Homes are getting smaller, space is tight and most current cleaners are just too big, according to Karcher. Enter the VC5 Premium, a mains-powered bagless cleaner that can be used as a hand-held or stick upright thanks to its telescopic tubes and multi-floor head.
Those telescopic tubes allow the cleaner to fold up small for storage on a shelf or in a cupboard, and the 500W motor packs solid suction for great carpet cleaning. The lack of a brush bar means it's limited when it comes to pet hair, and overall it has more than its fair share of niggly flaws. But its real Achilles heel is the ultra-small bin. One for smaller and not too dirty homes, then.
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According to research cited by Karcher, the average UK new-build home is half the size of one in the 1920s. Having recently seen planning permission for a local estate of affordable shoe-boxes masquerading as houses, I can believe that.
The resulting problem is that most vacuum cleaners are just too big for modern homes. Where do you store a large upright cleaner, and will it prove just too cumbersome to navigate around your micro-sized pad?
The new VC5 Premium is aimed at just those bijou new homes. It promises powerful, flexible cleaning in a compact, easy to manoeuvre package that collapses down for easy storage. Given all that, one wonders why the VC5 Premium isn’t cordless. Power, says Karcher.
Packing in a lightweight 500W motor with A-rated energy efficiency, this cleaner boasts as much suction power as many full-size cylinder cleaners, yet tips the scales at a featherweight 3.2kg minus tools. With its telescopic tube collapsed into the body, it works as a slightly bulky handheld cleaner. With the tube extended, it offers high-reach dusting or multi-floor cleaning as a stick upright.
The robust-looking floor-head clips easily onto the tube. Its neck tilts and pivots, providing good steerage, and the smooth, rubber-coated wheels are on a sprung suspension to keep the floor-head in contact with the surface.
The foot switch on top of the floor-head brings down two soft rubber blades and three small jockey rollers that allow the VC5 to glide over hard floors. As a final flourish, there's a magnet on top that keeps the head tight to the body for compact storage.
The tool count includes a mid-sized crevice tool, a small-ish dusting brush with pivoting head, and a basic upholstery tool that proudly states it's made in Italy.
There's no on-board storage for these tools, so they'll have to be tucked in your pocket for easy access while cleaning and squirrelled away in a cupboard afterwards. The excellent telescopic tubes are smooth, easy to clip into place and designed to stop you getting fingers caught when the tubes are collapsed down.
The main cleaner is a direct bagless design – that is to say, it's simply a vacuum motor that draws air up the tube, through the handle, and straight into a filtered canister bin. There's no cyclone action to spin our debris. This is the bagged cleaner principle, but the bag here has been replaced by a mesh bin and washable/replaceable filters.
The filtration is three-stage, consisting of a mesh basket that forms the bin itself and two cartridge filters. One of these is housed beneath the bin; the other is secured under a clip-off front cowl. The net result is that the VC5 Premium boasts an outstanding A-rating for exhaust dust emissions.
Cleverly, the main mesh basket is cleaned by prongs that wipe the inner surface as you unscrew the lid to empty the bin. The main cartridge filter beneath the bin is washable – Karcher recommends it's cleaned every five months. The secondary filter should simply be replaced every two years.
Hold the phone – five months and two years!? Speaking from experience of many, many vacuum cleaners tested – and particularly direct bagless types – those time frames are way too long. Not even in the right ballpark.
The lower part of the canister with the main filter was full of debris after a single afternoon of cleaning, and the main filter was already looking very dirty. There's absolutely zero chance of this cleaner maintaining its suction and A-rated dust performance if you leave the filters unattended for the time Karcher suggests. We'd recommend washing the main filter every half-a-dozen vacuuming sessions and replacing both at six months or even less.
Which brings us neatly onto the bin itself, which is very, very small. Smaller than a small tea cup, in fact. You're going to be emptying it several times each time you vacuum.
Moreover, there's no way to tell when the bin is full, since the plastic "window" is tinted and translucent rather than more usefully clear and transparent. With the lightest layer of dust in the bin you simply won't be able to see inside.
Just to compound the bin design issues, we discovered there's no non-return valve. This means that debris pulled into the bin is free to fall right back out again should you tip the cleaner upside down. It won’t be a major issue if you don’t switch off while it's pointing up in the air, and you remember to empty the bin before you lay it down to store – but that's hardly ideal.
That isn't the only questionable design decision here, either. The VC5 usefully sports four power levels on a slider control. Great news. Yet quite why there's a separate on/off switch as well, rather than a simple off position on the slider, is a mystery. It isn't intuitive, and many times we pulled the slider back assuming that would kill the power – only to put the machine down with it gently running on level one.
The mains cable is rather Yin and Yang too. On the one hand it's fantastically long at 9 metres, offering superb cleaning reach. Plus, flip-out tags on the cleaner's body allow you to wind it up for storage.
On the downside, it's a cheap, flat-section cable that tangles itself up in knots as soon as you look at it. By the time we had wound it on and off the holder a couple of times, the knots were turning into a bird’s nest.
I’m not sure we've ever seen a cleaner that combines so many neat and clever design touches with so many howlers.
The VC5 Premium feels nicely-built, despite its light weight in the hand. The chunky handle is comfortable, and equally suitable for right or left-handed use thanks to thumb controls in the middle. We're still trying to get to grips with the dual on/off and power level controls, but we expect it will become second nature eventually.
On the lowest setting the VC5 fires into life with whisper-quiet efficiency, but don’t expect to pick much up on this setting. It's best for light dusting duties, although the rather unwieldy nature of the cleaner and direct connection to the dusting brush would suggest avoiding dusting the Ming vases.
