Test all limits in the Nissan Navara
Test all limits in the Nissan Navara

Vans make a comeback

For as long as I can remember, the Volksiebussie was pretty much the only option when it came to minivans for family use in South Africa. It ticked all the right boxes and was as common on the roads within the Kruger as impalas. However, in recent years, this bus has been joined by a plethora of new options, all way more luxurious than the kombi made famous by David Kramer and his rooi velskoene. Mary Willemse drove a few recently and shares her thoughts.

“Mom! He is breathing on me!”… “Are we there yet?”… “Mom! I want it hot, and she wants it cold!”… “Moooommmmmm!!!”

As a mom of four little kids under the age of six at one point, I have always wanted a bus to move the ‘masses’! See, I am the proud mom of multiple multiples – yep, two sets of twins and I could not imagine anything better than each kid having his or her own seat, aircon, snack tray holder and whatever else needed to please the little prince or princess! Without giving away my age, I’ll just say that ‘back then’ there were limited options to choose from when it came to people movers (or rather Multi-Purpose Vehicles, or MPVs for short, as the clever marketing people called it). You had SUV wannabes on the one side of the spectrum, HiAce taxis on the other, or overly priced ‘luxury vans’ targeted at tourist operators to transport safari goers from the Hoedspruit airport to the Kruger. Despite the market’s general obsession with SUVs and bakkies, the luxury MPV segment is enjoying something of a resurgence at present. Some of these people-movers can swallow more than 10 passengers, but it’s still true that if you want the ultimate in practicality the seven-seater buses generally leave plenty of room for luggage and even pets or gear at the back. As the ‘soccer mom’ in the team, I sampled a few market favourites.

No clowning around

Having debuted in 2022 as the replacement for the Sedona, the Carnival sports Kia’s powerful yet efficient Smartstream 2.2-litre CRDi turbo engine, looks too good to be a MPV, boasts a sumptuous cabin with a plethora of features, offers car-like handling, and is more practical than your neighbour’s boxy SUV. The Carnival is designed to make any drive a pleasure, be it on the long road or for urban driving – and while testing, the fuel efficiency, comfortably sitting between 7 litres/100km on the highway and a respectable 8.1 litres/100km in city traffic, certainly impressed us! With its 72-litre tank, it’s great for longer trips – you can clock at least 800km before having to find a filling station!

Comfort-wise, there is certainly nothing to complain about. The inside of the Carnival feels palatial, and the quality maintained by Kia is impressive, with good-quality soft-touch plastics and leatherette surfaces that blend well into a modern layout. Driver and passengers were content with ample leg and headroom and the lumbar support seating is a real treat. Additionally, the standard power sliding doors on all trims make entering the cabin easy. There is ample luggage space when all three rows of seats are up and if you fold the back seats away you essentially have a highend panel van, offering over 4 000 litres of cargo space. We particularly liked the cavity behind the back row of seats to stow away luggage (all seats up, the Carnival boasts 1 139 litre of storage).

To keep the ‘connected generation’ happy, you will find USB ports (seven in total) throughout the cabin. The elegant interior has quality material throughout with high-gloss black surfaces and strategically placed chrome accents, with the 12.3-inch touchscreen infotainment system neatly moulded into the dash and easy to operate. Additionally, the Carnival boasts safety features and driving aides aplenty, making it surprisingly very easy to manoeuvre the large body.

Fast facts

• Engine: 2.2-litre CRDI

• Power: 147kW @ 3 800rpm

• Torque: 440Nm @ 1 750 – 2 750rpm

• Drive type: 2WD (FWD)

• Seats: 5/7/8 seat configuration available

Dimensions

Length: 5 155mm

Width: 1 995mm

• Height: 1 775mm

Wheelbase: 3 090mm

Ground clearance: 172mm

GVM: 2 780kg

• Max towing capacity: 1 588kg braked / 454kg unbraked

*The Carnival range is priced from R824 995 for the base model to R1 049 995 for the top-of-the-range SXL-spec we tested.

Robo-van

The Hyundai Staria – with its sleek, sci-fi-inspired design – certainly had a polarising effect when launched back in 2021 as replacement for the brand’s popular H1 minibus. Depending on your stylistic tastes, this is a boldly vivacious or a freaky Martian take on the people-mover niche. I belong to the group that loves the styling.

