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Road Test

Volkswagen Caddy Camper

by Ian Barrett

13th March, 2008

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Who doesn't occasionally share the dream of a working holiday to exotic, far-flung destinations? Well, recently that dream was partially realised for an all-too-brief moment in time, when we were privileged to spend a little over a week behind the wheel of Volkswagen's compact people-mover, the Caddy 'Life'. And not just any Life, mind you, but in this instance a rather special version, aptly named the 'Camper'.

Let's look very briefly at the regular Caddy Life, before we vacate the office in pursuit of our dream. The Life is based on Volkswagen's deservedly popular Caddy van. The Caddy already offers more driving pleasure and versatility than most other vehicles in its class. The Life adds some key passenger car features such as additional rear seats and sliding doors, with a swag of comfort and safety items needed to transport up to seven adults (if the optional, and easily removable, 3rd row of seats is specified). That's right, the Caddy's compact exterior dimensions disguise a surprisingly comfortable interior, with adequate room for seven adults on short trips. Or add a few children to the mix and you have a very practical and economical family wagon.

The Caddy Life has plenty of storage space for those occupants, too. Amongst the more innovative is the overhead bin above the front seat occupants. Both front seats have slide-out drawers (standard with the diesel model, optional with the petrol engine) and there are generous door pockets on both front and rear doors. In the rear, there are handy storage nets and two under-floor storage compartments. The 750 litres of storage with the 3rd row seats removed extends to a massive 2,850 litres when the 2nd and 3rd row seats are removed. The Caddy Life offers the flexibility and convenience of a small van offering a 603 kg payload, with the comfort and manoeuvrability of a small passenger car.

The Caddy is itself based on the VW Golf, so Volkswagen's design and engineering expertise are never far from the surface. The front suspension utilises Golf independent struts with lower wishbones, while the leaf-sprung rear suspension is aimed at enhanced load capacity rather than the racetrack. However, clever design serves to give the Life remarkably good handling, especially considering the high centre of gravity. Braking is taken care of by 288 mm ventilated discs up the front and solid 260 mm discs at the rear. Combined with ABS and EBD they were more than adequate for this type of vehicle.

But enough facts and figures for now. It's time to take off in pursuit of far-flung destinations. Day one took us from Newcastle through Sydney and on to Wollongong. Our 'scenic' route then took us through the Royal National Park, then continued down the coast road, enjoying the beautiful scenery of Stanwell Park overlooking the spectacular new Seacliff Bridge. It was then on through Wollongong and Kiama, en-route to our first night at St Georges Basin.

The Life gives you the choice of two engines, a standard 1.6 litre 75 kW/148 Nm petrol engine, or the optional SOHC 1.9 litre TDI diesel fitted to our test vehicle. The turbocharged, intercooled diesel produces 77 kW @ 4,000 rpm, and a hefty 250 Nm of torque from 1,900 rpm. Even with a price premium of some $3,000, it's by far the better choice, particularly as the diesel option also includes a number of desirable extras including cruise control and alloy wheels. The diesel engine delivers more than adequate performance, with great economy. A 5-speed manual transmission is standard, while our test vehicle had Volkswagen's clever DSG 6-speed automatic, which never fails to delight. Even in 'Weekender' configuration, our vehicle was well able to maintain speed limits on both the freeway and twisty coastal and mountain routes. And while a bit rattly at idle and when taking off, it proved to be very quiet at cruising speed.

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After a day relaxing on the shores of beautiful Jervis Bay, it was on to the lush and scenic Kangaroo Valley. A slow detour to take in the magnificent panorama from the Cambewarra Mountain lookout and tearooms was well worthwhile, then it was on to catch up with old friends at Cedarvale Health Centre, before visiting the nearby Fitzroy Falls, which tumble some 80 metres off the escarpment into the Morton National Park. Easy walking access to a number of lookout points offers visitors a chance to stretch their legs.

The Caddy Life features comprehensive equipment levels. Included as standard on the 1.9 TDI version are adjustable steering wheel (both height and reach), 'Climatic' semi-automatic air conditioning, cruise control with trip computer, power windows on front doors, sliding windows on the rear doors, 15x6.5" alloy wheels, audio system with AM/FM radio with MP3 and single disc CD player, and remote central locking. Available options include ESP ($750), side airbags ($550), metallic paint ($750) and hinged rear side windows $395 (each side).

The trip continued on then through Bowral to the Nation's capital, Canberra. We were keen to see one of Canberra’s landmark attractions, Cockington Green, which offers visitors, both young and old, a fascinating display of miniature buildings from around the world, all set within beautifully landscaped gardens complete with a 'steam train' ride. Canberra has a wide range of activities on offer. Why not take in a leisurely bike ride around the shore of Lake Burley Griffin, or perhaps a visit to the National War Memorial? Visitor centres can point you to a huge range of attractions, restaurants and accommodation.

Did we mention accommodation? The 'Camper' package adds electric sunroof, together with a camping kit comprising forward folding front seats, special internal lighting, a comfortable roll-out bed for two average adults, rear curtains, tailgate blind, side-mounted luggage bags, and a rear tent annexe. A special bonus is a folding table and two folding camp chairs. While there's plenty of luggage space for a weekend getaway for two, capacity for extended touring too far from civilisation would be limited.

The workmanship, fit and finish of all these accessories is excellent. The whole package abounds with clever thinking. Items like the low-drain LED lighting, which incorporates a battery-saver feature to ensure a quick start next morning. Or the internally switchable central locking which secures the doors and front of the cabin independent of the rear tent annexe, while occupants sleep.

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Leaving Canberra we headed down the Kings Highway through Queanbeyan, and historic Braidwood, en-route for Batemans Bay. Our stopover for the night was at Nelligen, just short of the coast on the picturesque Clyde River. Turning in to the Nelligen Caravan Park, we couldn't have asked for a better campsite, right next to a sandy beach at the water's edge. Great facilities and they even have their own boat ramp. We found the camping set-up to be an easy 5-minute job once familiar with the procedure, even for one person.

Is there anything not to like about the Caddy Life Camper? Poor visibility through the A-pillars is something to watch, especially during right hand turns. And, for a vehicle of its type, and particularly in this configuration, we'd like to see ESP offered as standard. Perhaps an external power socket with inverter could be useful in extending battery capacity, if staying more than one night at the same location. Oh, and the beautifully crafted folding table needs shorter legs (or adjustable ones), to match the chairs!

The Batemans Bay region also has plenty to offer, particularly if fishing and boating are your forte. After sampling some of the area's beaches, as far as Malua Bay to the south, we headed back up the coast in the direction of Sydney, spending an enjoyable night at Ulladulla Headland Caravan Park, located on the southern side overlooking Ulladulla's small harbour and fishing fleet.

The Volkswagen Caddy Life Camper is a concept that has immense appeal. Priced from $42,990 plus on-road costs, it represents very good value for couples needing practical and economical day to day transport, with the versatility required for comfortable and stylish weekends away.

Dream over. For travel writers, of course, Life would seem to be one long holiday......

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