Editor’s Note: Be aware that photos are larger than the usual format.
When I told friends that my European vacation would give me the opportunity to test a few European cars, their reactions fit a certain pattern: “So you’re going to be running around Europe in Porsches and Audis?” they asked. “Can I have your job?”
“No such luck,” I replied. “I’ve got a Hyundai station wagon and a VW minivan lined up.”
And though my friends may have been disappointed, I certainly wasn’t. After all, I expected great things from the Hyundai i40 I had during my first week, and I was actually quite excited to have secured a VW Sharan for week two. After all, I have something of a history with minivans (I drove a Grand Caravan in High School, the only vehicle I’ve ever crashed), and I was looking forward to comparing VW’s new Euro-MPV to its US “counterpart,” the Chrysler-rebadge VW Routan. If VW would rather sell a rebadged Town & Country than the slick little MPV I received straight from Wolfsburg with only 3,500 km on the clock, surely there was a reason. And I was determined to find it out.
VW’s newest Sharan debuted last year as a 2011 model, ditching the B-VX62 platform that had been jointly developed with Ford, in favor of the new MQB modular platform which could eventually underpin as many as 60 models, from subcompacts to “Large MPVs” like the Sharan. Some 11 inches shorter than the Routan and with a wheelbase that’s over six inches shorter, the Sharan would be considered a “Large MPV” only in Europe. On the other hand, it’s no compact minivan either, splitting the difference between the Routan and the newest Mazda5 almost perfectly (11 inches shorter than Routan, 10 inches longer than Mazda5). And it makes the most of that space: though available as base with only five seats, our tester came with the seven-seat option, and though it impinges upon cargo room considerably, the third row is no penalty box. At a little over six foot tall, I could easily occupy the Sharan’s hinterlands for all but the longest hauls, with sufficient headroom and only slightly limited legroom. In short, like the i40, the Sharan’s size alone does not preclude the possibility of US-market service.
And in return for the considerable extra space it gives up to the Routan, the Sharan offers all of the other joys of authentic, Euro-spec Volkswagen goodness. The exterior is, if a bit overly subtle, a far more handsome and complete design than the somewhat awkward Routan. And equipped with adaptive bi-xenon and LED headlights and a gigantic panoramic moonroof, one could almost imagine imagine the schnörkellos Sharan as Audi’s first foray into the world of MPVs. If you think minivans are incapable of being passable for even the most fashionable young families, take a moment to peruse the photos in the gallery below.
Meanwhile, the impressions of quality continue when you step inside. Far from the new world of disappointingly cost-cut interiors in US-market Vee-Dubs like Jetta and Passat, the Sharan’s interior is classic Volkswagen. Dash plastics are yielding to the touch but solidly situated, with only a slightly coarse “grain” on the surfacing giving an impression of less-than-top-notch quality. From the switches to the knobs, from materials to design and assembly, the contrast to American-market VWs can not be mistaken, although they don’t stand out much in pictures. Add optional leather upholstery with suede-alike inserts, VW’s top-of-the-line navigation system, parking sensors and backup camera, fully-electric side sliders and rear hatch, multi-zone climate control, the previously-mentioned panoramic moonroof, heated seats, keyless-go, stop-start, auto-park function and yes, adaptive suspension (!) and this mass-market-branded minivan truly becomes the equal of some Audis (even more so with optional 168 HP TDI engine and AWD). For a price, of course (more on that shortly).
Settle into the driver’s seat, and the first thing you notice is that the driving position is incredibly bus-like. In order to make the most of the Sharan’s (relatively) limited space, you sit high and upright on typically firm seats, while your feet reach down at a sharp angle for the three pedals and you work the long-ish throw shifter with a bit of a trucker-style downward reach. It takes a moment to get used to, especially after a week in the low-slung Hyundai wagon, but the seating position gives a commanding view of the road, and thanks to a tall roof, there’s still a vaulted cathedral worth of headroom above. All in all, then, there’s no mistaking that you’re driving a minivan, albeit a somewhat smaller, considerably more premium phenotype of the species than those we’re accustomed to in the United States.
