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The Vanagon features completly new front suspension using unequal-length A-arms, variable-rate coil springs, tube shocks and an anti-roll bar in place of the previous trailing arms and torsion bars. The rear suspension no longer features torsion bars, but now uses progressive- rate coil springs with semi-trailing arms and tube shocks.. The all- independent suspension provides handling characteristics that are better than one might expect when looking at this box on wheels. There is a goodly amount of body roll during hard cornering, but the wider track provides a sure-footedness on winding roads that is perfectly respectable. Even at relatively high speeds - 80-plus mph - the Vanagon is very stable and the rack-and-pinion steering is quite precise and provides the driver with a good feel for what the front wheels are doing. Even without power-assist, the steering effort is never too heavy and low-speed maneuvering is not a muscle-flexing chore.
Volkswagen's chassis engineers have achieved a pleasant balance between the ride and handling characteristics. There is compliance and abundant wheel travel, resulting in a ride that is firm, controlled and yet still comfortable, without the jarring aspects common to U.S. vans with solid rear axles. Dips and rough stretches of pavement are not cause for alarm and the Vanagon acquits itself very well indeed when the going gets tough.
One of the characteristics of driving a van that can be somewhat unsettling to the novice is that you sit quite high. While that's great for observing what's taking place around you, it can be a bit disconcerting in hard cornering or heavy braking situations. No cause to worry in the VW, however, as we found the control excellent in our simulated panic stops from 60 mph. The brakes were easily modulated to maintain maximum effectiveness and there was virtually no tendency for either front or rear brakes to lock during this test. The distance, 165 ft, was very good, and the amount of fade in our six stops from 60 mph was not excessive, with pedal pressure going from 28 lb to 38 by the sixth stop. The pedal pressure was nearing the limit of effective- ness by that point, however. Thus the Vanagon didn't earn an "excellent" overall brake rating, but it does merit a "very good." Unfortunately, the Vanagon's leisurely rate of acceleration above 60 mph prevented us from doing our panic-stop test from 80 mph because of lack of straightaway at the test track.
In keeping with Volkswagen's stated purpose of offering a combination of van and station wagon in the Vanagon, the interior design, finish and accommodation blend in a pleasing mixture of van and car. Several staff members commented that driving the Vanagon was similar to being at the wheel of a Rabbit, and that this latest Transporter is more like a car than a bus.
The interior is nicely finished with only an occasional sign of cost-saving in materials. There is carpeting that has a nice look and helps with sound deadening, but in our test model it was not fastened down securely in a couple of spots. The vinyl used for seat covering and door panels, as well as other surfaces, seems to be of high quality, has a nice appearance and should hold up well based on previous experience with VW vans and cars.
There are a number of small touches to the Vanagon interior that we appreciate, such as the five passenger- assist handles at strategic locations for ingress/egress, a deep, usable glovebox, map pockets in the front doors, day/night mirror and vent windows up front.
The individual front seats have a 25-percent greater range of adjustment, according to VW, and can be adjusted for seatback angle. The rear bench seats are comfortable and in our particular test model will accommodate five passengers in luxury. Another seating layout accommodates nine people, while the Kombi version has two front seats and a relatively sparse cargo area which the buyer can arrange to his liking; the Westfalia-Werke Camper model is fitted with a convertible sofa bed, table, cabinets and a pantry, while the deluxe camper has a refrigerator and a 2-burner stove.
In addition to the greater cargo space behind the rear seat, the new Vanagon's interior roominess has been enhanced by a combination of lowering the floor and more spare roof design, with the result that the entire interior seems cavernous and airy. Also, the middle bench seat can be removed and the rear one folded down to add another 72.3 cu ft of cargo volume (by our measurement technique which still leaves adequate rear vision once packed). For walking around room, ferrying all the kids in the neighborhood to the playground or setting up a commuter carpool, the Vanagon is the ideal choice.
We had quite a mystery for a short spell when it came to the ventilation system -- it turns out that a 3-speed fan for boosting airflow is optional, which seems downright stingy in a nearly $10,000 vehicle. Our test model didn't have the fan, so heat is distributed by heat exchangers and engine revs only. Fresh air ventilation is effective through well placed dash outlets but they don't carry heated air. And there is virtually no air movement, fresh or heated, when the Vanagon is staionary. Nearly all of our drivers praised the Vanagon's driving position and control layout, although one commented that he would like the shift lever bent back toward the driver a little more. Sitting up so high combined with the increase window glass area gives the driver a marvelous panoramic view.
The driver doesn't sit quite as close to the absolute front limit of the van as with previous models, because more than 3.0 in. have been added ahead of the front wheels along with a larger bumper for greater crash protection. The noise level is quite low for a van, aided by the rear location of the engine and the excellent job of sealing around doors and windows.
All in all, the Vanagon is a major improvement over its predecessors and, in our opinion, maintains VW's position as the manufacturer of the world's leading van. During the period when we were testing the Vanagon, we also had occasion to drive several U.S.-built vans and we found them lacking in the level of sophistication that distinguishes the Vanagon. Admittedly, the domestic vans do have a price advantage of roughly $1000-$2000 when equipped in a similar fashion, but direct comparison is impossible because of the major design differences. The VW's independent suspension, effective use of space, quality of fit and finish -- even something that seems as simple as the sliding side door, which works so smoothly on the VW and is so ponderous on the domestics -- are features that have endeared VW van owners to this box on wheels for years.
The Vanagon version, while it may take some getting used to and perhaps lack some of the charm of the older, softer, more rounded design, is a vehicle with the attributes of its predecessors and innovations of the future. While its level of acceleration may deter those who seek more abundant horsepower, and its fuel efficiency is no longer head and shoulders above the domestics (thanks to reduced engine displacements and fuel-economy-designed gear ratio combinations in American vans), the Volkswagen Vanagon represents the state of the art in van design and execution. And, perhaps more importantly, sets the standard for multi-purpose vehicles that are sure to come in the years ahead. There seems to be little doubt that current domestic van configurations are going to be changing, and that several Japanese manufacturers are considering small-scale utility vehicles that can carry five or more passengers and luggage. The VW van, as it has been since its inception, is clearly the leader in technological development in its class.