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Trent Nikolic

The Australian medium van market has always been a Toyota HiAce market. Credible alternatives exist, though, and the Volkswagen Transporter is one of them. Trent Nikolic finds out whether HiAce buyers should look further afield.

  • Punchy, refined driving experience
  • Cabin quality and execution are excellent
  • Options for those wanting to customise
  • Improved safety but still not as advanced as the competition
  • Low tow ball load capacity
  • Tailor-ordering your model does add up

The Transporter range has been revised and updated for 2021, with the T6.1 line-up – as VW calls it – now offering an even more competitive alternative in the popular van segment.

While we’re looking specifically at the SWB manual here in TDI250 guise, there’s something for just about every buyer across the range. You can choose from short- and long-wheelbase bodies, manual and automatic, crew van and cab-chassis options. There are also TDI250, TDI340 and TDI450 engine variants to choose from.

The Transporter range runs deep and there are many permutations to choose from, so it can therefore be a little complex. However, the benefit of that complexity is the vast ways in which you can customise your Transporter to suit your business or driving needs. In this segment, where a plumber might require a completely different vehicle to a florist, allowing customers to tailor their vehicle to suit their needs is invaluable.

Kicking the range off under that key $40,000 mark, the front-wheel-drive 2021 Volkswagen Transporter TDI250 SWB starts from $38,990 before on-road costs. All vans start as two-seaters, but you can move to a bench seat if you need to fit three across the front. Across the range, there are halogen headlights, DRLs, and a sharper front end especially, in line with the T6.1 tweaks. While the styling has been tweaked, it’s not enough to make the outgoing model look old or dated, which is good news for those of you trading up.

The ways in which you can customise your Transporter are almost endless, with door options, window options, electric actuation for the doors, partitions, rear AC, rear section trim and extra tie-downs all on the list. In short, if you need your van to undertake a specific type of work, there will be a combination that works for you.

The most important change for the 2021 model year is the inclusion of enhanced safety, improved technology, and also the aforementioned revised styling. HiAce is still the runaway sales leader in this segment, though, so it’s no easy task for the Transporter to cut into that support base. Let’s take a closer look at the sharply priced range starter.

Inside the cabin, you’ll find the Transporter is comfortable, bright and visibility is excellent too. Even if you don’t have optional side windows, rear three-quarter visibility is still solid. Standard, you get cloth trim, LED interior lighting (massive improvement if you’re loading and unloading in the dark), rubber floors throughout, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, automatic headlights and automatic wipers – all par for the current van course in other words.

What the T6.1 does deliver is a comfortable and practical workspace. We write it often here, but it’s easy to forget that van drivers spend long periods of time behind the wheel, and yet cabin comfort (in previous generations anyway) was rarely ever a focus. Storage, for example, is useful and well thought out. There’s a book or folder shelf atop the dash, and another section on top of the glovebox. Cupholders sit at the leading edge of the dash within easy reach, and the door linings get deep pockets and proper bottle holders.

We took a couple of long test drives and found the seat comfort, adjustment and positioning to be excellent. Visibility really is a strong point, and once you get comfortable behind the wheel, you can see everything forward and next to you. The leather-trimmed steering wheel is a premium touch for the segment, but we did note shorter Drive testers asking for a grab handle to make entry a little easier.

On the subject of reaching, the handbrake was a stretch for some – not me at six foot one – but shorter drivers reckoned it’s time for an electric brake. Not a deal-breaker by any means, but worth noting. In terms of the way the cabin feels as either driver or passenger, it’s quiet, insulated and comfortable.

The cargo length is handy, even more so given it is now properly lit thanks to the aforementioned LEDs. Without a partition, it measures in at 2572mm long, 1700mm wide with 1244mm between the wheel arches, 1410mm high, adding up to a volume of 5.8 cubic metres. Our SWB tester had six tie-down points in the load space, with the position of them neatly arranged for those of you who need them.

Our SWB model can run a payload of 951kg, which is something most owners won’t approach, but it’s a number that works well for this segment and the buyers who need to carry heavier equipment. Across the range, you can tow 750kg without trailer brakes and 2500kg with brakes.

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2021 Volkswagen Transporter TDI250 SWB
Cargo capacity5.8 cubic metres

Infotainment and Connectivity

The technology on offer in this regard is basic compared to modern passenger cars, but what is included works well. The multimedia system is controlled via a 6.5-inch touchscreen, which is positioned into the dash such that it isn’t affected by light at any time of the day, and on test it was responsive for us at all times.

We opted for direct smartphone connection via the cable, with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto both standard, although you’ll need a USB-C cable to connect into one of two included ports. A brief hook-up with Bluetooth worked well on test, but proprietary satellite navigation is a $1600 option, so it’s smartphone only in that sense. A rear-view camera is also standard and the view was clear through the infotainment screen, with reverse parking easy to negotiate.

