Volkswagen's UK sales operation is aiming to double annual volumes of the Caravelle MPV (UK-speak for minivan) thanks to a fully redesigned model line and an expanded dealer network, writes just-auto.com deputy editor Graeme Roberts.

The Caravelle is, it has to be said, a 'van with windows' - a luxuriously trimmed and generously equipped people-carrying version of the utilitarian Transporter van, with which it shares sheet metal, mechanicals and most front cabin components.

Previous generation Caravelles have "traditionally" sold in the UK at the rate of around 800-1,000 units a year, according to Volkswagen. They were sold through 65 van centres, alongside seven and nine-seat window versions of the Transporter, specified and priced for the 'workers van' market rather than the 'luxury hotel courtesy transport' market targeted by the pricier and more highly specified Caravelle.

VW UK is still undecided about offering seven- and nine-seat Transporter people carrying models but has meanwhile launched an initial three-version Caravelle line, priced from £24,750 to £27,750, which will now also be sold through about 100 of its 250-strong car dealer network. It expects this approach will roughly double sales to the order of 1,600-2,000 units a year. VW car dealers wanting to take on Caravelle sales will have to carry at least one demonstrator and one showroom display vehicle in inventory while an owner who buys from a car dealer will also be able to get the vehicle serviced at a van centre (and vice-versa) if more convenient.

UK sales have started with seven-seat Caravelles in just one well-equipped SE specification which includes front air conditioning, rear heat and a/c vents, power windows, locks and mirrors, a decent stereo with cassette and six-CD stacker, front fog lights, heated front seats and alloy wheels. Factory options include a six-seat layout with two captain's chairs replacing the centre row bench seat, parking sensors, integrated child seats, a sleep pack (including a cover to turn rear seats into a mattress, and curtains), self-dim mirrors plus windscreen wiper rain sensor and satellite navigation.

Launch engines are three of VW's familiar four (1.9-litre) and five-cylinder (2.5-litre) 'Pumpe Duse' turbodiesels developing 104, 130 and 170PS, and hooked up to five-speed (1.9) or six-speed (2.5) manual gearboxes.

Coming later are lower-line S (no CD stacker or alloy wheels, for example) and top-line Executive trims (including leather/alcantara upholstery, electric rear sliding doors, climate control a/c and sports suspension), plus an optional 3.2-litre petrol fuelled 235PS V6 engine and six-speed Tiptronic automatic gearboxes.

A brief drive in 130PS and 174PS manual diesel versions revealed top-notch build quality, a well laid-out cockpit, bags of low-end torque, especially with the 174PS engine, and acceptable handling, ride and refinement thought there's no getting away from a rather distinctive 'I'm driving a van' feeling. Full-length floor rails, seats that swivel 180 degrees and a clever fold-out coffee/work table allow great flexibility and an apparently infinite number of seat/luggage/legroom permutations. Kids will love it and there's ample Gameboy power points, plenty of rear heat/vent output and sliding windows in the rear doors. A sunroof is also optional.

Conceding the hoped-for sales volume is lower than mass-market MPVs like the Renault Espace and Ford Galaxy, not to mention their own Sharan, and that the new model is pretty pricey, enthusiastic VW spokesmen said they reckoned the UK MPV market had now "caught up with the Caravelle".

Translation: Buyers who bought into the segment with the likes of the Espace have moved on and "matured", as have their families, so the more spacious and more flexible Caravelle interior, with greater luggage area, will appeal to the family with two or three gangly teenagers presently crammed into a smaller rival.

Though not, it would seem, much smaller. At the press preview, VW produced a full-size outline of the new Caravelle superimposed on the Sharan's and the difference in dimensions is negligible.

The redesigned model's appeal to commercial users like hotels, golf resorts and airport limousine services is seen as a given, as many already run previous generation Caravelles.

"It's a large MPV with real private buyer appeal," added a VW spokesman. "The market has developed and first-timers running traditional MPVs that aren't big or flexible enough are looking for a move up."

VW UK is also pleased that the redesigned Caravelle is now "officially a passenger car rather than a commercial vehicle" and can therefore go on company car 'user-chooser' lists.

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