Setting two sees a marked increase in power, and is ideal for lighter duties where you don’t want the head or tools to stick. This worked particularly well on soft furnishings accompanied by the upholstery brush. Setting three is about right for carpeted floors, where you can move the head around easily, without breaking into a sweat.
With the fourth most powerful setting, the Karcher VC5 really comes alive in terms of suction power. This level makes the head stick down to carpets noticeably, although it's still moveable with a firm push. The setting is great for hard floors and, combined with the sealing rubber blades, offers deep cleaning into nooks, crannies and floorboard gaps.
A simple hand over the nozzle test at this power level revealed plenty of suction pressure. Even with the wide floor-head installed, there was ample air flow to clean to the full width of the head. The omens were good for great cleaning results.
Whatever level you choose, the Karcher remains blissfully quiet too. Even on full power over carpet, it emitted just 74dB. That's fairly peaceful for any cleaner, and excellent for a stick upright with this much power. Lower settings registered a few decibels less, down to just 60dB on level 1.
We started the serious testing on a tiled floor with grouting grooves and our usual patch of spilled dry oats. With the floor-head attached and the tube fully extended, the VC5 feels well balanced and moveable over hard floors; the head’s rubber-coated wheels roll nicely. On full power we could see the oats being sucked into the side of the head as it moved forwards, demonstrating the great suction and ample air flow.
As we pulled the head back, it was clear that the drop-down rubber blade at the front of the head could have been better designed. While the blade is pliable and fitted with stepped cut-outs in the middle, there are two solid sections at either end. These had the effect of simply pushing the oats in front of the floor-head and leaving two neat piles on the back stroke. Each pile then required another pass to clear, lining them up with the middle of the floor-head.
Out on open hard floors with simple dust and pet hair, the floor-head proved much more reliable, making the most of the VC5’s sheer power. The combination picked up dirt and debris right to the very edge of the skirting and from deep within cracks between floorboards.
We then had a very strange result by chance. Shortly after we had cleaned up the hard floor spill of oats, we immediately took to cobweb busting above head height with the dusting brush. All well and good, and very effective too. When we switched off and brought the nozzle back down to floor height, a handful of the previously vacuumed up oats fell out of the nozzle.
Investigations ensued. This is when we discovered that the entrance to the bin cup has no non-return valve. Holding the machine up in the air allowed particles to fall out of the bin, back around the handle, and out of the nozzle when the cleaner was set upright again. This is a fundamental design flaw.
Switching to the carpet test showed the Karcher VC5 at its best. While there's no rotating bar to agitate dust from the pile, the sheer suction and wide air inlet on the base of the floor-head work very well. It's relatively stiff to move over carpet on level four, but much easier on level three, without too much reduction in cleaning oomph. The cleaner and floor-head also drop nicely low to get under obstacles such as the sofa.
In a single pass over our mix of baking powder, talcum powder and carpet cleaning powder, the VC5 demonstrated a clean sweep. There was very little of the heavier powder granules visible on the carpet, and cleaning was good right up to the skirting board edge. That's a superb result for carpet cleaning performance.
Stair cleaning also transpired to be one of the VC5’s strengths, despite our initial assumption that it would be a little unwieldy.
While the handle is chunky and the body bulky, it's quite light and easy to manoeuvre when you have the extension tube shortened right down. This makes it easy to navigate on stairs, and the spectacularly lengthy 9m cable allows you to get a good way up or down the flight without switching plug sockets.
Using the main floor-head on stairs can be quite a handful, but its great carpet cleaning results translate directly into top performance on stair carpets. The articulation in the head allows you to wiggle around corner stairs and change the angle of attack as you go.
For straight stairs, the upholstery tool is quite effective too. If you use full power it will stick down to the carpet like a super-glued limpet, making things difficult. But use one of the lower settings and it cleans well without too much elbow grease required.
It’s a shame the crevice tool or dusting brush don’t have anywhere handy to park, but otherwise the VC5 is quite an accomplished cleaner for stairs.
Conversely, pet hairs proved to be something of a mixed bag for the Karcher. On carpet and running the cleaner along the lay of the pile, the powerful suction did pick up pet hairs after a couple of passes. Not swiftly, but it did get there.
Go against the lay of the pile and the floor-head simply balled up pet hairs without picking much up. Taking the VC5 repeatedly over the same area just made the hair into bigger rolls that continued to stick tenaciously to the carpet. Clearly, this isn't a great choice for carpeted homes with pets.
Ironically then, on hard floors the Karcher’s great suction and high airflow did a superb job of sweeping in stray hairs and rolling fur balls. The excellent side suction from the main floor-head ensures that no hairs can take refuge up against the skirting, and there are no nylon bristles on the head for the hairs to get caught on.
The overriding problem the VC5 has with pet hair on any surface is that tiny bin. When tackling pet hairs it becomes full very quickly. Unless you have a hamster, any furry friend much larger than that is going to present the Karcher with a real pet hair challenge.
The VC5 Premium is a great concept in compact vacuuming for the smaller home. It’s flexible, lightweight, powerful and works very well on carpets, but the execution is far from polished. There are a few niggling design issues that let the whole package down.
The bin is way too small to be practical, the filtration system needs regular cleaning (despite what the manual says), hard-floor results are polar opposites depending on the type of debris and, for want of a simple valve on the bin, there are circumstances where the debris will fall straight back out.
The VC5 is an excellent compact cleaner that's let down by a series of frustrating design flaws.