I’ve not been a fan of the front-wheel-drive configuration in light commercials; particularly in those rated to carry a one-tonne payload in addition to towing a trailer with an aggregate mass of up to two tonnes. In my simplified view, the physics are all wrong. No matter how gutsy an engine may be, trying to transfer sufficient torque through two front tyres to get up to five tonnes of mass moving forward on a slippery slope can be easily likened to pushing the proverbial poo uphill with a straw.
Sure the transverse mounting of engine and gearbox directly above the front wheels helps with traction, but with a loaded vehicle on a steep hill there’s often twice as much weight exerted on the back wheels that in terms of aiding forward motion are doing diddly squat!
No, it’s a far better scenario for a load carrying vehicle to have the rear wheels driving – or better still, as is the case with the Transporter 4Motion, all four. This was graphically displayed during a recent test where we pitted a modestly loaded front-wheel-drive Transporter against its 4Motion equivalent and came away convinced the latter was superior in virtually every respect … except fuel economy!
Firstly, it must be pointed out that due to its 3.4 metre long wheelbase and relatively limited ground clearance the dual cab Transporter with 4Motion cannot be considered a true 4×4 in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a competent light commercial capable of traversing muddy worksites where its two-wheel-drive sibling would be stopped dead in its tracks. Further to this, it also exhibits superior on-road performance because the 4Motion system enables a far more balanced and effective distribution of the power and torque produced by the lively 2.0 litre twin-turbo diesel engine.
Being significantly ‘undersquare’ with bore and stroke dimensions of 81 and 95 mm respectively, it’s not surprising the Euro 5 compliant all-alloy four cylinder plant punches well above its weight dispensing a hefty 400 Nm of torque between 1500 and 2000 rpm and 132 kW of power at 4000 rpm. These outputs are channelled through either a standard six-speed manual or optional seven-speed DSG (direct shift gearbox) which is unique to Volkswagen.
The DSG differs from conventional automated manual transmissions in that it features a dual clutch arrangement where each clutch operates independently of the other. This means that while one clutch is engaged for either first, third, fifth or seventh gears, the other is in stand-by mode ready to select second, fourth or sixth as needs dictate. In this way, according to Volkswagen, lightning quick gear changes in less than 400th of a second are achieved.
Further down the line, 4Motion transfers torque to each wheel according to its level of grip as determined by the standard anti-slip regulator (ASR). In addition, the vehicle can be optioned with an electrically actuated driver controlled diff lock at the rear.
Suspension is fully independent with McPherson struts, coil springs and gas filled dampers at the front along with semi trailing arms, coil springs and anti-roll bar at the back. Stopping is powerfully managed by monstrous 340 mm front discs and 294 mm rears transferring torque to 17 inch steel rims shod with 235/55R 17 tyres. Steering is via power assisted rack and pinion giving a kerb-to-kerb turning circle of 13.2 metres.
We tested two versions of the dual cab Transporter back to back – a DSG equipped two-wheel-drive and a manual 4Motion loaded with the same 700 kg palletised payload positioned just ahead of the rear axle. While both have a gross mass rating of 3000 kg, the 4Motion version weighs 100 kg more than its front-wheel-drive brother and therefore has a payload capacity of 1000 kg compared to its sibling’s 1100 kg.
While there was not much difference between the two when driving unladen on a dry road, the balance quickly swung in favour of the 4Motion unit once the load went on. Despite the fact it was manual, lifting off on a steep grade proved significantly easier with all wheels driving whereas the two-wheel-drive unit seemed to momentarily struggle for traction until the anti-slip regulator kicked in to help haul it off the line.
Once underway, both units felt solid and secure with excellent road manners although the 4Motion always exhibited a more stable and surefooted composure in adverse conditions. The six-speed dash mounted manual shifter offers a gear for every situation from off-road crawling to freeway cruising, with 100 km/h achieved at just 1500 rpm in top slot. Similarly, the seven-speed DSG unit impressed with its smooth, precise shifts always executed at the right time.
Standard safety features include driver and front passenger airbags, hill hold, daytime running lights, anti-lock brakes, electronic stability program and height adjustable front seat belts with pre-tensioners. These are complemented by standard creature comforts like ‘climatic’ air conditioning, electric front windows and mirrors as well as a rear fog lamp and front mudflaps.
Fuel consumption figures quoted by Volkswagen were consistent with the results we achieved with the loaded vehicles: The DSG unit returned 9.8 km/ litre (27.7 mpg) while the 4Motion manual managed 9.5 km/ litre, or 26.9 mpg.
At the end of the day, whether a Transporter purchaser needs to tick the 4Motion box or not will depend entirely on the vehicle’s intended application. For example, if it’s to be used mostly on road and modestly loaded, then the slightly better fuel consumption of the DSG unit would be an advantage. However, heavy loads and slippery conditions would render the more expensive 4Motion version a wise choice.
Like most things, it comes down to the simple cliché of horses for courses.