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EuroVan: a comfy camper

VW may have missed the minivan boat, but new vehicle still floats

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It must drive corporate CEOs nuts when their company beats the competition to market with a new product and then lets it slip away to the point where everyone forgets they had it first.

IBM is a good example. It invents this new gadget called a personal computer back in the 1980s but fails to follow through and ends up missing out on a really big slice of the information-revolution pie.

Or how about Volkswagen. In the 1950s it comes up with an idea for a small vehicle that will haul more passengers and cargo than a sedan, calls it a Microbus, and sells a ton of them through the 1960s, mainly to hippies who slap peace signs on them and bumper stickers declaring such witticisms as, "Don't laugh. Your daughter may be in here!"

But then VW seems to lose interest in the Microbus, and a decade or so later Chrysler Corp. comes out with something it calls a minivan and families line up to buy them.

Go figure. The Microbus becomes the symbol of youthful drugs and decadence, and the minivan defines American family values.

VW changed the body style in the '70s, making it a tad bigger and the rear-mounted, air-cooled engine more powerful — lack of go having always been a major complaint, even from hippies. Then, in 1980, it introduced a total redo of the Microbus which it called the Vanagon (van-wagon, get it?).

But then minivan mania got under way in the United States, and the Vanagon couldn't keep up with the new versions. By the time a more modern VW bus appeared in 1993 as the EuroVan, the Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager dominated the market, and every manufacturer, not just VW, was playing catch-up. VW withdrew from the U.S. van wars for a few years and then in 1999 returned with a bigger, more powerful EuroVan.

Which, with a few improvements, is what it offers for 2001. Unfortunately, the company's timing is still off because minivan mania has given way to the great SUV/pickup revolution, and VW doesn't have any of those, although its Jetta and Passat sedans and New Beetle coupe are selling well.

One version of the VW minivan that has done well over the years — mainly because it hasn't had any competition in this size niche — is the camper conversion, which morphed the people hauler into a baby Winnebago.

This week's test ride is one of those . . . sort of. VW still makes a full-blown camper version of its EuroVan (converted, appropriately enough, by Winnebago), but this isn't it. The EuroVan MV (for "multivan") with the "Weekender" package lies somewhere between the regular van and the camper conversion.

There is no stove, sink or fridge (although there is a small underseat cooler), but the rear seat folds out into a reasonable approximation of a double bed and the roof pops up to create another bed for one adult or two kids. The package also offers a fold-down table between the middle and rear seats, screens for the rear sliding windows, a second battery and some additional power outlets. Seating is generous for seven adults.

With or without the Weekender package, the EuroVan MV and GLS (a less luxurious model) have nothing in common with their flower-power ancestor of the '60s. For one thing, it's a lot bigger; bigger even than the Dodge Grand Caravan, and its four-valve-per-cylinder version of VW's VR6 engine churns out 201 horsepower and 181 foot pounds of torque.

This translates into cruising up over Parley's Summit with five adults on board at freeway speeds and passing power to spare, something you would never have accomplished in past versions. It also means passengers have lavish head, hip, leg and shoulder room. In a word, the EuroVan is cavernous.

With its two rear-facing captain's chairs and three-across front-facing rear seat, it's like sitting in your living room, only the view out the windows always changes.

For a tall, boxy van, the EuroVan handles quite well on both paved and unpaved (Guardsman's Pass) roads, although it would no doubt be a handful in a strong crosswind, as are all vans. It has an amazingly tight turning radius, which makes it quite maneuverable, and the once awkward driving position has been improved with a smaller and more vertical (less "buslike") steering wheel.

The ergonomics were good, and everything worked smoothly with the exception of the floor-mounted shifter for the 4-speed automatic transmission, which was hard to reach, balky and uncharacteristic of German precision engineering (the EuroVan is built in Hanover, Germany).

Comfort and convenience features include all the usual suspects, such as power windows (with auto up and down), AC, remote locking, lots of cup holders, a pollen/dust filter for the ventilation system, a stereo system, a stability control system called ESP and an anti-slip program called ASR.

Base price for the EuroVan MV is $27,700. The Weekender option on my tester added $3,235, "Colorado red pearl paint" was $265 extra, and heated front seats were a $400 option. With destination charges the bottom line came to $32,225.

That's pretty steep compared to the competition, especially for a vehicle that is way down on most Americans' list when it comes time to go minivan shopping, although the camper/Weekender options separate it from the pack.

Fuel mileage is rated at 17 mpg in city driving and 20 on the highway, but the 21.1-gallon gas tank affords it a range of more than 400 miles.

E-MAIL: max@desnews.com