Hyundai’s contender is well put together and offers a comprehensive list of standard features across its model line-up. It is comfortable whether driving or as a passenger. I particularly enjoyed the superb seating position, allowing the driver a clear view of the road ahead – and that short front end makes for better visibility. My teenage daughter and her friends enjoyed the 180-degree swivel seats as – who would have guessed? – they still like the option of face-to-face interaction (even in the hyper-connectivity era we live in). Considering the size and power of this vehicle (featuring Hyundai’s R2.2 diesel engine delivering 130kW and 430Nm), a surprising highlight was it‘s frugality. It’s not often that the manufacturer’s claimed consumption (Hyundai claims 8.7-litres) is higher than the actual consumption, but with this baby, I managed to reach a pretty impressive 6.9 litres/100km. Yes, it was in near-perfect quiet highway driving conditions, but still! Over the week, it averaged out at around 7.8 litres/100km in different driving conditions. Additionally, gear changes were silky smooth, and I had to keep reminding myself I was driving a minibus instead of a burly SUV because it hardly ever felt like it.

I found the somewhat tacky and cheap-looking hard plastics a bit of an eyesore for a vehicle in this price class, but the positive features certainly outweigh the negatives. These include the double sliding doors, which can be operated by the passengers via buttons in the door panels, on the key fob, or via controls in the front for the driver, as well as loads of nifty storage compartments for all sorts of odds and ends. As to be expected, it is jam-packed with standard safety features. I particularly enjoyed the Staria’s blindspot detection, which, instead of just a light flashing in your mirror, displays the side mirror camera in front of you to show the car on your left or right once you’ve indicated your intent to change lanes.

Fast facts:

• Engine: 2.2-litre turbodiesel

• Power: 130kW @ 3 800rpm

• Torque: 430Nm @ 1 500 – 2 500rpm

• Drive type: 2WD (FWD)

• Seats: 5/9/11 seat configuration available

Dimensions:

Length: 5 253mm

Width: 1 997mm

Height: 1 990mm

Wheelbase: 3 090mm

Ground clearance: 186mm

GVM: 2 920kg

Max towing capacity: 2 500kg braked / 750kg unbraked

*The Staria range is priced from R835 900 for the base model to R1 160 900 for the range-topper. The line-up also includes a MultiCab option, offering five seats with a separate cargo space (ideal for all your camping gear), priced from R764 900.

Size matters

Three years since it was first introduced in Europe, the Opel Zafira Life finally found its way to South Africa in 2022, but it is certainly not the Zafira we remember from yesteryear…

Built on a shared Stellantis commercial vehicle platform used by Citroen and Peugeot branded vehicles in some markets, the new Zafira Life is van-based as opposed to previous generations, which were built on a compact (C-segment) passenger car platform (as used for the Opel Astra and other General Motors products).

The new model has certainly grown up charmingly, now clearly catering for a different market and designed for families or businesses requiring space to move lots of people in one go. To this end, the Zafira Life is available with seven or eight seats, and it can carry more than 1 000 litres of luggage with all the chairs in their upright position. The largest of the buses we tested in terms of dimensions, manoeuvring it into tight parking spots and narrow driveways took some getting used to. And since we sampled the base model (Edition), the driver aides were a tad sparse. The top model (Elegance), however, offers all the bells and whistles to make parking this bus a breeze.

Once inside, the ergonomics are sound, and you won’t feel like it’s a commercial vehicle. Opel has done more than enough to jazz up the interior (despite too much use of hard black plastic in some areas of the cabin). As for comfort and ride quality, the Zafira performed tremendously in terms of agility and manoeuvrability, even on the North West’s pothole-invested roads. While it felt sluggish at times, the steering felt sharper than most of the segment contenders, and it behaved well through bends. Opel says that the Zafira Life will sip a claimed 6.3 litres/100km in a combined cycle, which should see you achieve around 1 111km from its 70-litre tank. During our test, our best figure was 7.8 litres/100km.

Fast facts:

Engine: 2.9 TD AT

Power: 110kW @ 4 000rpm

Torque: 370Nm @ 2 000rpm

Drive type: 2WD (FWD)

Seats: 7/8 seat configuration available

Dimensions:

Length: 5 306mm

Width: 2 204mm

Height: 1 948mm

Wheelbase: 3 275mm

Ground clearance: 190mm

GVM: 2 835kg

Max towing capacity: 1 500kg braked / 600kg unbraked

*The Zafira Live range consists of two models, priced at R819 00 for the base Edition and R946 900 for the Elegance.

Not your everyday taxi!

When you think Quantum, what’s the first thing that jumps to mind? Berserk taxi drivers with 16 passengers crammed into the vehicle? Cramped? Uncomfortable? Okay, now think again… Boasting a lengthy wheelbase and nine seats, the rangetopping VX version of Toyota’s latest (now imported) Quantum is visually set apart from the standard Quantum by a handful of model-specific exterior styling elements. While not the best-looking in the class (with quite an angular design), the large chrome-finished radiator grille, LED lights and tinted windows radiate upmarket vibes.

