REVIEW DATE: 08 Mar 2006
By Steve Walker
The Volkswagen Group's DSG gearbox is widely accepted as one of the best semi-automatic gearboxes that there is. It has won critical acclaim in high performance, driver focused models like the Audi TT, the VW Golf R32 and even the astonishing 987bhp £800,000+ Bugatti Veyron. Now you can specify it in the Volkswagen Caddy van.
Commercial vehicles are usually the last in line to be fitted with any advanced technology that their manufacturer has going. Vans are simple, functional items designed to do an efficient cost-effective job and new-fangled technologies have a tendency to complicate matters while pushing prices up. If a van does get an advanced system or component, it's usually long after the headline-grabbing potential has subsided but Volkswagen are offering DSG with the Caddy at a time when it's still teetering on the cutting edge.
The system is said to provide "the best of both automatic and manual worlds' but if we had a pound for every time we'd heard that, we could all buy a Bugatti Veyron. The difference with DSG is that it comes within a whisker of delivering on its hype and certainly as close as any other transmission currently manages.
The gearbox achieves its slick and responsive gearchange with an ingenious system using two automatic clutches. While the first clutch is engaged, the second pre-selects the next gear, ready to act when given the nod. The result is that gearchanges can be performed in under four hundredths of a second, and that's quick. The DSG 'box can be used in fully automatic mode or switched to semi-automatic where the driver flicks up and down the gears manually by means of fore and aft nudges on the shift lever.
So why have Volkswagen seen fit to offer DSG in the Caddy? Well, a good auto 'box, or a very good one like the DSG, can be more useful than many people would expect in a commercial vehicle. Research has shown during city centre driving, 19 minutes of every hour is spent with the clutch depressed and that we push that pedal down no fewer than 222 times in the same period making 150 gearchanges. Multiply that out over a whole day at the wheel and it's a wonder that our hard-working delivery drivers aren't walking round in circles with one super-developed left leg that wouldn't look out of place on the reigning Mr Universe.
"The gearbox achieves its slick and responsive gearchange with an ingenious system using two automatic clutches"
If your company's drivers spend most of their time sitting in city centre traffic, the £1,100 premium needed to replace the standard manual gearbox on a 1.9-litre TDI Caddy with DSG could be well worth it. Alternatively, you could set yourself up as an agent and tout them around the various Premiership football clubs citing their Roberto Carlos-style capacity for whipping in corners and hammering home 35-yard left-footed free kicks.
Volkswagen's 1.9-litre TDI Pumpe Duse engine (to give it its proper title) has popped up in numerous models and states of tune throughout the VW Group empire. The version we're looking at here produces 104bhp but with a bit of tinkering, the self-same powerplant has gone on sale with 150bhp in VW Group passenger cars. Now, 104bhp isn't a huge total these days and 0-62mph in 13.3s will get you precisely nowhere against even a moderately warm hatchback but compared to the mind-numbing 20.5s served up by the SDI alternative (which is not available with DSG) and the general sluggishness in the wider small van market - it's quick. The 250Nm of torque at 1,900rpm makes the biggest tangible impact on performance by ensuring that there's acceleration on tap at the slow engine speeds where most urban driving is carried out. The TDI is a direct injection engine rather than one of the newer-fangled common-rail diesels but Volkswagen have developed it to produce extremely high pressure fuel injections for greater power and efficiency.
Driving the TDI is a pleasant experience greatly simplified by the DSG gearbox. Until the revs reach around 1,500rpm, there's very little going on but then the surge of power hits and you've got a satisfying spell of punchiness at your fingertips. Keep the engine plugged into this sweet spot and the Caddy TDI feels really brisk with the strong, accurate gearchange switching positively between ratios. It handles with some aplomb too. Body roll is none too prominent and, try as you might to unsettle it, the modified Volkswagen Golf chassis has balance and grip in good quantities. The steering has a nice weight to it but tells the driver little about what the wheels are doing. Overall, the Caddy TDI is a great package for the van driver. It is at the bulky end of the small van spectrum and consequentially doesn't feel as nimble as a Citroen Berlingo about town but on longer trips, its smoothness and solidity pay dividends.
None of the Caddy's competitors can match its build quality. The Volkswagen Golf is viewed as one of the best put together family hatchbacks and the Caddy is a commercial vehicle, yet many components are shared and the same high manufacturing standards are apparent in both. From the driver's seat you could easily mistake the Caddy for a Golf. The large digital readout in the centre console, the oval air vents, the large gearknob, it's all shared. High quality plastics are used throughout, panel fit is exemplary and the doors slam with a hefty thunk. Storage is reasonable for a van of this size but there's no cover on the glovebox and the door pockets are on the small, shallow side. Of all the interiors in all the small vans out there, the Caddy's is the nicest place to be.
The Caddy TDI carries a maximum payload of 819kg and provides a load volume of 3.2 cubic meters. This is round about par for the course in the sector, although the Caddy is a bigger vehicle than most of its contemporaries. The DSG gearbox is a first class piece of kit and although the £1,100 premium will be too much for many to stomach, drivers who are perennially stuck in traffic will really feel the benefit.
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