Roll up for the Magical Minivan Tour.

Noise, Vibration & Harshness

Because it’s been forever since we all went away together, I recently proposed to the nuclear Kitman clan that Oxymoron Hall of Fame first balloter, a European summer vacation for the whole family. I threw it open to the voters knowing that I would need to exercise diplomacy and Solomonic skill to address their diverse preferences and concerns while still reserving the executive veto power so crucial to the success of any trip on which I was going to be doing all the driving and paying all the bills.

The grand compromise reached by the Kitmanian nation-states was a thirteen-day, interurban journey, with long drives in a fast car connecting stops in historic, culturally uplifting German, Czech, and Italian cities. At each destination, we’d park the car for the duration of our stay and walk. Or avail ourselves of diverse subway, tram, trolley, and bus options, these being the extreme preferences of our youngest, Milo, lately turned four.

Obsessed by public transport, like so many members of his seemingly socialist much-younger generation, the lad is a latter-day New Dealer, a boisterous supporter of government enterprises like mass transit and fire and police departments. He’s behind every military, emergency, and waste-management operation he’s ever seen and considers himself an expert on all matters postal. He’s the pro-growth candidate who likes airplanes, rockets, and stuffed animals.

Which reminds me of a country-western song, “Misty Island Rescue (Here We Go),” from the Thomas the Tank Engine website. Thanks to the wonders of smartphones, Milo watched it, and we heard it, whenever he wanted. Think country fiddling, then install the following in your brain and let cycle for thirteen days:

Misty Island Rescue, here we go (here we go!)
Misty Island Rescue, here we go (here we go!)
With boilers all a-bubblin’
The engines are a-comin’
Misty Island Rescue, here we go (here we go!)
(Repeat, interminably.)

Berlin, Prague, Munich, Genoa, and Rome, with unplanned meal stops in Trento and Pisa. And all any of us could think of was (and is) “Misty Island Rescue, here we go.”

The fast car for our grand vacance turned out to be a Volkswagen Sharan TDI, a Euro-size minivan that VW kept out of America years ago, honoring a deal with onetime minivan partner Ford (the Sharan and the European Ford Galaxy that launched in 1995 shared almost everything), the idea being to protect Ford Windstar sales. Ah, the Windstar. Flyweight that it was, it blew away, and the Sharan’s stateside exclusion then became attributable to Wolfsburg’s brainstorm to go with a rebadged Chrysler minivan marketed as the Routan.

Minivans sound dull and the Sharan is no Golf R, but it really does feel like a Volkswagen, and a nice one at that. Rather small by American standards, on the roads of Europe the Sharan passes as fairly large. And its 2.0-liter turbo-diesel is plenty good, brisk and quiet enough to propel us down unrestricted German autobahn for hours at speeds exceeding 110 mph. With a reassuring chassis, steering quicker and more engaging than ordinary, and dedicated summer tires, it probably handled better than any minivan we’ve ever driven while offering comfortable seating for six and room for our luggage. Most important, in the land of $7.50-a-gallon diesel and $130 fill-ups, the Sharan treated us to an overall average of 35 mpg. What’s not for Americans to like?

Yes, there were the twenty minutes we spent trapped in the back streets of medieval Pisa, sent down a procession of dead-ends and blocked alleyways and then into a complicated pedestrian-only area by an insistent dashboard robot whose deep confusion attracted the strong disapproval of the local population.

Still, it’s a wonder that VW says it can’t sell the Sharan in the States. The real truth is probably closer to this: the Routan won’t do the brand a whit of good, but VW thinks it’s more profitable than selling the European alternative. VW bosses also think Americans don’t know any better.

They may be right. We have not really cottoned yet to the compact-people-mover concept, the kind of multiconfigurable, slightly bulbous, but still not overlarge vehicle that the rest of the world adores. The practical shape makes a ton of sense and could well become more popular here as strict fuel-economy requirements force epochal changes in vehicle design and structure. VW could own that market; maybe fewer SUVs and a few more of these could help the company meet the Olympian sales targets it has set for itself.

To my surprise and delight, the older kids really responded to the European capitals. Their erudite commentary on architecture, history, and art, whether standing among Roman ruins or modern art museums, along with the ability to make themselves understood in Italian, were a testament to Orangeburg, New York’s Tappan Zee High School. At mealtimes, they sampled the local fare wholeheartedly. Yet what seemed to impress them most was the sight of a bright yellow Porsche 911 Turbo passing us at 150 mph.

I have only myself to blame. University-bound son Ike’s transition from automotive agnostic to full-on car bore is complete, to the point where he is now worse than I was. Pointing out every Land Rover Defender we saw in thirteen days in Europe, along with most of the Alfa Romeos (I would’ve noted them but kept the count to myself), he was joined on the “if you can’t beat them” theory by his sister, Ellie, who began weighing in with an opinionated running commentary on the smorgasbord of tiny city cars we came across in our travels.

We were already tired and grumpy and frankly had talked too much about cars and trolleys by day seven. Then, during the drive from Munich to Genoa, the sat-nav let joy out of our hearts like a ruptured balloon. One minute we were zipping down an unrestricted superfreeway at 110 mph, and the next thing we knew, we were wending our way through the Tyrolean Alps, slowly, with 125 miles mysteriously added to our trip’s length, according to the GPS. The moods went perilously far south when we found ourselves stopped dead on a mountainside for an hour of bumper-to-bumper traffic near a sign that read “Genoa 499 km” (310 miles).

All we could think was, “Misty Island Rescue, here we go.”