It is in the interior space where the luxury levels really shine through, though. The Quantum VX provides an almost limousine-like degree of cabin comfort and refinement for up to eight passengers (9-seater) with independent rear climate control and multiple USB ports to keep devices fully charged for business or entertainment. Access to the rear is through an electrically operated sliding door on each side, opened and closed by buttons inside the vehicle or – as a neat party trick that always delighted the passengers – from the key fob.

The rear of the cabin offers four individual reclining captain’s seats (with armrests and power-adjustable backrests and fold-out leg rests) in the second and third row, along with a three-seat 60/40-split bench in the rear. Quilted leather upholstery is used throughout.

The drive was surprisingly smooth as the Quantum floated over the rough road surfaces en route to a family weekend in Potchefstroom without transferring judders into the cabin. When in cruise control, the vehicle does all the thinking – its radar notes the speed limit and traffic ahead and adjusts accordingly. Effortless really, with driver and passengers well catered for with multiple charging points and dual-zone air-conditioning. While thirsty (Toyota claims 8.7 litres/100km, but we could not get it below 10.6 litres/100km), it is no slouch. Even filled to capacity, it gave a spirited performance without succumbing to significant turbo lag.

Fast facts:

• Engine: 2.8-litre GD-6 turbodiesel

• Power: 115kW @ 3 600rpm

• Torque: 420Nm 1 600 – 2 200rpm

• Drive type: 2WD (RWD)

• Seats: 6/9 seat configuration available

Dimensions

Length: 5 300mm

Width: 1 970mm

Height: 1 990mm

Wheelbase: 3 210mm

Ground clearance: 185mm

GVM: 3 500kg

Max towing capacity: 1 500kg braked / 400kg unbraked

*The Quantum bus range is priced from R758 200 for the base model to R1 111 400 for the ultra-luxurious VX.

The other players

While we have not tested the following vehicles, it’s worth a look if you’re in the market for a people mover.

Ford

The Ford Tourneo Custom offers six individual seats with two rear rows that can be configured in conference format or two rows of three forward-facing seats. The six seats can each be folded flat, tumbled, stowed in multiple positions or removed. From a safety aspect, there are front, curtain and side-impact airbags as standard fitment, stability control, hill launch assist, roll-over mitigation, emergency brake assist, and a tyre pressure monitoring system. Both the short wheelbase (4 972mm) and the long wheelbase (5 339mm) is powered by a 2.0-litre single turbo engine delivering 96kW and 385Nm.

*The range spans six derivatives and is priced from R692 700 to R827 300.

Volkswagen

Volkswagen still offers the widest range of models when it comes to people movers and family buses. Starting with the Caddy Kombi (a striking 7-seater) for under R500k right through to the Caravelle at R1 330 700, there is no doubt you will find the right Volksiebussie for your needs.

Having recently been a passenger in the fifth-generation Caddy, I think it’s completely underrated as a people mover. Offering a 5/7-seat configuration, it boats a maximum load capacity volume of up to 3.5m³ and the exterior is both functional and stylish. Two engine derivatives – both offering decent power and torque – are available. The 1.6i manual delivers 81kW and 152Nm; while the 2.0 TDi engine has 81kW and 300Nm on tap.

On the other side of the spectrum, the Caravelle 6.1 is an immaculate all-rounder, oozing luxury and style. The suited for power 146kW Highline’s seven-speed DSG engine combination makes for intelligent transmission and a silky-smooth ride. This stylish sevenseater is filled to the brim with the latest tech and gadgets, and – if the marketing material is to be believed – passengers will feel like royalty with obscene amounts of comfort and luxury finishes.

Mercedes-Benz

The marque personifies luxury and opulence – and it’s no different in its range of buses. Starting with the Vito Tourer (the base model priced under R700k and the top-end option tipping the scale over R1.2-million), Mercedes Benz Commercial prides itself on the highest specification and safety levels. We also quite like the idea of the Vito Mixto, offering space for up to five people and a load compartment volume of up to 4.1m³. Much like the Staria Multicab, we believe this is a solid alternative to a standard SUV/4×2 bakkie as an adventure partner.

Moving on to the V300d V-class lineup (priced from just under R1.3-million to a whopping R1 737 714), this range of buses certainly offers everything and then some to both driver and passengers. The four-cylinder diesel engine with 174kW and 500Nm of torque sets the benchmark in the MPV segment from a performance perspective, while the utility factor is amped up with multiple seat configuration options. Officially configured to fit seven people and their luggage in ultra-luxury, other seat options – such as six or eight-seat configurations – are available on special request.

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