The British stereotype of the white-van man involves a Ford Transit, copy of The Sun newspaper folded on the dashboard, some less than progressive views on immigration and a disposition that could not be described as sunny. It is not a glamorous image but what the white van men probably aren't telling you is that getting around town while perched higher than most SUVs, at eye level with minibus drivers, is a lot of fun. The Volkswagen Highline Multivan is a few notches up the luxury ladder from the humble Ford Transit, but it has all the advantages of it.
You can see for miles and other drivers are quick to give you some space. When we took the van for its photo shoot, I shamelessly drove it into an "Official Vehicles Only" zone and nobody batted an eyelid. No vehicle says "I mean business" - or possibly, "I am here to fix your plumbing" - quite like a big white van. The Multivan is primarily sold in the UAE as a vehicle for corporate types to have meetings on the go. The seven leather seats can be configured into conversation-friendly arrangements, along with the pop-up table, DVD player and AV jacks for laptop presentations. Five-star hotels have also bought the Multivan for guest transport and a few of these spacious specimens have been purchased by families. At Dh199,000 for the Highline and Dh165,000 for the Comfortline base model, this is a more affordable option than the Dh200,000-and-above mega-SUVs that are favoured by large families in the UAE.
Another selling point for those considering the Multivan as a family car, apart from the DVD player, is that it is gob-smackingly easy to drive. Once you've hoisted yourself up to the driver's seat, the dashboard layout, steering wheel and gear shifter look like that of the bog-standard Volkswagen Passat. There is no need to pass another driving test. The only problem with the car-like cabin is that it is easy to forget you are driving a large van, so you might attempt lane changes that are better suited to cars. But an ergonomically pleasing steering wheel, power steering, automatic transmission and wood panelling on the dash is preferable to the traditional van layout. I can't imagine many UAE drivers being too keen on a dull dashboard, a steering wheel with the circumference of a sombrero, a huge gearstick poking out of the floor like a cheap golf club and an ankle-spraining clutch.
Like a large SUV, the Multivan has a big, imposing presence on the road, but it is very top-heavy so not really designed for driving at warp speed on highways. It has a 3.2L V6 engine and, with 232 horses and 315Nm of torque, it accelerates surprisingly well for a vehicle of its size. But speeds over 140kph are ill-advised, especially on a windy day. While the roads of the UAE, with a few exceptions, are wide, flat and straight, even the slightest curve needs to be taken with care, otherwise you will get a stomach-dropping fright when it understeers. The handling on bends is like a pregnant gymnast - you know that underneath the additional bulk, there is some nimble engineering, but the weight it has to carry negates a lot of the agility. Volkswagen has fitted the Multivan with excellent suspension - the McPherson struts on the front, along with gas-filled front dampers, keep the cargo safe over bumps, but it is not going to whizz around the bends of Jebel Hafeet with the athletic finesse of a VW Golf GTI.
The six-speed automatic transmission is typical of VW's excellence in gearboxes and the Tiptronic sequential manual option is good for additional control and engine braking at high speed. It is always a better choice than slamming on the brakes. Not only can this cause a loss of control, horrible skidding or movement of cargo but, especially in the hot weather, it's a sure-fire way to bend your brake discs.
What was completely superfluous was the sports mode on the gear shifter. This is not a sports car for pity's sake, it is a van. A sports mode is fun on a sporty car - it gives you a pleasing power boost when overtaking, offers lovely noises when the gear ratios are pushed to the limit and, when coupled with a stiffened sports suspension, there are real thrills to be had. These thrills are not the reason for buying this van.
But cargo space is a very good reason indeed. As well as having three drawers under the third row of seats, all seats fold flat for carrying a traditional white-van man-style load, and the seats can be moved backwards and forwards along tracks to form different configurations. This proved very handy when I moved a fridge to Dubai - it was easily loaded through the side sliding door, held in place behind the front passenger seat and the middle row seats and didn't move during the whole journey.
Once the fridge was safely relocated, we took advantage of the picnic table inside the van, drove the mighty Multivan through a McDonald's drive-thru and had a late lunch at the open beach in Jumeirah. It was not a very white-van man thing to do, but with the leather seats, xenon headlights, wood panelling, DVD player, sunroof and automatic (albeit confusing) doors, he'd probably tell us we're too soft to fix the plumbing and to go back to where we came from anyway. firstname.lastname@example.org