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Exclusive: Rethinking Minivans from Around the World

International auto shows have introduced a round of attractive new vans that, sadly, won't come to this country

Dan Carney
Feb 24, 2005
Photographers: The Manufacturers
While DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler Group claims to have invented the minivan, in actuality, many companies from around the world have sold compact and midsize vans for decades. Some of these were primarily cargo and commercial vehicles, but many of them, like Volkswagen's ubiquitous Microbus, were family haulers--if not in the U.S., then at least in their home countries.

International auto shows in Frankfurt and Tokyo introduced a round of attractive new vans that, sadly, won't come to this country. Consumers who like the practicality of a van--and aren't so ego-bound that they can't be seen in one--would enjoy the opportunity to choose among these sleek, stylish, and lavishly equipped machines, but for now we'll just have to hope these vans will influence vehicles sold here.
Volkswagen, appropriately, led the way with the introduction of the new Multivan (which was called the EuroVan in the U.S.). Unfortunately, this cool new wagon won't be coming here either, as VW aims to attract those customers with the Touareg in the short term and the retro-styled New Bus later. The Multivan is fairly expensive and most likely wouldn't be popular enough to justify the expense of completing the necessary federal crash and emissions certifications.Our loss. The handsome new van bears a family resemblance to the old model (discontinued in the U.S. for 2004), but is more tautly drawn and expensively outfitted. The Multivan comes in three normal trim levels--Basic, Comfortline, and Highline--plus an ultraluxurious, outrageously expensive $120,000 Business model.
Photo 2/6   |   Honda ASM ConceptEngine: DOHC V-6 with cylinder deactivation and hybrid/electric motor assistLength, in: 190.6Width, in: 72.1Height, in: 70.5Wheelbase, in: 114.2Weight, lb: 4080
The Multivan retains its popular pop-top camper option, and an available driver-side sliding door means the rear table now sprouts from the floor, rather than flipping up from the left side wall. Auxiliary heat is available to keep the Multivan toasty warm inside when the engine is off.The Business model is outfitted with an electric folding table, phone, and fax. There's also a 15-inch LCD video monitor mounted to the ceiling, which folds down to display DVDs or computer presentations.
The Multivan's truly unique innovation is the available Digital Voice Enhancement system, which uses microphones throughout the vehicle to pick up voices and replay them through the van's sound-system speakers. That means drivers can converse with rear-seat occupants without turning around or shouting. It also works with the built-in phone system as a vehicle-wide speakerphone, so everyone aboard can participate in the conversation.Another feature we like is the six-speed manual transmission mated to an easy-to-reach stubby dash-mounted shifter. A six-speed automatic is also available, with power from four- and five-cylinder diesels and four- and six-cylinder gas engines. Front drive is retained from the previous model.
Photo 3/6   |   Mercedes-Benz VaneoEngine: SOHC I-4Displacement, L: 1.9Horsepower, hp: 125Torque, lb-ft: 133Length, in: 165.6Width, in: 68.5Height, in: 72.6Wheelbase, in: 124.2Weight, lb: 3152
Photo 4/6   |   Mercedes-Benz VianoEngine: DOHC V-6Displacement, L: 3.2Horsepower, hp: 218Torque, lb-ft: 225Length, in: 196.9Width, in: 75.2Height, in: 76.0Wheelbase, in: 126.0Weight, lb: 4695
Mercedes-Benz offers two vans in foreign markets: the Viano full-size and the Vaneo compact van. Like the VW, the M-B vans feature sleek styling that's inherently European. The larger Viano carries as many as seven occupants and is available in standard and extended versions. Both use the company's 3.2-liter V-6 and put power through the rear wheels.

The compact Vaneo, on the other hand, uses a 1.9-liter four-cylinder engine driving through the front wheels. In keeping with Mercedes practice, even though this model is the entry-level machine in the company's line of vans, it still includes safety features such as brake assist, stability control, and anti-lock brakes.
Naturally, Japanese automakers showed some interesting vehicles in Tokyo. Honda unveiled its home-market Odyssey, which resembles the station-wagonesque first-generation Odyssey we had in the U.S. before the hugely popular van arrived in 1999. The low-slung wagon features three rows of seats and could appeal to van and SUV buyers, except that it's powered by a four-cylinder engine and isn't designed to accept the V-6, something such a large vehicle would need in the U.S. With enough consumer interest, the company might find a way to bring the wagon here.
Meanwhile, the company showed a true van as a concept called the ASM. This vehicle is smaller than the U.S. Odyssey, and officials say the van's styling doesn't preview the 2005 Odyssey arriving in the U.S. later this year.
Toyota showed a new Japanese-market van called the Alphard in hybrid/electric form. The vehicle is nearly as large as the U.S.-market Sienna and rides on the same platform as the Highlander and RX 330. The most unique aspect of the hybrid van was a 1500-watt AC outlet that'll give owners the ability to power a refrigerator from their van during a blackout. Look for this to attract buyers as much as the fuel economy.
Photo 5/6   |   Toyota AlphardEngine: SOHC I-4/F, electric/RDisplacement, L: 2.4Horsepower, hp: 96/40Torque, lb-ft: 190/19.4Length, in: 190.5Width, in: 71.1Height, in: 76.2Wheelbase, in: 114.2Weight, lb: 4409
Photo 6/6   |   VW MultivanEngine: DOHC VR6Displacement, L: 3.2Horsepower, hp: 231Torque, lb-ft: 232Length, in: 192.5Width, in: 75.0Height, in: 76.6Wheelbase, in: 157.5Weight, lb: 5068



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