The Volkswagen Westfalia may never have sold in astronomical numbers, but it certainly succeeded in developing a cult following. With its trademark shape, this recreational vehicle is still coveted by fans and roadworthy units sell for a killing – even the original model featuring an air-cooled rear-mounted engine.
Sadly, Westfalia fell off the Canadian map in the last 10 years, as Volkswagen decided not to import it to our country anymore. This sparked various knock-offs, including those made by Quebec-based New West, whose products are built on full-size GM minivan platforms. But the company’s president Jean Dumais has always had a soft spot for Westfalias. And after years of talks, New West is opening a Westfalia distribution subsidiary, aptly named “Westfalia Canada.”
Although Westfalia-Werke made its name in Canada modifying VW products, the German company also modifies other brands. I had the chance to test Westfalia Canada’s first model, prior to its official release.
Westfalia, plain and simple
It’s important to note that products distributed in Canada will bear the German coachbuilder’s name and not the Fiat brand. In other words, they will simply go by “Westfalia” and will be built on the Fiat Ducato platform. For the time being, the only model on offer is the Columbus. People who remember the old Westfalia models will be surprised to see how big the new one is. With a 4,035 mm wheelbase, it measures 5,998 mm in all – a far cry from yesterday’s compact minivan!
The model I tested was powered by a turbocharged 3.0L 4-cylinder diesel engine that produces 177 horsepower and 542 lbs.-ft. of torque. According to Fiat, this is the most powerful 4-cylinder in the category. This engine is paired with a 6-speed Comfort Matic semi-automatic transmission. The front wheels receive the power, while the back features a torsion beam rear axle.
True to tradition
Westfalias of the past were popular thanks to the quality and versatility of their interiors. Since I tested the Columbus on the highway instead of at a campground, it’s hard for me to assess the practicality and user-friendliness of its camping features. However, a visual inspection revealed that the quality of materials and assembly are excellent. There is a heated floor in the rear, LED lighting, and the back-bench mattress rests on an insulated platform made of plastic petals that promote good ventilation and improved comfort. Plus, in fiddling with all the storage compartments and seats, I ascertained that everything was easy to use.
To ensure privacy, all the windows are equipped with pull-down blinds and the front is sectioned off with an accordion curtain that can be stowed in the A pillars. Passengers will also appreciate the numerous small storage compartments. However, there’s just one cup holder in front – surely a sign of the vehicle’s European heritage. To make up for this shortcoming, there are three storage compartments under the dashboard – including one that is cooled! The right side of the dash features a spacious glove compartment. With no console between the front seats, there’s nothing preventing the seats from rotating or passengers from moving about with ease.
Climbing aboard the Columbus is no problem, thanks to is relatively low ground clearance. An electrically powered step is included to help give rear passengers a boost. The driving position is actually quite high, ensuring an excellent view of the highway. The front seats are comfortable with good support and multiple settings. And, as mentioned previously, they rotate. The indicator dials are easy to read and the climate is controlled via the same classic trio of large buttons.
The Columbus comes with a 6-speed transmission with an electric clutch actuator– a little like what you get in Formula 1 cars. However, this configuration has no P position. To stop the vehicle, you have to put it into neutral and engage the hand brake. It’s actually easier to do than to explain – I got used to it in no time.
With generous torque and a variable-geometery turbocharger, the diesel engine never came up short. That said, you have to lean on the accelerator to get the most out of the semi-automatic gearbox, which can sometimes be a bit slow to change gears. You can always switch gears manually, even though there’s no clutch pedal.
Out on the open road, the vehicle was stable and obedient. I especially appreciated the large rear-view mirrors. Passing by some trailers, I was impressed by the Columbus’ aerodynamic stability. However, you have to pay attention, as it’s easy to push this vehicle beyond the speed limit.
The vehicle’s other strengths included its small turning radius and well-calibrated suspension. If this is an important criteria for you, rest assured that I took the Columbus down some narrow secondary roads with no problem.
In sum, the Columbus may be nearly twice as big as Westfalias of days gone past, but this new generation will impress you with its interior layout and road capabilities. It will go for sale in early 2013 and is expected to cost approximately $105,000. In the meantime, you can always browse the Westfalia Canada website.
|Price as tested||N/A|
|Fuel consumption||On promet moins de 10 l/100 km sur la grande route|
|Value for price||Si ce genre de véhicule vous intéresse|
|Styling||La forme suit la fonction|
|Comfort||Pour prendre ses aises|
|Performance||Il faut tenir compte de la spécifité du véhicule|
|Overall||Reste à trouver les fonds pour se le procurer!|