BIG vans continue to be big business in the commercial vehicle world as demand grows - one of the main reasons why Volkswagen has decided to 'go it alone' and build their latest Crafter vans at their new, purpose-built Â£688 million factory in Poland.
The outgoing Crafter was built alongside the Mercedes Sprinter since its debut back in 2006 but now VW are on their own and here in the UK looking to noticeably increase their annual sales volumes from the 8,000 sold last year.
It's taken four years of development to create this new, biggerCrafter and according to VW's Bernd Graft they were determined to get it right explaining: "It was key to talk to our existing customers and ensure they had an input and were fully integrated in the process along the way.
"These included some 900 ranging from one-man operations right up to the big logistic group operators when it came to areas like flexible design, cost of ownership, reducing running costs and improving equipment levels," he added.
The Crafter, which sits above the VW Caddy and mid-sized T6 Transporter, goes on sale next month with first deliveries to UK customers by late next April when it goes head-to-head with the all-conquering market leader Ford Transit and the latest Mercedes Sprinter.
Before then specific prices for the Crafter, which will be available in 69 derivatives from big single and five-seater double cab panel vans of varying lengths, three roof heights to dropsided and tipper trucks, will be revealed although the entry-level front-wheel drive van will start from £23,500.
Details too of the host of optional equipment available, which includes new safety features, will be known later but it's standard equipment for event the basic vehicle is impressive as it includes ESP stability control, four airbags, post-collision braking system and more while the option lists features cruise control, lane assist, parking assist, driver alert system and much more.
From outside this Crafter looks smarter with a new, slim line front grille and neater headlamp combination that includes daytime running lights while along either side there are neatly sculptured wheel arches and the necessary plastic protection strips.
Everyday panel van for operators though is all about cargo volumes and carrying weight and this new version has the wider choice needed to attract their attention with gross vehicle weight up to 5.5 tonnes, cargo up to 18.4m3 and load heights up to 2.196mm.
There are three panel vehicle lengths too from 5,986mm through to the long wheelbase 6,836mm and there's good rear access too with side hinged opening up to 280 degrees while those with sliding doors also offer the convenience of giving big 1,311mm access.
Enginewise there is a choice of well proven VW Tdi diesel two-litre power trains starting with the 102bhp, moving up to the 138bhp with average fuel consumption of 38mpg and CO2 of 193g/km up to the bio-turbo 174bhp which returns an impressive 37mpg and has a CO2 of 196g/km.
All are Euro 6 compliant and all have stop-start fitted as standard and VW engineers claim that on average they have 15 per cent better fuel consumption and fare better safety technology on board compared to the outgoing models.
Again adding to the many derivatives on offer fleet users will be able to choose from front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive and 4Motion 4WD, again using much of the technology gained from VW's car models.
It's the same story in any of the van cabins where the level and quality of furnishings and fittings are in the mould of current VW cars making this Crafter currently about the best in class.
The build quality is good and also the actual materials are better too yet still look to have durability which is another important factor for fleet operators knowing how the van's daily use is hard when it comes to wear and tear.
Much of switchgear on this new Crafter has come out of the mid-sized T6 Transporter and car models such as the touch screen infotainment system which is not only practical but simple to use even for the really non-technically minded van driver along with Bluetooth, DAB and Digital Radio.
There's plenty of cubby-holes too for driver and passengers to store those oddments needed on the move and the centre seat drops down to provide an instant mini-desk for drivers for sorting out delivery paperwork and the like.
Right across the range the usual high, easily adjustable seating positions for the driver are fine while the basic seats themselves give good, all round lumbar support and on some models offered as an option, as yet unpriced for the UK, will be air suspension seats.
Another option to be offered with this new Crafter are side protection sensors, fitted on either side of the van, that will help drivers to have a much easy way to manoeuvre through and around tight, narrow and twisty spots when delivering in busy streets and avoiding those minor scrapes from pavement bollards or other parked vehicles.
In terms of ride and drive it's clearly better than its predecessor and obviously depending on the choice of van size and load being carried it remains flexible and comfortable enough.
The improved ride can also be helped VW engineers call an electromechanical steering system on board when driving - a first for a panel van - because it does make a difference when needed disguising the size of the van as it adjusts its weight according to the van's speed.
There's a choice of a six-speed manual gearbox or an eight-speed automatic - opt for the latter (yes, it's a bit more expensive but worth it) because it's much smoother and responsive while the manual gear change on the handful briefly driven all seemed too notchy and not having a clean, crisp enough movement up and down.
Even without current fleet operators help opting to choice some of the many extra safety equipment available, probably because of their usual reluctance on cost terms, this new Crafter in standard format is a leap forward in the big van business.
Now on their own as it were if VW can get the message out there to fleets and individual van drivers it should and deserves to push up its sales.