Jaco Van Der Merwe

By Jaco Van Der Merwe

Head of Motoring


Honest charm helps VW Kombi stand test of time

Practical people mover still holds its own despite SUV barrage.


Not everyone will remember that Volkswagen’s popular people mover was once officially named Microbus and also called VolksieBus on the street, while probably fewer know it now wears a Transporter badge. So let’s just stick to the one name everyone can relate to: the Kombi.

It’s hard to believe that in the ever-evolving automotive world, Volkswagen’s original van has been around for more than seven decades. And today it is as practical a choice as it was when it followed the famous beetle off the assembly line as Volkswagen’s second production vehicle in 1950.

The popular van is in fact still going so strong that the all-new T7 version is set to make its global debut in the coming months. And judging on the images Volkswagen has released thus far, despite the new reincarnation featuring a futuristic looking front fascia in line with the all-electric ID.3, it remains unmistakably a Kombi.

Name change

In what is the last hurrah for the current generation, Volkswagen towards the end of last year rolled out the T6.1 version of its people mover. Part of this update was the merging of the nomenclature Kombi into the  Transporter line-up, which previously consisted of purely  commercial offerings like flat backs, panel vans and crew busses.

The name Kombi is not completely forlorn, but you have to dig deep to find it. The unit we had on test last week’s full name is (please put your reading glasses on now if you started this article without them): Volkswagen Transporter 2.0 TDI 110 kW Kombi SWB Trendline. See what I mean?

But while the name might be a bit strange, there is nothing foreign about the product itself. Despite a few modern exterior styling cues and the addition of some tech inside, it remains every bit a Kombi as it’s ever been.

In fact, chauffeuring my children around in our test car  for a week brought back many happy memories of my own childhood spend in the back of what was then popularly known as a VolksieBus. As endorsed by the one and only red velskoen-wearing David Kramer with his guitar and catchy Afrikaans tunes.

Honest charm

Despite the Kombi not offering the comfort of its upmarket Caravelle sibling, is has a distinctively humble charm about it. It might not have captain’s chairs in the second row, folding tray tables, hordes of USB ports, drinks holders of any kind, advanced climate control or electronic sliding side doors, but you soon realise that all the world’s bells and whistles don’t always guarantee happy passengers.

Volkswagen Kombi

Changes at the rear are hardest to spot than at the front

In fact, my children had a bigger jol crawling underneath the second and third row’s bench seats, being able to stand up straight and each having her own bed on an open road trip than they’ve had on heated, reclining seats with entertainment screens in seriously fancy cars. And the smiles on their faces made the trips so much more enjoyable for the driver despite himself not having any of those creature comforts associated with those expensive rides.

The Kombi’s main trait has always been the space it has to offer and the practicality in utilising it. Because of this vans have been able to survive in a world obsessed with SUVs, a body shape that has driven the sedan to the verge of extinction because of guess what? The very same utility-factor.

Proper space

But no matter how big the SUV, not even the proper seven-seater among them can offer the same legroom and headroom as in the third row bench seat of a Kombi. Not even to mention the fact that the Kombi also has space for one more passenger.

And when it comes to fitting their luggage, the Kombi has a much better chance of catering for the needs of its eight passengers than the SUV has enough boot space for its seven passengers’ luggage.

The upright space in the Kombi also means that it has the edge on almost every SUV. In how many SUVs can a golf bag stand upright in the back, can a bicycle stand upright in front of the second row or has space for a big dog lying down between the front seats? And any comparison there might have been goes out the window when you take the ginormous total 4 300-litre space on offer with the Kombi’s second and third row folded down.

Under the bonnet

Up front, the Kombi is well equipped to carry any load. It’s four-cylinder, 2.0-litre turbodiesel powerplant produces 110 kW of power and 320 Nm of torque which is sent to the front wheels via a seven-speed DSG transmission.

While it is able to cruise at the national speed limit at under 2 000 rpm on the open road all day every day, we would have liked a tad more punch when attempting to overtake. It does help to a certain extent to manually adjust the downshifting during these times, but it still lacks just that little bit of oomph every now and again. I guess that is why there is a 146 kW four-wheel-drive Trendline Plus version on offer at R150 000 more.

One thing we cannot fault is the fuel consumption. Over the course of the week, we covered 553 km at a very credible 10L/100 km. This included an open road trip of around 200 km at 9.6L/100 km. These are excellent numbers for a two-ton bus able to carry eight people.

Steering made easy

Despite its five-meter length, handling the Kombi is made ridiculously through the electro-mechanical power steering system which is in use on a Transporter fir the first time. The system transmits steering commands to the wheels more directly than the systems in previous models.

Manoeuvring this monstrosity in tight parking spaces is much easier than it might seem, with reverse camera and parking sensors taking the sting out of the operation. The generous ride-height, which beats most SUVs and double cabs, along with the fact that it feels like you are almost sitting directly over the front right wheel, contribute to give the drive heaps of confidence operating such a big vehicle.

Volkswagen Kombi

Dashboard more basic than that of the Caravelle

While the driver’s seat notably isn’t clad in similar comfort to that of the Caravelle, armrests are a welcome inclusion. Getting the sequence right to lift them up before removing the seat belt from its buckle and opening the door after a journey take a bit of time, but once you get used to the armrests your elbows feel kind of neglected in every other car you drive.

A 6.5-inch touchscreen infotainment system which supports Android Auto and Apple CarPlay plus a multi-function leather steering wheel mean that the Kombi’s cockpit is on par with today’s average SUV offering.

Conclusion

Priced at R758 100, there might be a few cheaper options out there in Ford and Hyundai’s stables, but those don’t have the rich heritage the Kombi does. And while similarly-priced SUV might offer more comfort inside and sexier body exterior body lines, they certainly can’t match the Kombi’s space and practicality.

It’s easy to see why the Kombi has stood the test of time, and is set to carry on deep into the future.

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