Last of the Mohicans!
Trakka bids farewell to the VW Crafter, but its Jabiru layout lives on…
by Richard Robertson.
Volkswagen's launch of the Crafter van and cab-chassis in 2006 coincided precisely with Mercedes’ release of the current shape Sprinter. That’s because the Crafter and Sprinter rolled down the same production line at Mercedes’ Dusseldorf factory. Only when it came time for the drivetrain and trim items did the two part company, with Crafters going off to a VW facility to receive a Volkswagen engine, gearbox, trim and badging.
Despite the same structural design and engineering, Crafters have been marketed, priced and perceived a level below the Sprinter due to the differences in engines, gearboxes – and badging. Most notably, Sprinters received more advanced drivelines, especially with a fully automatic transmission over VW’s automated manual option. Visually, the Crafter’s distinctive nose is a styling nod to the Volkswagen Constellation, which is made in Brazil and is the flagship of the Company’s South American heavy truck range.
In 2011/12 the Crafter received a mid-life update, but did away with the six-speed automated manual, offering only a six-speed manual gearbox. I have no official explanation as to why, but sources tell me there were “issues” with the self-shifter, especially when running at fully loaded weights all the time and in the hands of rental customers.
The update included a switch from the gruff 5-cylinder 2.5-litre turbo-diesel to the same 4-cylinder 2.0-litre turbo-diesel used across the VW passenger car and Amorak ute ranges. Importantly, power and torque didn’t suffer in the capacity downsize. Interestingly, the combination of German engineering, sharp pricing and a low-maintenance manual transmission appealed to many rental operators. In recent years Crafters have become the mainstay of some fleets, especially those of companies marketing to Europeans, who mostly prefer to change gears themselves anyway.
Fast-forward to 2015 and the Crafter is no more; a victim of either the run-away success of Mercedes’ Sprinter and the need for more production capacity, or VW’s recent alignment with MAN trucks (depending on who you listen to). As I write, construction is well underway on a massive factory in Wrzesnia, Poland, that will open late in 2016 and produce up to a staggering 85,000 all-new Crafter’s annually. The new model will, apparently, have strong MAN truck DNA and should be a very interesting vehicle when it arrives. Just don’t hold your breath for an Antipodean premier much before late 2017 or early 2018.
The subject of this review is Trakka’s very last Crafter-based Jabiru van conversion motorhome (the company having long-since discontinued its Crafter-based Trakkaway coachbuilt motorhomes). The Jabiru continues as a Mercedes’ Sprinter-based model, and in reality it’s probably where 99 per cent of sales have been in recent years. Trakka says private buyers just don’t want a manual gearbox and it appears those same private owners have punished Volkswagen accordingly. That is a shame, really, because the manual Crafter has much to offer and is surprisingly refined and enjoyable, and impressively economical.
Less is More
The 5-cylinder 2.5-litre engine of Crafter’s past had a coarse feel and gruff note, and couldn’t feel and sound more different from the test vehicle’s 4-cylinder 2.0-litre donk. Smooth and sweet, the new engine produces a healthy 120 kW @ 4000 rpm and 400 Nm @ 1500-2250 rpm thanks to twin turbochargers, equalling the 2.5 L engine in kilowatts (although 500 revs higher) and beating it by 50 Nm in the torque department, at 500 fewer revs.
On the road this translates to quiet, refined progress, with the engine only intruding (mutedly) under acceleration. At cruise – think 1800 rpm @ 100 km/h – the cab is very quiet and the engine smooth a silk. Clutch action is light and progressive, while the hill-hold facility proved handy. Shift quality was a tad notchy but otherwise light and easy to operate. Being rear-wheel drive the Crafter steered nicely under acceleration, and maintained a rock-steady line over rough/broken bitumen on corners. There was a small amount of body roll but it was easily anticipated and overall the ride quality was exemplary.
As mentioned, the engine proved impressively economical, returning 8.17 L/100 km (34.6 mpg) over 1045 km of freeway and country driving from 85 of the fuel tank’s 100 litres. True, we were lightly loaded, but even so it was significantly better than any other motorhome I’ve toured in. On return to Trakka, after a week or local running around the Southern Highlands and including a final run in peak hour traffic it only increased to 10.27 L/100 km (27.5 mpg), which was still excellent.
The downside – because there’s always one – is the little engine doesn’t have much in the engine braking department. Its small displacement also means it doesn’t have much off-idle grunt, so taking off in second gear is a no-no unless you’re on a decent hill, even lightly loaded. It’s not that the engine’s torque curve is peaky – max torque is 1500-2250 rpm – just that at times there’s no substitute for cubic centimetres.
The gearbox also required a bit of stirring in hilly country to keep revs in the right range, but when it got the bit between its teeth it hung on like a beauty. Over the biggest hills of the Hume Highway between Sydney and Yass it held 6th gear all the way, admittedly dropping from 110 km/h to 95-100 km/h in places. What I absolutely loved was that changing gears didn’t cancel the cruise control, which is always a bugbear with manual transmissions. I also appreciated the choice of using cruise control or the speed limiter; the latter proving very handy on suburban roads, in country towns and in traffic on freeways. This feature is common across the Crafter/Sprinter range and alone is almost a reason to buy!
