Back in the day evo had a series called ‘the thrill of driving… in something normal’. It was a series of full-page tests likely offered to manufacturers as a return favour when someone needed to borrow something non-performance for extended family duties, moving home or just out of plain old curiosity. Which reminds me, I really owe VW an article on the Beach Caddy and Mercedes-Benz a page on the base A class.

Anyway, without checking our files, I can safely say that this is the first time a VW Crafter has featured in any of evo’s 20 international editions. Furthermore, with 99 percent certainty, I can say that it’s never even been mentioned. And the Amarok hasn’t exactly been a front-page star, either (though we’ve run a pair in the Fast Fleet as photography vehicles).

So why do we have both nameplates on this spread?

Well, every now and then, a manufacturer decides to display the capabilities of its whole range, and while we were here on the South Island of New Zealand primarily to drive the Golf R on snow, ice and race track, VW decided to give us first-hand experience of the capabilities of 4Motion. Everything from Passat to Crafter van is here to be sampled, and while we’ll naturally focus on the Golf R (see next issue), I can’t turn down the opportunity to take a big van on a snow slalom course.

While there’s a Golf R idling away right next to me, when I’m told to find my first car in which to tackle the slalom course, I move quick smart to the Crafter. Why? It’s certainly not to do with dynamics, but purely down to the fact that this opportunity will never head my way again. And I love the sheer stupidity of it.

Yet stupidity, in the right circumstances, can equal harmless fun. What quickly transpires is that a Crafter van is actually pretty crafty by nature, for it’s a surprising bit of kit when it comes to handling. Accelerating hard (for a van) and throwing it around the snowy slalom course with the aim of getting it out of shape is almost fruitless. The Crafter retaliates to such antics by being pretty hard to get out of control. It just goes where it’s pointed and ignores the fact that a high-grip dry surface has been replaced by something white and fluffy. Of course, physics eventually takes over – but only after you really build speed, turn hard and keep accelerating. These are things that you just wouldn’t do in any normal circumstance on the road, but it is a lot of fun all the same. And while essentially a pointless exercise from an Australian point of view, it’s reassuring that a commercial vehicle is so competent when asked tough and repeated dynamic questions on such a challenging surface.

However, even more fun than a Crafter on snow is an Amarok on track. In a big surprise to me, a well-driven Amarok (just like the Crafter van) is actually a lot more dynamically tactile than I’d previously given it credit for. It feels weird going hard into the same corners in an Amarok that 10 minutes earlier were being attacked a lot lower to the tarmac in a Golf R. In a way, track work from up high feels like playing PlayStation with the driving mode set to looking down on the car rather than over the dashboard. Taking a never ending right-hand sweeper at a pace twice as fast as I thought possible, I find myself nervously laughing when I realise from this height the relation of my seating position to that of the tyre contact patch is roughly five feet down and two feet off to my right. However, even in tight hairpins, the Amarok holds its line and keeps its cool, and while it doesn’t shoot out of corners like an R, it does teach you the art of keeping constant momentum.

In summary, I took this away from driving the Amarok and Crafter: both are far more capable in a dynamic sense than I ever realised and both are extremely safe to drive at the limit. That limit, thanks to all-wheel-drive 4Motion grip, is far in excess of what I’d have thought possible from a ute and a van.

It would take a lot of wrong to get an Amarok out of shape on the road and even more silliness to tip a Crafter on its side. There is something highly reassuring that VW is endowing its workhorses with dynamic capability and safety features that only recently were reserved for luxury and sporting cars. Here’s a big thumbs up to VW for looking after everyone. Matthew O’Malley

VW Crafter 4motion
Engine In-line 4-cyl, 1968cc, turbo-diesel
Power 130kW @ 3600rpm
Torque 410Nm @ 2000rpm
Weight 2100kg (62kW/tonne)
0-100km/h 15sec (est.)
Top speed 160km/h (est.)
Basic price from $57,590