By Andy Bannister
It’s a dubious honour to be selling one of the oldest car designs still in production, but that doesn’t seem to bother Volkswagen. In Europe, the German company is still soldiering on with its big MPV, now about to enter its 15th year of existence.
The oddly named seven-seat Sharan never made it to North America, but occupies roughly the same territory which will be served by the Chrysler-derived Routan over there.
The Sharan started life way back in 1995 as part of a joint venture with Ford of Europe called Autoeuropa. Ford made its own version, the Galaxy, at the same plant in Portugal, newly built for the purpose to benefit from the lower wages paid in southern Europe. Arguably quality hasn’t been up to the standard of some other VW models.
Ford finally pulled the plug in 2006 on the venture , building in its Belgian plant a much more modern second-generation Galaxy entirely of its own making, together with the related S-Max. The obvious superiority of its one-time partner’s new designs hasn’t stopped VW grimly persevering with churning out the same outdated model.
A badge-engineered sister model to the Sharan also remains in production for the Spanish Seat company. Called the Seat Alhambra, and launched in 1996, this is a slightly more budget option in the large MPV market.
The Sharan name is derived from a Persian/Iranian word which apparently means “carrier of kings” although it raised a few eyebrows when it was first unveiled in the UK. Sharan’s closeness to the girl’s name Sharon – perceived as relentlessly downmarket as the result of a working-class character in a popular TV comedy – led many to suggest it would be renamed for the British market, but VW stuck with the original moniker and sales didn’t seem to unduly suffer duly.
In fact, VW has always marketed the Sharan as a cut above rival products, even selling a posh version with the Carat tag implying something about a gold standard. Despite a number of facelifts and specification shuffles, however, it has been harder and harder for the company to maintain the fiction that the Sharan is worth its quite substantial price tag.
With their resolutely 1990s styling which was unadventurous even at launch, the Sharan and Alhambra look very out of place in a modern showroom. Many buyers simply assume they are looking at a used rather than brand-new model.
VW customers in Europe have a much more contemporary, if smaller, offering in the shape of that company’s resolutely square Touran model, whilst in Seat showrooms a sighting of the Alhambra at least offers a welcome momentary respite from the eyesores which make up the rest of the oddly-styled Seat MPV range.
Inside, the Sharan remains spacious and practical, but poor access to the third row of seats is a big drawback. The switchgear is familiarly VW, but let down by fairly low-grade plastic. A wide range of engines are offered from 1.8 to 2.8 litres, with diesel versions particularly popular in Europe.
To keep the plant in Portugal busy it now also makes VW’s low-volume Eos convertible and the new Scirocco sports car. Rumours continue to suggest a Sharan replacement could finally roll out in late 2009, probably based on a Passat platform.
Trouble is, sales of bigger MPVs have taken a severe knock lately in Europe thanks to higher fuel prices and the level of CO2 they emit, which now dictates sometimes punitive annual taxation rates in some countries.
In response, VW and Seat have even wheeled out “new” versions of their old stagers, the pared-down, slightly lower emission Sharan BlueMotion and Alhambra Ecomotive. Few buyers have been fooled, however.
As for the home-grown competition, Renault has already admitted it will not replace its class-leading large European MPV, the Espace, and sales of another ageing joint venture, the Peugeot 807 (also sold as the Citroën C8, Fiat Ulysse and Lancia Phedra) are fading fast too
Maybe Volkswagen should reassess why it thinks the North American Routan is unsuitable for Europe. After all, it would be a cheap way to add a new model to its Euro range with minimal development costs.
Chrysler’s Voyager design is popular and well-respected in Europe, so buyer resistance seems unlikely, even if the current speculation about Chrysler’s future is hardly a help just now.
Such a move would also end the embarrassment of making an elderly model stagger on even further past its sell-by date.
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