Press in the clutch and poke the starter button, and the 140 HP version of VW’s 2.0 TDI engine rumbles subtly to life. If the i40 astounded with the refinement of its diesel engine, the Sharan made me forget almost entirely that we were driving under oil-burning power. Only the diesel’s distinctive torque and unwillingness to rev (and some clatter on cold morning warm-ups) betrayed the dieselness of this altogether capable little lump. With only 236 lb-ft to motivate some 4,300 lbs, progress was not exactly brisk, but performance was considerably more satisfying than the numbers suggest (11.4 seconds 0-100km)… and on the autobahn it had no trouble cruising at triple-digit (MPH) speeds.
Inevitably, however, the Sharan’s aerodynamics and weight conspired to push reported fuel economy way down in both high-speed cruising and brisk driving on mountain roads. Though rated at 5.4 l/100km in “extraurban” driving, the Sharan’s observed economy was rarely below 6 l/100km (~40 MPG), and often registered as high as 9 l/100km (26 MPG). On the other hand, higher numbers often came at some altitude, when climbing hills and cruising at higher speeds… still, after the Hyundai’s remarkably consistent economy, the Sharan was not as frugal as I might have hoped. On the other hand, stop-start helped urban fuel economy, and in typical European driving the 6.2 l/100km (~38 MPG) “combined” rating seemed highly achievable. Not bad for a seven-seater minivan.
Behind the wheel of such a full-fat, Euro-focused minivan, I will admit to having harbored some hope that the Sharan would be a dynamic revelation compared to the typically saggy-bouncy-leany style of the typical American minivan. Initial impressions, however, proved that my expectations were way out of line. Steering feel seemed nearly American-light at first, and though the suspension didn’t outright wallow, it certainly allowed far more lean than I had expected. Combined with a relatively high curb weight, the soft suspension provides great ride comfort and stability at speed, but also lets things to fall apart miserably in corners. The steering lacked precision and front-end bite, while the soft, well-laden chassis struggled to stay on the same page as the driver’s inputs when pushed even slightly. The overall impression was, then, not entirely unlike what any American would expect from a minivan: an emphasis on comfort (albeit with better damping and more manageable size than most US offerings), and a chassis that discourages more than a responsible, familial pace. And unlike my old high school Caravan V6, the power was sufficiently insufficient to reinforce that mode of travel.
At least that’s what I thought until I realized that our tester had the optional adaptive suspension, and that I had been experiencing the Sharan in “normal mode.” Now, I have no idea who in their right mind would spend over a thousand Euros to equip their family-hauler with the choice between “normal,” “comfort,” and “sport” suspension/steering modes (let alone the €770 lowered “sport suspension” which our tester did not have). But thanks to Europe’s build-to-order market, this minivan had a sport mode, and once selected, I left it there for the rest of our time with the Sharan. Though I don’t want to oversell the improvement of firmer damper settings and a bit more steering heft, I have to report that it carried the Sharan across the ineffable border between “sloppy mess” and “I can work with this.” On the descent from the Sella Pass in Northern Italy, where the photos for this review were taken, I had the most fun I’ve ever had in a minivan… well, with my clothes on, anyway. It was subtle, push-by-degrees fun, but at least everything felt like it was working together. Not half bad for a minivan.
But this unexpected revelation held the key to my main impression of the Sharan: all of my favorite things about it are optional. From the giant panorama roof that blessed the cabin with an airy feel and made Dolomite-gawking a dream, to the superb navi system (complete with speed limits), from the sport mode to the third row, and from the excellent headlights to the classy upholstery, all of our Sharan’s many delightful touches come at a cost (with the glaring exception of its high-quality six-speed manual transmission). And the Sharan itself is no cheap thing even without these options: our mid-trim Comfortline Bluemotion with manual transmission started at €33,875, and my attempts to recreate our test vehicle using VW Germany’s online configurator (no Monroney label was provided) show that our tester was essentially a €50,000 vehicle. Even with an Audi badge, a $50,000 pricetag would make this Sharan a non-starter in the US market.
To be perfectly frank, I was hoping to prove that this Sharan could be offered in the US, and that VW’s decision to rebadge a Chrysler was cynical and unnecessary (interestingly, the VW employees who picked up and dropped off the Sharan had no idea that the Routan exists). Certainly I think a minivan of the Sharan’s size could carve out a segment in the US market, but it’s clear that the fine interior, diesel drivetrain and tech-laden equipment levels that European families are willing to pay for would doom our tester in the value-oriented stateside market. That’s a pity, as this Sharan served as a stark contrast to VW’s recent embrace of American-style value, and as a reminder of the positioning that once made VW so popular with American connoisseurs.
Volkswagen provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of (expensive) diesel for this review.