THE FIRST incarnation of Volkswagen’s joint-venture MPV, the Sharan, eluded us completely. Its late arrival on the South African market, coupled with low-key marketing, meant that its limited availability was essentially known

only to those in the know. A facelifted version was launched to the world last year, but imports have only recently become available locally, and a top-of-the-range V6 manual was shipped to CAR for testing as soon as the first batch reached our shores.

Comparisons with the previous generation are obviously out of the question,

but it did not take long for Mk 2 to make a strong impression. Sharan is the VW half of a development and manufacturing partnership with Ford, for whom the Galaxy is the equivalent model. Since their global introduction in 1995, the VW has always been one rung further up the marketing ladder, which, on pricing at least, tipped the sales advantage in the direction of the blue oval, although in SA the Galaxy has been a non-starter. Built in Spain, the scheduled facelift of the twins has provided each parent with the opportunity to make its offspring more independent, and VW’s child now has a distinct Teutonic identity.

A nose job has produced a bold, slatted, body-colour grille complete with large VW badge, and bigger headlamps, each incorporating individual projector lenses behind a clear cover. There is only so much you can do to the rear of an MPV without messing up the loading practicality of the tailgate, so the new Sharan was just given revised tail-lights and a different window. Doors and the roof are carry-over items, but the glass-house remains impressively large.

Under the skin are more significant improvements. For now, two engines are available locally, both VW/Audi designs. At entry level there is the familiar turbocharged 1,8-litre four-cylinder 20-valver found in the likes of Golf and A3. Above this is a new more powerful 2,8-litre V6 coupled with either a five-speed Tiptronic autobox or a new six-speed manual, which is the only option on the 1,8T. VW claims an MPV first with the six-speeder variants.

Are half-a-dozen ratios necessary with the V6? After spending a couple of weeks with the test unit, we can understand the logic. A key factor is the Sharan’s weight. Including our test equipment, we recorded 1 797 kg on our scales, with just over a ton carried on the front wheels alone. Add in up to seven passengers and some cargo, and it is clear that the VW needs all the assistance it can get if any sensible performance is to be achieved. The fact that the six ratios allow the driver to play some racy tunes with the V6’s crackling exhaust note was probably unintentional.

The narrow-angle (15 deg) V6 displaces 2 792 cm3 and produces 150 kW at 6 200 r/min and 265 N.m at 3 400. Use the slick-shifting gearbox to exploit the engine’s higher revolutions, and the Sharan sounds and goes like a sporty saloon.

There is more than 210 N.m on tap right through the rev range, and the power delivery is so smooth that it is sometimes easy to forget that you are driving a minibus. There is a refinement about the powertrain that is becoming synonymous with VW, which lends credibility to the company’s avowed intent of competing head-on with Mercedes-Benz.

Despite its weight and frontal area, the Sharan cuts through the air with little wind rush and surprising athleticism. Obviously, it is not designed for traffic light grands prix, and getting it off the line for our performance runs elicited some brutal axle tramp as the desired wheelspin overcame inertia. The benchmark 0-100 km/h came up in a brisk 9,47 seconds, the kilometre marker in 30,42 at 173,6 km/h, and top speed averaged out at 212 km/h. To put these figures into perspective, the Sharan would run neck-to-neck with a current V5 Jetta down the dragstrip. This MPV is no slouch.

Incidentally, we achieved our maximum speed figures in 5th gear, although it

was only a couple of km/h less in 6th. This may suggest that the top gear is like an

overdrive meant for cruising only. In fact, it is the last of a set of well stacked ratios that help keep the Sharan moving briskly under all traffic and load conditions. The gearing also contributes to surprisingly good fuel economy. From our steady speed test results, we calculate that the Sharan should achieve around 11,38 litres/100 km overall, meaning that 600 km or so is possible from a full tank of unleaded. Open any of the big, wide-opening doors and step inside the cabin. The ambience oozes quality, although the test vehicle’s all black leather trim added a sombre tone. Come on Wolfsburg, it IS possible to be classy and cheerful.

Nevertheless, there is a solid, well-hewn feel to the ixtures and fittings that gives passengers a sense of comfort and security. There are seven individual seats, the fronts being fixed in position and more generously proportioned than the remainder. But the three middle and

two rear chairs are far from being utilitarian, each having some fore/aft and backrest angle adjustment as well as height adjustable head restraints.

Only the middle row centre seat does not have provision for a removable and

angle-adjustable armrest on each side, but the passenger can share the inboard armrests of the outer seats. Fold down any of the backrests and a large flat moulded tray is presented. With each seat being removable, the seating/cargo

permutations cater for practically any requirement. To compensate for loads,

headlamp beam height can be adjusted from a dial on the facia.

The only glitch in this versatility is that the retractable cargo cover can only be used with the rearmost seats either removed (where do you put them?) or with their backrest folded flat, which obviously restricts load capacity.

Presumably, following the Opel Zafira’s innovative fold-flat-into-the-floor feature was not viable as part of the model facelift exercise. As it is, then, with all seats in place, 256 dm3 of our ISO-standard blocks can be packed under the cargo cover. Remove all the chairs and utility space measures 2 108 dm3. Floor height is 620 mm, and the tailgate rises to 1 975 mm. The full-size spare wheel is located under the chassis, and is a fiddle to deal with. Separate from the central locking, the big tailgate can be opened with a key, and the latch is electrically assisted.

Sitting up front, lumbar and cushion height adjustment is available together with seat warmers. The facia top is as big as a parking lot and houses two useful lidded compartments, but the predominantly dimpled surface avoids distracting reflections on the steeply raked windscreen. What is visible in the glass, albeit barely so, are the fine-wire heating elements that effectively demist the screen. The “clap hands” wiper action is an unusual feature today, but the giant blades do sweep most of the ‘screen. But like most of its ilk, bodywork ahead of the base of the windscreen has to be allowed for firstly by guesswork, then by experience.

Driving position is car-like, the rake- and reach-adjustable steering wheel being of average diameter. There is plenty of space in the footwell, and the gearshift falls readily to hand. Instrumentation includes an oil temperature gauge and a voltmeter in addition to the regular gauges, and together with all the controls are illuminated at night with VW’s brash, but effective, “acid rock” violet and red backlighting. However, the graphics on the speedometer and rev counter are fussily presented around the very edge of the dials, and the speedo’s increments change at the 100 km/h mark. Exterior mirrors and door glass are electrically operated, as is the rear side glass – but, oddly, only on the driver’s side. On the opposite side it is fixed…

VW has included ESP (Electronic Stability Program) in the spec, which also

includes an electronic diff lock and traction control. Under normal circumstances, though, an MPV’s natural tendency to roll through corners, coupled with the Sharan’s inherent understeer, will dampen any attempt to push the limits of roadholding. Any passengers on board will doubtless voice their disapproval, too.

In truth, the Sharan’s dynamics are relatively good, with firm but compliant springing. Pitch and yaw are well controlled. Steering is sensibly light with 3,2 turns lock to lock, but sensitive around the straight-ahead, which can be annoying when dealing with crosswinds. An 11,7-metre turning circle needs consideration during tight manoeuvring. The all-disc ABS brakes are superb.

Plus features include dual front airbags, a climate control system with separate front to rear temperature settings and vents in the roof lining feeding the middle and rear seats, an excellent VW Gamma audio system with 10 speakers, the customary VW trip computer, cruise control, plenty of oddments stowage including useful bins in all side doors, and an abundance of courtesy lights. Surprisingly, conventional drink holders are limited to a couple of pop-out units in the facia.