carrier, is a bit of a standing joke of a car, isn’t it?
You only drive one when your family has grown so much there’s really no other choice. Oh, it’s alright if you simply fill the back with surfboards for a VW Caravelle Road Trip – THEN they’re cool. But for a parent to be buying a passenger van? It’s public symbol of a resigned acceptance of your fate, isn’t it?
The new crop of passenger vans are, at first glance, nothing more than work vans with extra seats in.
Glamorous, I know.
But we’re grown ups now. What do we need with swish, slick and sharp? We were facing a 1,277 mile journey with four children in the car. I’ll just let that sink in. One thousand, two hundred and seventy seven miles.
In one car.
With four children.
We didn’t need a red stiletto of a car – we needed a comfy ballet pumps version.
And potentially our head’s examined.
So, quite frankly, we leaped up and down in glee when VW asked if we’d like to take the lovely Dora*, the VW Caravelle (NB – if you’re on the VW site they’re listed under the Commercial vehicles, not under the normal ‘car’ range), on our now infamous Road Trip to Scotland. Genuinely for no other reason than that we could see no way of carrying 2 adults, 4 ‘children’ (two teens and a pre-teen included there), an elephantine Rottweiler plus essential bedding for her duff limbs, and all the luggage and essential supplies for two weeks self catering in the remote Highlands and Islands of Scotland.
We do actually own a pretty huge Toyota Landcruiser and a Previa, and yet the topbox was sobbing when we pulled it out of the shed to check it over a couple of months ago, begging us not to make it carry our holiday packing again.
So we said a rapid “Yes Please!” to VW, and waited for the Caravelle to arrive on the appointed day.
It arrived, and we all took a casual not-very-excited look.
And we “oooh-ed” a bit. Yes, all of us.
It was… nice. Sharp. Swish. Definitely a bit… red stiletto-ish.
HUGE, in fact.
But still Very Nice Indeed.
It felt like… a car inside. We’ve hired vans before, and apart from the obvious size thing, the Caravelle is nothing like a van inside. Not at all.
So departure day arrived, and we started packing up Dora (the explorer). We had the short wheel base model, which despite it’s cavernous interior did mean that there still wasn’t acres of room for cases PLUS the dog & bed in the boot. We played with the seat positions – the boys wanted to swivel their 2nd row seats to ride backwards, facing their siblings with the table up between them. So we shunted the third row bench seat forward a little to allow extra space in the boot whilst still not taking away all their leg room (we were going to be in this car for a long time. We did not want to start with the “oi! You kicked me! Move your legs! Shove your foot over!” shouts within an hour from home).
But once we adjusted our thinking to move away from the ‘everything goes in the boot’ packing strategy we ended up with plenty enough room.
Because the Caravelle has clearly been designed by someone with a large family.
There is storage EVERYWHERE. Underneath every seat is practically a cupboard. You might lose foot space when you swivel the seats, but you gain in storage facilities in the space behind them.
The table has storage, the doors have storage… you’re more in danger of losing things or forgetting where you put them than you are to not be able to fit things in.
So, everyone packed in, personal travel bags stowed neatly within reach, dog squooshed into the boot with just about enough room beside the cool box and the large suitcase, and satnav set, we were off.
And what a hideous journey the first leg was – the sat nav cheerily told us 5hrs, but it was over EIGHT hours later that we arrived at our first stopover. The traffic had been terrible, the roadworks on the M5 and M6 had been ridiculously long and slow, and we had stoopidly timed our journey to hit them at rush hour.
But inside the car, all was serene.
There was no cramped squashed complaining.
Not one child uttered that hated phrase – they were all too busy.
We had a three-way challenge on the DS’s (Dragon Quest IX – BEST DS game we ever invested in) while the girl caught up with an audiobook on my ipod.
The table was excellent for propping up tablets – in-car movies were provided via the awesome Seagate wireless drive, and at one point we had Dances with Wolves, Harry Potter and Brave all running simultaneously.
We had a long conversation giving names and voices to the people we passed on the motorway, building stupid life stories for them – “oh look, that’s Mildred in the passenger seat. She doesn’t approve of Reg’s driving, the only reason she agrees to let him drive her is because he said her beef cobbler was the best he’d ever tasted”… You’re so high in the Caravelle that visibility (all around, not just into other people’s cars, mind) is excellent.
The air con is zonal, so the overheated No.1 could have it on cool while Boy sitting opposite could turn his off and not be blasted with chilly air. And when I had my window down to cool off in the front, they could put their own heating on in the back.
Each window has its own sun shade, which the children all loved as they settled down to watch a movie or close their eyes to an audiobook.
When we finally reached our destination and got out of the car I noticed that everyone leaped out and started grabbing bags – there was none of that slow-moving stretchy-staggery-joints thing you’d expect after such a long car journey. In fact, the eldest two commented that they felt like they’d been on a train journey, it wasn’t like being in a car at all.
Right then and there, as a parent, I was sold. If any vehicle could carry my children on dull motorways for 8hrs in solid unyielding relentless traffic jams and have them arrive at the other end cheerful, un-cramped and having not had a single tetchy word spoken, it deserved a medal from me.
On top of which – we’d all rather fallen in love with the way the Caravelle looks. There’s no denying it’s a big beast, but Dora is… cool. We got a lot of admiring and covetous glances on the motorway; lots of Dads in their estate cars filled with baby baggage and child seats eyeing up the dimensions and the space and wondering if actually the people carrier might have been the better buy after all (yes, yes it would)
Never mind the carrying side though – how was the Caravelle to drive? It was a joy, that’s how it was.
Although big, Dora was nippy and responsive, just as at home cruising on the motorway as she was powering up the huge climbs of the Highlands. It seemed that every time we asked something new of her she merely sung a gleeful “of course I can!“.
(Except the one time we followed the satnav on a shortcut through the forest… which descended into a mere forestry track… which descended into muddy rutted pits… which Dora got oh-so-temporarily stuck in and might’ve needed a quick disembark of all passengers for a slight push… but ssshhhh, we didn’t tell VW that happened, so don’t let on, okay?)
I did wonder if, due to her size, she’d be a terribly practical car on tiny little bendy rural roads. And to be fair, there were a few times when we met other cars that there was no way we were going to get through and had to back up. But visibility is so good, and the steering so light, that reversing her is not trouble at all.
My last question was exactly how much all this space and practicality was going to cost us in fuel. I already drive a people carrier, I know they’re not the most economical of cars.
When we set off from Dorset, we had a full tank of fuel. Our next fuel stop? The outskirts of Glasgow – 410 miles away. Including those hours and hours of stop/start traffic jams on the motorway. We weren’t empty either – we were between empty and quarter of a tank. Which meant overall our journey had been running at 26mpg – though we were clocking consistently over 30mpg on the motorways when the traffic was free running.
Our entire trip was over 2,200 miles. Yes really.
And we spent in total just £406 on fuel. Which not only surprised us, but made us Very Happy Indeed.
So. Vans. Still think they’re an ugly and embarassing necessity, do you?
Honestly – nothing else matches the practicality for a family. The sliding rear doors and low step-in height afford easy access for passengers, and the huge assortment of storage spaces and the infinite seating arrangement possibilities solve the travel problems you didn’t even know you had.
And I haven’t even mentioned the brilliant bluetooth phone system, the excellent satnav, the best-warm-bums-in-the-world seat heaters…
And the VW Caravelle is just so damned Good Looking.