Vanning was a big lifestyle thing in the Sixties and Seventies. The very idea of having a van embodied the free spiritedness of the generation—the ability to park anywhere and have a place to sleep along with your significant other, your most valued earthly possessions, and that groovy orange shag carpet on the floor.
But what happened? Fuel economy and inflation killed the craze, people moved to smaller cars, and driving a big, clumsy truck-based full-size van went from far out to just plain uncool.
Beginning with the original Microbus, VW was a segment pioneer, offering an economical alternative to gas-guzzling full-size vans with nearly as much interior space, unique packaging, and even more flexibility. The simple VW camper van lives on as a variation of the modern front-engined, liquid-cooled EuroVan lineup, and after a price reduction last year it’s now surprisingly affordable, versatile, powerful, and economical.
The EuroVan MV Weekender we tested proved a most amiable partner for a weekend camping trip—and sort of stylish, too, in its own boxy offbeat way.Better VR6 gives EuroVan spirit
When the EuroVan was introduced in the U.S. for 1993, it was criticized as severely underpowered. Its coarse 109-hp five-cylinder engine could barely propel the 4000-pound-plus EuroVan safely (especially the even heavier camper versions), and passing was simply out of the question.
2002 Volkswagen EurovanEnlarge Photo
2001 Volkswagen EuroVan
Now, VW finally has the formula right, installing a four-valve-per-cylinder version of the VR6 that offers the best of both worlds and enough power for the EuroVan to be competitive with V-6 minivans and SUVs. The new four-valve VR6 is an excellent powerplant and is better than the car-tuned and van-tuned two-valve versions of the engine. The added breathing brings ample low-speed torque and high-rev gusto to the engine’s already strong mid-rev performance. We can’t wait to see this new VR6 spread through the rest of the VW lineup.
The four-speed automatic gearbox rushes through the gears, in typical German fashion, unless you have the throttle nearly wide open, but that’s fine because of the new VR6’s flexibility at low revs. The transmission downshifts quickly for full-throttle passes when needed.
Throttle tip-in with the new engine seems a bit extreme. Gentle takeoffs from a standing start were difficult (never thought I’d be saying this about a VW van!). The touchy gas pedal might make some situations difficult—like pulling a small boat out of a launch or pulling gently up a loose gravel driveway.Tall but not tipsy
The front-wheel-drive EuroVan is by no means a sporty vehicle, but it has no problems with a twisty road. It handles almost as well as car-based minivans, which is a lot to say, and overall the handling is more car-like and communicative than other truck-based vans. The somewhat stiff suspension does an admirable job of keeping the tall, heavy body under control and the tires in contact with the road.
Handling is predictably prone to severe understeer in tight corners, with the nose wanting to plow heavily ahead, but there’s none of the weird front-to-back weight shifting that happens on curvy roads with domestic full-size vans like the Ford Econoline. The EuroVan’s standard ESP stability control system comes to aid if you ever do push it a little too hard into a corner.
2001 Volkswagen EuroVan
The other time that you really do feel the EuroVan’s weight is in braking. The four-wheel disc brakes are good and perfectly fine for scrubbing off speed in a hurry—with good modulation and pedal feel—but in abrupt braking you can really feel the weight shift and the vehicle nosedive a bit.
While the EuroVan’s boxy shape might make for an amazing amount of interior space in a modestly sized footprint, you pay the price for the boxiness battling with the wind. The EuroVan is quite susceptible to crosswinds and wanders a lot on the highway. You’d push your luck holding your cell phone and eating a burger while driving on a windy day. With the camper top, the wind noise is quite noticeable above 60 miles per hour, but it’s never that bad. A thick rubber strip at the front of the van guides most of the breeze away from the front seal of the camper area, but some air inevitably makes it past.
Parking and maneuvering around town is remarkably easy. The driver sits positioned over the front wheels, giving a good perspective of how much space there is in front. With a 115-inch wheelbase and 188.5-inch length, the EuroVan MV is less bulky than an extended-wheelbase minivan. The EuroVan’s 43.3-foot turning radius is also quite amazing, considering the size of the vehicle.
The driving position, however, is far from car-like. The tall seats, sharp vertical slope of the windshield, and horizontally angled steering wheel give it a delivery-van feel that takes some getting used to, but after a few hours the raked-forward position feels comfortable. The driver and passenger seats are extremely comfortable for long trips, allowing occupants to stretch their legs downward.
Otherwise, the EuroVan’s seating arrangement features two rearward-facing single seats in the second row (which curiously share headrests with the front seats) and then a forward-facing three-person bench seat in the third row. A small table folds out between the bench seat and one of the second-row seats, such that people can play cards while traveling and wearing their seatbelts.
2001 Volkswagen EuroVan
Our EuroVan’s Weekender package (a $3235 option on the uplevel MV model) included a list of basic camper features, like a refrigerator/cooler box (with enough space for a picnic lunch and a couple of drinks) built in to the base of one of the rearward-facing rear seats, a heavy duty alternator and auxiliary battery for camping accessories, screen side windows with curtains, and, most importantly, a pop-up roof camper area above that can sleep two.
The rooftop pop-up camper area, a feature unique among new vehicles, allows a full seven feet of headroom in the van when the bed is removed, and with the van in place it still allows occupants to sit in the main cabin while the bed above is set up. The bed itself, which we did test for a night, is comfortable but could be a bit tight for obese occupants or those who tend to be a bit claustrophobic. Tent-like, mesh-material flaps, along with sliding side screen windows down below, allow excellent ventilation, though.
If the Weekender package isn’t enough and you want the sort of vehicle you could live in, a Winnebago conversion is also available as a special-order package through VW dealers. The Camper adds a second bed, sink and countertop, storage cabinets, and a gas stove.
Despite the new 201-hp VR6’s plentiful power on tap, the EuroVan seems to get better gas mileage than with the two-valve, 140-hp version of the engine. While in similar driving conditions two years ago, I barely managed to crack 16 miles per gallon in a ’99 EuroVan. This new EuroVan managed 19 or 20 mpg in mostly highway driving—better than most SUVs and not any worse than most V-6 minivans.A deal versus minivans
Overall, the new EuroVan is a very pleasant surprise, a versatile, maneuverable van that can be driven on the commute every day and used as a spirited weekend getaway vehicle. At a price of $32,225 for our test vehicle (an MV with the optional Weekender package, heated front seats, and red pearl paint), it’s a real deal and cheaper than luxuriously trimmed ordinary minivans. Though a decade through its product cycle, with the new VR6 and numerous tweaks along the way, VW has turned the feel of the EuroVan from agricultural to sporty, and it just feels like they have the formula right.
Volkswagen EuroVan MV
Price: $27,700 base, $32,225 as tested
Engine: 2.8-liter V-6, 201 hp
Transmission: Four-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 115.0 in
Length: 188.5 in
Width: 72.4 in
Height: 76.4 in
Curb Weight: 4474 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 17/20 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, stability control system, anti-lock brakes
Major standard features: Air conditioning, keyless entry, rear wiper/washer, power windows, locks, and mirrors, cruise control, front fog lamps, foldout table
Warranty: Two years/24,000 miles