After years of denigrating, both on-screen and in private, over-weight and large vehicles that are designed to haul heavy loads but usually end up only hauling children to school, I’ve bought one: a truck.
But as you’d have guessed from the pictures shown here, it’s not your everyday pseudo off-road truck. In fact, it’s front-wheel drive, gets very respectable fuel economy, and seats up to five people.
It’s a cab-chassis Volkswagen T5 transporter, of 2006 vintage.
So how did I come to buy a truck?
The starting point was that we realised a ute would be very useful to us.
Living on a couple of acres on the edge of a tiny hamlet about 80 kilometres north of Canberra, we seem to spend a lot of time lugging around loads. Lucerne hay for the pet sheep, stuff to the tip, exciting goodies purchased at clearing sales. (Clearing sales? These are auctions where people are quitting an entire farm, with everything up for grabs. At the last one I got a hydraulic pipe bender... and if we’d had the vehicular carrying capacity, I would have got a lot of steel angle as well.)
In our current situation it would also be useful if we had a car with decent towing capacity - and most utes have that too.
My fondest memory of a ute is the one I ‘new car tested’ back in 2002 – a VY Commodore six speed manual trans, 5.7 litre V8. And, if the ute was going to be only for occasional local trips, the Commodore V8 would tick the boxes in terms of carrying capacity, towing ability and fun. Fuel economy? Well with what I would guess to be less than 5000km a year, the overall impact would be manageable.
But there was a problem – in this family of three people, it would mean that someone got left home every trip. That wouldn’t fit with the clearing sales, for example.
So what’s a Commodore ute with more seats? – a Crewman. I gravitated straight to the most over-the-top – a Crewman Cross 8 with V8, all-wheel drive, seating for five and a reasonable size tray. We found one for private sale and drove it. However, for all its on-paper specs, it was a strangely disappointing vehicle. The steering was stupidly heavy, the turning circle huge. The unsprung weight felt really high – a lumpy ride being one characteristic – and the rear seat back was very upright. The Cross 8 was a Holden parts-bin development exercise – and on the road, it felt like it.
So what about a normal Crewman V8? We found an SS and drove that – but like almost all of these cars, it was modified with a loud exhaust and lowered suspension. In ride comfort the standard Crewman - with rear leaf springs – is already far worse than the coil sprung ute … and this one’s lowered suspension made it impossibly hard for the poor roads I am often on.
We could have found a standard Crewman to drive but I started thinking the Crewman, as a concept, was getting too far from the ‘fun V8 ute’ starting point. So what else was there?
I looked at a late model Falcon ute – the three seater version has a kinda fold down central seat – but it would have been effective for an 8 year old only if we’d cut off his legs.
So if the machine wasn’t going to be a fun car, it’d have to return decent fuel economy – otherwise, the justification for the purchase started to wilt.
Hmmm, what else?
Back in 2006 I ‘new car tested’ the large Volkswagen T5 Kombi Beach. The car was a startlingly competent package – not so much in the rear camping accommodation but in the chassis and driveline.
Running a 96kW, 2.5 litre, 5 cylinder turbo diesel and six-speed manual trans, the test vehicle (all 2100kg of it) turned-in country road fuel economy of 7.1 litres/100km and had a wonderfully long-legged, relaxed touring gait. With McPherson strut front and independent trailing rear arm suspension, its ride and handling were very good. In fact, for the size of the vehicle, it had better on-road handling and performance than anything I think I have driven before or since.
So back then did they make a ute version? Well, sort of – they made a cab chassis that is often equipped with a tray. And did they make a three seater version? They did – a cab chassis with a front bench seat that actually has legroom for the centre passenger. But even better - they made a five-seater, four door (dual cab) version as well.
There were also four different engines available. You could pick from two 1.9 litre four cylinder diesels (63 and 77kW) or two 2.5 litre five cylinder diesels (96 and 128kW).
Therefore, for our application, the ‘gun’ vehicle would be a 4 door cab chassis, fitted with two front seats (as opposed to front seat for three people), the OE Volkswagen aluminium tray, 128kW diesel turbo engine and manual six speed transmission. Plus of course it would be helpful if it had a towbar rated to the full 2.5 tonnes towing capacity.
And there it was, for sale a little north of Sydney – complete with aftermarket aluminium bull-bar, driving lights and stiffer rear springs. It had about 150,000km on the clock, service records and drove well.
I bought it.
On the road
Literally as soon as the cash had changed hands for the Transporter, it needed to work for its living. We’d also bought a campervan – and the Transporter would need to pick it up and tow it home. So rather than returning straight home with the new car, instead it was driven to near Mudgee to pick up a 1986 Jayco Swan campervan. A Swan of this vintage weighs about 750kg so it could be towed by the Transporter without needing the trailer’s electric brakes hooked up.
And gosh, can the Transporter ever tow! It uses very low first and reverse gears, so getting towed loads off the line (even with the manual trans) is easy. The 2.5 litre turbo diesel has massive torque – no less than 400Nm at 2000 rpm - and hauls like the proverbial train. Passing a truck, complete with campervan on the back, I found myself at one stage doing 130 km/h – the combination rock-steady and with more power there for the asking.
The cabin is also amazingly roomy. You can walk between the front seats to get to the rear seat, and there’s armfuls of space in every direction.
But there are some downsides. The aftermarket rear springs are too stiff when the truck is unladen; there’s a buzz in the dash that gets excited at just a certain combination of engine revs and load; and I find the driver’s seat quite uncomfortable (it needs more lumbar support).
So on the list will be some standard rear springs, and I think I’ll upgrade the existing Narva 170 driving lights to some 225 Narvas. Some noise-proofing and extra trimming in the cabin wouldn’t go astray – especially in the rear, there’s painted metal everywhere and the rear door trims are just painted pressed wood panels. Some re-padding of the seats, perhaps a reversing camera – yes, judicious adjuncts will improve the vehicle a lot.
But fuel economy looks like it will live up to the combined test figure of 7.1 litres/100km, and there’s enough power to activate the standard traction control in wet weather in first, second and maybe third gears! The tray is enormous (2160 x 1940mm) and I think the handing will be fine once the standard rear springs are back in. It’d be nice if it had more than two airbags (additional airbags were optional in the range but not apparently for the cab chassis) and it’s sure no sports car, but the Transporter’s idiosyncratic combination of performance, fuel economy, towing capacity and load carrying are a strangely seductive mix…