We mentioned above that safety has been enhanced, and it’s an important point to make in a segment that wasn’t always synonymous with safety inclusions. However, the current T6.1 Transporter doesn’t yet have an ANCAP safety score, having not been tested.

Across the range, the Transporter gets autonomous AEB up to 30km/h, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and a rear-view camera that is clearly viewed through the infotainment screen. There’s also a driver fatigue monitor and traction/stability-control systems, which include crosswind assist for the van body. Multi-collision braking is also standard across the range.

We’d like to see lane-keep assistance and lane-departure warning offered as standard, though, in line with the best in segment – rather than optional as it is for the Transporter.

2021 Volkswagen Transporter TDI250 SWB
ANCAP ratingUntested
Safety reportN/A

Against an ADR fuel claim of 6.9L/100km on the combined cycle, our TDI250 slurped through just 7.6L/100km around town. Most of that driving was undertaken unladen thanks to COVID-19 restrictions, but it’s an impressive return for a van in the real world. Anything in single digits for this segment is a number that represents savings around town. If you’re covering bulk kilometres, too, those savings add up.

VW covers the Transporter with a five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, along with roadside assistance for a year. That can be extended out to 10 years, though, if you keep servicing your Transporter at VW. Our TDI250 opens the range and servicing averages to just over $588 per year for the first five years as part of a capped-price servicing plan. Those services are required every 12 months or 15,000km, which is about right for the buyer who racks up the kays quickly.

At a glance2021 Volkswagen Transporter TDI250 SWB
WarrantyFive years / unlimited km
Service intervals12 months / 15,000km
Servicing costs$1765.20 (3 years) | $2940.50 (5 years)
Fuel cons. (claimed)6.9L/100km
Fuel cons. (on test)7.6L/100km
Fuel typeDiesel
Fuel tank size70L

There are more powerful engines available, but the TDI250 is absolutely punchy enough for around-town work. Its 81kW and 250Nm get the job done, with peak torque crucially available between 1250rpm and 3500rpm, which is just off idle and right where you want it for the daily grind. The Transporter gets up to speed quickly and effortlessly if you do need to get cranking and go for a gap.

While there’s no doubt that a VW auto is a slick shifter on the move, we really enjoyed our time with the five-speed manual gearbox. Clutch feel is firm, take-up isn’t too sharp, and gear changes at any speed are smooth. Even though it’s a van, the manual is one that reminds you of the pleasure and engagement of the – dare we say it – old way of driving.

The diesel engine is smooth and powerful, and runs cleanly out to redline if you ask it to, rarely feeling like it’s out of puff or being taxed too hard. Even though this is the entry-level powertrain, I reckon it’s got the punch to suit most buyers – especially those of you who don’t drive around at max payload all the time. I’m sure it will start to feel the weight if you do nudge the payload up close to capacity, but with a light load on board, it’s fine.

We also found ride quality – laden or unladen – to be excellent. It’s well tuned for even nastier surfaces, and doesn’t crash over bumps and ruts or jiggle incessantly over corrugations. If you do head out of the city onto coarse chip or poorly surfaced B-roads, you won’t need a kidney belt in the VW Transporter.

Key details2021 Volkswagen Transporter TDI250 SWB
Engine2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel
Power81kW @ 3500rpm
Torque250Nm @ 1250-3100rpm
Drive typeFront-wheel drive
TransmissionFive-speed manual
Power to weight ratio47.1kW/t
Tow rating750kg braked / 2500kg unbraked
Turning circle11.9m

The quality of the new Toyota HiAce put the rest of the van segment on notice when it was released. Not before time, too, given the way in which the segment had been undervalued and overlooked for so long.

Now, though, there are more credible ways to get your business moving than ever before, and in many instances a van makes more sense than a single or dual cab. The T6.1 Volkswagen Transporter is a stylish, well-equipped, and enjoyable to drive van that does exactly what the target buyer will expect.

It’s a reminder that despite the undoubted quality of the new HiAce, there are other options out there in an improving segment. The Transporter isn’t the cheapest, and it’s not the ‘best’ on paper, but others aren’t as stylish, don’t feel as high quality, and don’t offer the vast array of customisation options afforded by the Volkswagen. It’s a real alternative, and even in entry-level guise as tested here, it’s an enjoyable van to drive too.

Ratings Breakdown

2021 Volkswagen Transporter TDI250 Van

8.1/ 10

Interior Comfort & Packaging

Infotainment & Connectivity

Trent Nikolic

Trent Nikolic has been road testing and writing about cars for almost 20 years. He’s been at CarAdvice/Drive since 2014 and has been a motoring editor at the NRMA, Overlander 4WD Magazine, Hot4s and Auto Salon Magazine.

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