LAKE PLACID, NY — The mid-night blueJetta flies down the narrow, twisty Adiron-dack blacktop mountain road, whipping up a cloud of fine sand from the road's shoulder in its wake.
Not more than a car-length behind, a somewhat gangly, rectangular, forest green EuroVan keeps up, turn for turn and twist for twist. If there is body roll, it's not detectable thanks to improved body rigidity and a highly advanced electronic stability system called ESP. This isAG's latest “re-entry” into the minivan segment — a people mover “for drivers who like to drive.”
Volkswagen's U.S. sales and marketing chief, Frank Maguire, is quick to deny that VW invented the minivan. He leaves that accolade where it rightly belongs — to the formerCorp.
What VW did invent was the passenger van, he says, with the likes of the Microbus that debuted in the 1950s and grew to become a counter-culture icon of the U.S. hippie movement in the 1960s, selling 480,000 units to Baby Boomers between 1967 and 1971.
The Bus evolved into the squared-off Vanagon in 1980. Both were rear-drive with air-cooled rear engines, although Vanagon eventually added a water-cooled engine. And both were woefully underpowered, with Vanagon at a snail-paced 104 hp.
That effort begat the offbeat front-drive EuroVan, introduced in the U.S in the early 1990s. But it departed North America, except for a camper version, after 1994 — still slow and overpriced.
EuroVan reappeared in 1997, and in 1999 added a front-mounted 140-hp 2.8L VR-6 engine, similar to ones used in Passat and Jetta sedans. But at $31,000-plus, it still was underpowered and overpriced.
Now comes the “re-launching” of the '01 EuroVan, called the Caravelle in overseas markets, this time with some $5,100 trimmed from the price tag. A base GLS stickers at $26,200.
Most importantly, it gets the much more powerful, multivalve version of the VR-6, mated to a 4-speed automatic transmission, and it offers a maximum 201 hp and peak torque of 181 lb.-ft. (245 Nm) at 2,500 rpm, compared with 177 lb.-ft. (240 Nm) found in the '00 model. It also offers fully independent front and rear suspension, improved body rigidity, a standard electronic stabilizer, traction control system and standard 4-wheel antilock brakes.
What EuroVan doesn't offer is worth noting — no glove box, side air bags, driver's side sliding side door, standard CD changer or power lift gate. Mileage is unremarkable at 15 mpg city (15.6L/100 km) and 17 mpg (13.8L/100 km) highway.
VW has set modest goals for what it admits is a niche vehicle — 5,000 units in the year's second half and 10,000 in 2002. That's a drop in the bucket in North America whereTown & Country alone sold 11,589 units in April.