The box-on-wheels look won't endear the Caddy Life to mums and dads but if it's what's on the inside that counts, then the Volkswagen people-mover is worth a second look.
The Caddy van is a top-selling tool for tradies and couriers and its five-seater sibling still has a cavernous cargo area, or you can add a third-row two-person bench seat for $690 to transform it into a minibus. Both rows of seats are easily removed if there's a need for more load capacity, making the Caddy a truly handy machine.
The base Caddy Life comes with a five-speed manual transmission for $28,990. A seven-speed DSG dual-clutch semi-automatic is a $3000 option and probably the pick for suburban use. Daytime running lights and electronic stability control were made standard as part of a refresh of the range late last year, but a rear parking sensor will still cost $590 and is a box you almost must tick. Paying about $33,000 for a vehicle that can take seven people, or carry 3200 litres, is still a good buy.
The drivetrain is the Caddy's best feature. The common rail turbodiesel has all the pulling power most drivers will need, step up to the 2-litre turbodiesel in the long wheelbase Caddy Maxi seven-seater for $39,990 if you insist on more, and the seven-speed DSG semi-automatic transmission has been mapped to suit its strengths.
The DSG is a hefty premium, but it shifts quickly through the cogs to ensure you're in the right gear at the right time. Fuel use is 5.8 litres for 100km (the same as the manual) which is outstanding for a large vehicle.
The nose of the Caddy Life is corporate Volkswagen, right down to the horizontal grille and central VW logo.
It looks as smart as any van doing the rounds and better than most, but there's no hiding its commercial vehicle heritage from behind the B pillar, the sliding doors on either side are a bit of a giveaway. That's not a bad thing if you need maximum internal space but it can't compete with something like Honda's Odyssey on looks. The Odyssey isn't in the hunt on load carrying, though, so it's a swings-and-roundabouts proposition.
The interior looks like a Polo or Golf. The plastics might be a bit more durable, but they still have enough "soft touch" feel to look classy against the competition. Ditto with the horizontal "Takato" design seat stripes, it's not my first choice, but better than uniform grey.
Electronic stability control is now standard across the range, a first for this class of vehicle. NCAP last tested the vehicle in late 2008, before the launch of the latest T5 range, and awarded it four stars. Only the Mercedes-Benz Vito does better, earning a full five stars. Working against the Caddy is the fact only two airbags are standard, heat/thorax bags for the driver and passenger are $890.
IT isn't hard to forget the Caddy isn't a van. There a faint echo from the rear with only two aboard but load up the back seats or put some luggage in the cargo area and it's as quiet as any car on the road. It also goes like one - with 75kW/250Nm the Caddy Life is no hot hatch but will keep up with most four-cylinders on the market and the off-the-line launch is surprising. It is also surprisingly manoeuvrable in carparks (thank the couriers for that), but reverse parking is a chore without the rear sensors.
As a compromise car that will fit a full family and do double-duty as a small business runabout it is hard to go past. The sound system is MP3 compatible and puts out a respectable volume and quality of noise, the instrument cluster is straight out of a VW passenger car and the big side and rear windows give everyone a pew with a view. Even loading half a tonne of weight over the rear axle doesn't cause the handling or engine much discomfort.
The biggest downside to owning a Caddy Life is getting the kids over the culture shock and convincing them their egos won't be irreparably injured by being seen in it. A hoodie helped the teenage son cope; the pre-teen daughter is still trying to reconcile Caddy with chic. Both concede, though, the ride and handling was as good as several "real" cars that have been through the Carsguide garage recently.
A dual-purpose workhorse that marries the people hauling of a Honda Odyssey with the volume of a regular van.
VW CADDY LIFE
Price: from $28,990 (add $3000 for seven-speed semi-auto)
Engine: 1.6-litre direct injection turbodiesel
Power: 75kW at 4400 revs
Torque: 250Nm from 1500-2500 revs
Transmission: Five-speed manual, front-wheel drive Fuel use: 5.8 litres/100km
CO2 emissions: 152g/km
Body: Five-door van
Dimensions: length 4406mm, width 1794mm, height 1822mm
Wheelbase: 2681mm tracks front/rear 1531/1538mm
Steering: Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
Suspension: MacPherson strut front, leaf spring rear
Fuel tank: 60 litres
Fuel type: Diesel
Weight: 1541kg (manual); 1561 (DGS)
Brakes: Four-wheel discs
Wheels: 15-inch alloys
Warranty: Three years, unlimited km
Safety gear: ABS brakes with hill-hold assist, electronic stability control, dual airbags, daytime running lights
- Alloy wheels.