The test Crafter had a range of standard features that enhanced the driving experience, like front and rear parking sensors and a multi-function steering wheel. They were in addition to remote central locking, cab air-conditioning, an AF/FM/CD sound system with Bluetooth, a trip computer, electric windows and mirrors, height adjustable headlights and more. Dual airbags, ABS brakes, traction and electronic stability controls were also standard fare. About the only thing to detract from the driving enjoyment was the slightly thin plastic steering wheel, but I’m being picky now!
Outside and In
The Crafter/Sprinter body is 57 mm (2.2 in) narrower than the Fiat Ducato’s, but the long wheelbase (LWB) version used for the Jabiru is some 582 mm (1 ft 11 in) longer than the longest Ducato available, the extra-long wheelbase (ELWB). I mention this because Trakka builds van-conversion motorhomes on both platforms – the Crafter/Sprinter is called the Jabiru and the Fiat Ducato is the Torino – and physical size differences aside they are very similar inside. For many buyers the final choice comes down to brand preference as much as anything.
I'm a particular fan of van-conversion motorhomes because they retain the strength and rigidity of the steel body and are designed for a lifetime of exposure to the elements. There are minimal opportunities for water ingress – especially as they age – while external maintenance is simple and straightforward. There are also less susceptible to expensive damage from minor knocks and bingles and in no way should be considered the ‘poor man’s choice’ alongside coachbuilt motorhomes.
The Crafter’s Jabiru conversion includes two roof hatches: one for the bathroom and a powered one for the bed area There are four flush-fitting, opening external windows (two on each side); one of which is in the bathroom wall and really doesn’t need to be there. A four metre wind-out awning, electric entry step, external shower (cleverly concealed in the wall and accessed via the toilet cassette hatch) are all standard equipment, along with a single 4 kg gas bottle and Trakka’s signature inbuilt power lead. The standard Waeco reversing camera – one with dual lenses that automatically switch between vertical and distance views – is another Trakka signature and the best in the business. A pair of 100 AH house batteries are standard, along with 110-litres of fresh and 80-litres of grey water. Rooftop solar and a diesel fired heating system are optional.
Stepping inside, the floor plan is entirely conventional. It features a front lounge that incorporates the swivelling cab seats, a mid positioned kitchen and bathroom, and a rear bedroom. The decor is classic Trakka and uses a combination of light timber finishes with aluminium accents and dark grey roller shutter doors on the overhead cupboards. Lighting throughout is LED that’s dimmable (including the exterior lights) and includes another Trakka signature: purple/blue “mood” strips in the kitchen. I was also pleased to see a good selection of 240 V power points, 12 V sockets and 5 V USB charging outlets.
Livin’ & Cookin’
No van-conversion can truly claim to be spacious, but the Jabiru makes good use of available space. Those missing two inches of width, however, compared with the Fiat Ducato-based Trakka Torino, are most noticeable between the kitchen and bathroom. There, the combination of a convex bathroom wall and kitchen benchtop narrow the aisle, making through-vehicle access while one person’s cooking an excellent opportunity for a cuddle. Unless, cough, you’re just travelling with a mate…
Trakka uses multiple floor levels to maximise headroom in the centre of the vehicle, while keeping a level floor in the cab/dining area and providing good bedroom storage. It’s a proven system, but one you need to be mindful of when moving around the vehicle in the dark.
Up front, both seats swivel easily and a pole-mounted dining table fits neatly into a floor socket between them. During the day the table stores in a holder on the inside of the sliding side door, while the pole stores in the kitchen end unit. Care is needed when closing the door behind you on entry to avoid an abrasion and big bruise on the back of your leg from the table’s substantial mount. Just ask Mrs iMotorhome!
Immediately behind the driver’s seat, in the corner formed by the end panel of the unit that houses the elevated fridge and microwave, is a small floor unit with a drawer, benchtop and a compact flip-up table. Apart from being an ideal place for coffee cups during a quick stop, it makes a great little workstation when the driver’s seats is swivelled 180º.
The main kitchen unit runs along the kerb-side wall, amidships, and intrudes a little into the open door space. It has six self-closing drawers – good to see a manufacture who understands kitchen cupboards are largely wasted space, and usually the cheap option – as well as a long run of bench top. The bench is largely occupied by the two-burner gas cooker and the round sink-sans-drainer with folding tap – both with glass lids. There’s also a filtered drinking-water tap and a glass-lidded rubbish bin that does double duty as a removable wine cooler! Above the cooker is a rangehood – the best place for it – above which is a small cupboard that houses all the electrical controls. These comprise a multifunction display for most systems, including battery and water tank levels, inside and outside temperature, and switches for the water pump and 12 V system. Alongside is the fridge master switch and individual controls for the LED mood lighting strips.
Across from the forward end of the main kitchen unit, opposite the door as you enter, is the tall unit that houses the elevated fridge with microwave above. It has a cupboard below that’s home to the house batteries and extra storage. At the aft end of the main bench is a small bulkhead divider that conceals a concertina door for bedroom privacy. What makes the bulkhead special are two small, deep, recessed shelves with power outlets for charging all manner of mobile devices, in addition to a normal double 240 V power point. Very nice.
