Good: surprisingly refined for a van, loads of space, rugged looks
Not so good: a touch on the expensive side, dashboard plastics let it down
I'm not sure exactly when it happened, but some time in the 1990s the humble estate car became a 'lifestyle' vehicle. It was probably the Alfa Romeo 156 Sportwagon that started it, but soon we had Avant and Touring models rather than estates. Then the makers of people carriers started getting in on the act and before we knew it we had a range of crossovers all aimed at that segment of the market so beloved by marketers - the lifestylist. You know the type: immaculately coiffed hair, enjoys the finer things in life and spends a fair chunk of their downtime going kitesurfing, extreme mountain biking or rambling on Mt. Everest.
It seems that every car launched to the market is aimed at this particular demographic with the exception of the van-derived-car. These vehicles are too honest and too agricultural to appeal to Lifestyle Man so they end up being promoted as some sort of cut-price people-carrier for the average family of 2.4 children, those pushed out of conventional people carriers by some Niagara Falls kayaking fan.
Well marketers, pay attention, because I am going to let you in on a little secret: you have things completely arse about face. I say this as, much to my own chagrin, I am a lifestylist. It's not something I had ever planned, but if you read my column last month you will have seen that on the rare occasion when the weather app on my phone shows more than two consecutive days without rain I enjoy nothing more than packing up my car and heading off with the family for a weekend's camping.
In the past I have taken a few lifestyle estates - the kind of things that come with raised suspension, protective plastic cladding and cool names that evoke imagery of adventure and the like. These cars have got me from one corner of the country to the other in comfort. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for my wife and kids, as they have been forced to sit with their knees around their ears as I deemed their footwells as space that needed to be filled. Sure, some could argue that I bring too much stuff with me, but this is my lifestyle and who are they to question whether or not I need a vacuum cleaner, two king size airbeds, 13-tog duvets and a fridge (an actual honest to goodness fridge) with me when I go camping? It's not like they question Mr. Downhill trial biker and his love of Lycra.
The problem for marketers is that some smart bod in Volkswagen has already cottoned on to van- cars as lifestyle vehicles and stolen a march on everyone else. The van-car in question is the Cross Caddy, a jacked up, passenger version of the best-selling Caddy van with extra plastic cladding. Here is a car (we will proceed with calling it a car from now on, as to call it a van may confuse) that offers the high seating position and mod cons so loved by crossover buyers - heated seats, Bluetooth, satellite navigation etc. - with the kind of practicality that would get a perma-tanned surfer unfeasibly excited. Twin sliding doors and a large tailgate make access to the cabin an absolute doddle and, best yet, the cabin offers oodles of space.
No word of a lie, loading up the Cross Caddy was the job of five minutes. Ordinarily my well-honed Tetris skills have to be employed when trying to squeeze enough clothes, food and equipment for four people into the boot of a car. With the Cross Caddy it was all just thrown in haphazardly because there was so much space on offer. The marketing bumf says that you can fit a Euro-pallet into the boot, even with all five seats in place, but for those of us who don't deal with the pallets on a daily basis I'll break it down - it's huge. Trips to Ikea or the likes will no longer be a problem and you may find yourself wondering whether or not you have forgotten something when you do your weekly shopping such is the lack of space it will take up. Standard roof rails mean you can expand the space with a top box or mounting for your bikes or canoes and you can even get a bike rack for the tailgate to carry even more.
There are some downsides to the Cross Caddy. It is not a smart people carrier; i.e. it doesn't have fancy seats that can fold into the floor. Order the seven-seat version (an extra €810) and you have to manhandle that last row out when you need extra luggage space. No mean feat when they weigh in excess of five stone. And while the commercial division has seen fit to use the dials and switches from the passenger car division to give the Cross Caddy a more car-like feel, it still uses a regular Caddy dashboard. In the commercial Caddy this makes sense - it is a solid chunk of plastic, hewn from the finest and longest wearing plastic, but as a passenger vehicle it lowers the tone. Some people may like the indestructability, but some soft touch plastics wouldn't go astray.
What truly separates the Cross Caddy and even the standard passenger Caddy from some of its rivals is that it doesn't drive like a van. The 102hp 1.6-litre diesel engine is related to a passenger car unit so is very un-commercial vehicle like in its refinement. The transmission has been geared to allow it to carry extra weight and the suspension revised to give it better road manners. It still tends to roll a touch into corners but this is a high-sided, high-riding vehicle and the upshot is decent comfort on the motorway.
So, if you are the type of person that enjoys the great outdoors on the back of your bike/kayak/kite surfer thingy, then ignore the marketers - an estate or tourer or whatever they want to call it will not suit your needs. What you need is a van-car. If on the other hand you are just a hard pressed parent who wants a decent car with enough space for the two kids and a dog - buy an estate. They are cheaper (the Cross Caddy is €36,745) and with all the lifestylists rushing off to buy van-cars there will be loads to choose from.