Transit, Caravelle & V300d

Shopping for a luxury bus reveals a pecking order. But there’s a sting in the tail

The luxury bus market was all shook up as the world emerged from lockdown. Three major players have all benefited from the latest upgrades across various fronts. So we gathered the Ford Tourneo 2.0SiT Custom SWB Limited, Mercedes-Benz V300d Exclusive and Volkswagen Caravelle 2.0BiTDI 146 kW Highline 4Motion together for a look see at the latest lay of the acme microbus land.

Three impeccable pedigrees

All three of these top end people carriers bear impeccable pedigrees. All three carry six people in differing levels of luxury and engagement. And all three are powered by top-end two-litre turbodiesel engines. But how they go about it and how they land on the market, could not be more different if you tried. So this one’s a pretty interesting shootout, all-round.

Building on that indelible legend, the highest-spec 2013 International Van of the Year Tourneo Custom Limited quietly entered the market a few years back in response to demand for a powerful and more luxurious bus version of the ever popular Transit. Known by some as the motocross bus, this top end Limited version recently benefited a significant makeover.

The latest version of our metallic veld-grey Ford is set apart by new LED daytime running lights, but the rest is unchanged. It has some odd traits though — like those door locking pimples and a roof that’s, well, not quite finished.

Transporter updates to V6.1

The present flagship of SA’s best-selling van and bus range over the past six decades, this sixth generation Volkswagen Transporter range was recently upgraded to T6.1 spec and topped by this stylish Caravelle. It’s set apart by a striking new chrome trimmed bumper and larger radiator grille with a pair of cross-bars that continue into the new LED daytime running lights full LED headlamps.

That’s all finished by a new 7-inch Woodstock black diamond-turned alloy wheel design plus that creamy white-on-orange-gold two-tone paintwork of our sampler.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the deep heritage of the third bus in this stop. Following hot on the heels of a 2019 facelift that already refreshed and restyled its look while streamlining the cockpit, Mercedes-Benz also recently took its V Class a step further by introducing the V 300 d engine to the MPV it trusts will take the segment to even greater heights, while adding a broader choice, greater luxury and more individuality to its range.

cherry red express

Our metallic cherry red Exclusive line version came with striking 10-spoke 19-inch light alloy wheels complete with pressure monitoring. 19-inch wheels on a bus? Is that perhaps not a step too far? Anyway, our V 300 d had the standard panoramic sunroof and an Easy-Pack Tailgate to electrically close the rear door.

Surprisingly, while the long Ford comes in lesser Ambiente spec, this flagship Tourneo Trend runs on the shorter wheelbase. Which could be viewed as a disadvantage in this company. It may lack all the bells and whistles and the SWB choice is further compromised by the aircon pack in the short boot, but it does pack a height-adjustable front and versatile reversible second and fixed third row cloth seats for the same six people, with manual sliding side doors and an adequate trunk.

Accommodation in the Caravelle is supreme — the driver’s, passenger’s and four highly adjustable command seats in the rear bay are all clad in Pewter Wave Grey pattern Nappa complete with arm rests on both sides. Those four pews and a centre table can be configured in one of a zillion ways. The steering wheel spokes and universally adjustable new air vents get a cool new chrome-look trim and there are decorative strips and black sun visors too.

Its all in the specification

The Mercedes has most of the above too, but steps up another few notches with a refrigerated centre console and its built-in drinks cooler between the climatised black leather rear seats, which can be specified in Tartufo Brown Leather or Silk Beige Leather at no extra cost.

The Tourneo is pretty well equipped — this range-topping Limited not only gets a completely new interior, but it now also incorporates Ford’s easy to use integrated SYNC3 8-inch touchscreen infotainment. It’s significantly improved features are also controlled by the leather clad multifunction steering wheel. There’s full smartphone integration through Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and all your phone’s navigation and entertainment apps.

The VW has a practical new 10.25-inch digital dials and fully smart phone-mirrorable 10.25-inch infotainment with Wireless App-Connect and USB Composition Colour radio and Discover Navigation Pro Media. It’s controlled by either the touch screen, multifunction steering or gestures. Which we actually found annoying when some settings kept on changing for no rhyme or reason. Then we realised we were just Italian. We gesticulate a bit, you know…

Talking about tech…

V 300 d now also packs the latest ‘My Mercedes’ User Experience 10.25 inch touchscreen Infotainment with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto Smartphone integration, Bluetooth and Mercedes-Benz hard-disk navigation. Add a top-drawer multichannel tech Burmeister 16-speaker surround sound system. Ad integrated voice amplification to ensure that the driver and front passenger can comfortably converse with the rear passengers.

The Ford also has its fair share of safety kit including advanced radar Adaptive Cruise Control to automatically maintain your distance to the vehicle ahead, a Lane Keeping Aid and Departure Warning. Add Blind Spot Detection and Cross Traffic Alert and front and rear parking sensors And ABS brakes with electronic distribution, ESP with Hill Launch Assist, Load Adaptive Control and Roll-Over Mitigation. Trailer Sway Control is activated when a Ford-approved tow bar is fitted.