Switch Mode Bathing
Trakka’s patented Switch Mode Bathroom (SMB) is standard in every bathroom-equipped model, with the exception of the range topping Trakkaway 860, which has separate shower and bathroom cubicles. In a nutshell the SMB combines a generous shower, slimline hand basin and bench, and mirrored shaving cabinet, with a remote-controlled, retractable cassette toilet. The sum of this innovation is the best bathroom space utilisation in the available floor space, with minimum inconvenience/compromise.
The unit's convex outer wall maximises interior space, while a sliding roller shutter door (matching those of the cupboards) provides requisite privacy. The cassette toilet unit ‘hides’ under the handbasin when not required, while a close fitting shower curtain press-studs into place, keeping toilet paper and towels dry, and preventing water splashing into the aisle if the door is left open. It’s a clever system made cleverer by using the hand basin tap, operated by a separate flick mixer, for showering. Pulling the tap out of the basin converts it to a hand shower by revealing a long, flexible hose, plus there’s a wall mount to convert it to a conventional shower.
Over time we discovered it’s best to leave the toilet extended at night, to avoid fumbling for the remote control and its small, unmarked buttons in the dark. Innovation aside, this is still a ‘wet’ bathroom, so it’s also a good idea to wipe the floor dry after showering to avoid cold, wet feet in the middle of the night.
The bedroom, which occupies about the rear third of the vehicle, is another multifunction area and provides a number of sleeping arrangements. Primarily set up with two lengthways single beds, it has a pull-out extension and drop-in cushion that effectively makes it into a king-size bed if desired. At 2.05 m (6 ft 9 in), bed length is about the best in the industry. Single beds measure 0.65 m (2 ft 2 in) wide, while the king bed set-up measures 1.78 m (5 ft 10 in) across. If there isn’t room for you in the back of this vehicle you’re unlikely to find a motorhome to suit!
Storage space can be found beneath the front sections of each single bed, plus there is quite a bit accessible via the rear barn doors. There are also overhead cupboards on both sides and an unusual ‘floating’ wardrobe unit with roller shutter door above the foot of the driver’s side bed. Under the bed at the back is also where you’ll find the awning winder and the outdoor table, which attaches to a rail on the outside of the sliding side door. The rear door windows are fixed glass that come standard with the Crafter, but there are openings side windows and the afore-mentioned powered roof hatch for night-time ventilation. The only option fitted to the test vehicle was a 12 V fan in the bedroom and it’s a must-have, especially in the absence of air conditioning. There were no ceiling lights in the bedroom, just reading lights by the rear doors. Speaking of the rear doors, the gap between the bed end and windows made sitting up in bed difficult without a lot of pillows, but this has been resolved in the latest models (see Evolution).
What I think.
Someone recently said, “You seem to like every vehicle you test”. That’s true to a degree, because I try to present vehicles in their best light. I’ve learned that just because I might not like specific features that doesn’t mean they won’t appeal to/be important to other people. Mrs iMotorhome is more critical, but like me she was sorry to see the Crafter-based Jabiru go.
We both appreciated its roomy cab and the refined driving experience provided by its small-but-powerful engine. I was very happy with the manual transmission and we were both well pleased with its economy. Given all that it seems a shame Volkswagen’s Crafter has reached the end of its time, for now, and we can only hope the next model does its predecessors proud. In the mean time, this Last Mohican is available for the special price of $115,000 driveway, a saving of some $15,000!
If you’re after something a little different and don’t mind changing gears this is well worth a close look. Just be quick because like the Last Mohican there won’t be another. It also means you’ll end up with a special place in history as well as a great motorhome. How? Call Trakka now…
- Refined engine
- Excellent economy
- Driving experience
- Bed size and combinations
- Rear storage
- Manual only
- No forward roof hatch
- Limited engine braking
- Limited off-idle torque
Trakka continues to hone its designs and for the 2015/16 model year has introduced a range of styling refinements and detail design improvements. They include the following, but check with them for the full run down:
- New trim materials that provide a smoother, more up-market look and feel
- New trim colours, with gloss white surfaces and lighter timber tones
- Roller shutter doors in traditional charcoal (dark grey) or new silver finish
- The ceiling lights are gone, replaced by integrated LED strips beneath and above the overhead cupboards, and with a range of switching options. These provide softer and more even, natural lighting, while still retaining the ability to be dimmed. In the kitchen there is a strip under the benchtop edge that shines directly into open drawers.
- Kitchen drawers have larger handles that are easier to hold and use
- Relocated light switches
- Back lighting in the bathroom mirror
- In the van conversions, trim panels now cover the rear door’s fixed-glass windows, but have cut-out window openings with built-in privacy blinds.
Click HERE to visit Trakka's website.
Click below to download a PDF of the full test, including specifications and contact details.
Trakka Jabiru - VW Crafter (1374 KB)
Trakka Jabiru - VW Crafter (1374 KB)