The VW’s electro-mechanical power steering brings newfound agility while saving fuel, but also allows the integration of new assistance systems. The Kombi has Stability, Post-Collision Braking, Hill Start and Descent as well as Lane, Cruise, Parking and Crosswind Assistants. Side Protection makes manoeuvring easier and Rear Traffic Alert helps reversing out of blind spaces. Add a Tyre Pressure Indicator and optional Trailer Assist, power side doors and Light Assist main-beams.

Safety and security all-round

The Merc does not miss a a safety trick. It gets the full Driver Assist package with Distronic cruise control, Pre-Safe, Lane Keeping, Blind Spot and Active Brake Assistants. There’s also a 360 degree Camera, driver and co-driver front and thorax airbags, front window airbags from the A to the B pillar and optionally to the D pillars and child locks on the auto-opening power sliding rear doors too. Intelligent LED headlights adapt to oncoming traffic to leave you to drive on high beam .

Like the others, the Ford is powered by a 2-litre four-pot turbodiesel, but it’s the laziest of the lot at 136 kW and 415 Nm. It also has the least gears in its automatic gearbox with just six ratios. And good for an economical build, drives the front wheels. Not that there’s anything wrong with how it goes — it’s just out-gunned by these premium rivals.

Powered by the same 146 kW 450 Nm 2-litre biturbo diesel as the top four-pot Amarok driving all four wheels though a 7-speed double-clutch Automatic, the Volkswagen holds its head up high on the microbus drag strip. It’s slower then the more powerful Benz, but outguns the Ford by a fair margin. Ride is fine, albeit not so fine as the Mercedes. Handling, like all of these four, is surefooted and surprising. The Caravelle’s all-wheel drive brings an extra sense of security.

Power & performance

The headline change in the Mercedes is its powerful and efficient all-new engine and transmission. The new two-litre four-cylinder OM 654 turbodiesel boosts power to 176 kW complimented by 500 Nm of torque with an additional 30 Nm overboost to boot. Add Merc’s tried and trusted 9G-Tronic automatic transmission with Dynamic Select to seamlessly switch between comfort and sport drive programs and to shift gears with steering wheel paddles.

The Ford is however no slouch, as our data attests. Not that any of these cars will ever be run on a drag strip. But it is certainly out-gunned by both of its more powerful rivals here, of which the Mercedes is the drag king. But oddly quite a bit slower than Benz actually claims. The Ford however strikes back by being te most frugal, which could very well be a major feather in its cap when we wrap this all up.

All in all, the Ford impresses in the strangest ways. It may lack some of the bells and whistles of its rivals, but it has great goodie storage. It also lacks a second armrest on outer sides of the seats and you need to push and pull those doors open and shut. And while it has decent visibility, its compromised by claustrophobically odd front quarter windows.

Wrapping it all up

The Volkswagen brings a huge step in tech. Both in its engagement and chassis. Even though some of that may be a bit over the top and unrefined in this application. And oh, yes — it lacks AM radio and thats where our favourite station is! But it’s powerful and smooth, but not as smooth as the Merc and can be jerky at low speeds. But it performs very well and packs a hell of a lot of tech and luxury. And class too.

And then there’s the Mercedes-Benz. Albeit outdated, which is a failing of all three of these vehicles by the way, it’s an excellent all-round package and certainly fits the bill as the most luxurious bus for us. And at this point, it seemed the Benz was trotting to an easy victory in this here shindig…

But then we looked at the prices. And everything changed.

Pricing changes everything

Sure, the Benz is worthy of a premium over the VW. And the Volkswagen is welcome to a price difference over the Ford. But does the Ford really justify a four hundred grand discount over the Volkswagen? Never mind over a million to the Merc? No, we don’t think so either…

Which leaves us to conclude that the motocross bus has to be the bus for us. Not that it comes close to its rivals in so many aspects, but when you consider value for money, no matter how much better the others are, they surely are not that much better? The Ford wins. – Michele Lupini

Images: Giordano Lupini

SHOOTOUT:    Ford Tourneo  Mercedes-Benz VW Caravelle
Model        2.0SiT Custom V300d         2.0BTD Hiline
             SWB Limited   Exclusive     146kW 4Motion
Output:      136 kW 415 Nm 176 kW 700 Nm 146 kW 450 Nm
Engine       2-litre I4    2-litre I4    2-litre I4
             Turbodiesel   Turbodiesel   Turbodiesel 
Gearbox:     6-speed       9-speed       7-speed
             Automatic     Automatic     DC Automatic
Drive:       Front         Rear          All
0-60km/h:    5.20 sec     4.11 sec       4.16 sec
0-100 km/h:  11.77 sec    9.05 sec       9.59 sec
0-120 km/h   16.91 sec    12.37 sec      13.73 sec
0-160km/h:                22.42 sec      26.49 sec
400m time:   18.1 sec     14.4 sec       16.8 sec
400m speed:  125km/h      139 km/h       132 km/h
80-120km/h:  8.95 sec     6.08 sec       7.29 sec
120-160km/h:              10.04 sec      12.98 sec
VMax:        157 km/h     220 km/h       198 km/h
Fuel:        6.7 l/100 km 8.8 l/100 km   8.2 l/100 km
CO2:         174 g/km     230 g/km       214 g/km
Warranty:    4 y 120K km  2 y unlimited  3 y 120K km
Service:     6 y 90K km   5 y 100K km    5 y 60K km
LIST PRICE:  R778K        R1.799M        R1.166M
RATED:       9            8              8
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