On sale in the UK from May 5, in German dealerships on May 26 and in other European markets from mid-June, the updated Sharan features a new interior, revised front end, more efficient engines and - for the first time on this category of vehicle - a six-speed manual gearbox as standard. There are three new engine options, a V6 204bhp petrol and two diesels, a 1.9 TDI PD 90bhp and a 1.9 TDI PD 115bhp. A four-speed automatic box is offered with the 2.0 115bhp engine while from mid-summer, a five-speed 'Tiptronic' transmission will be offered with the 1.8 20V Turbo, 1.9 TDI PD 115bhp and the V6.
Around the same time, the 1.9 TDI PD 115bhp and the V6 will have the option of Volkswagen's four-wheel-drive system. Prices will be announced nearer launch but trim levels are expected to be similar to those of the existing S, SE, Sport and Carat line-up. Entry level models will start from around £18,000. The major selling-point of the new six-speed box is its contribution to economy, although it does also allow for a more useful spread of ratios in a vehicle which is expected to have to cope with a broad variety of loads, speeds and conditions.
The really good news is that, unlike some six-speeders which can be tricky to negotiate in the upper ratios, the Volkswagen box is one of the nicer ones to use. It is also compact and light in weight. The long-legged, sixth cog also delivers big economy benefits. Extrapolating the 'official' figures and comparing the nearest 'like-with-like' suggests that the new 2.0 litre - with six-speed box - reduces the combined consumption figure to 30.3 mpg compared with 27.97 mpg.
On the autoroute in Southern France, the tall sixth gear delivered a new dimension in seriously relaxed cruising. Whether it would be quite so relevant on more congested British motorways is arguable. But, with the derv-burning 115bhp TDI PD (pumpe duse) turbodiesel in particular, you can sit back, smug in the knowledge that so far, it is unlikely there is any other, similar-sized MPV on the road that is quite so frugal and offering such smooth, torquey performance.
While the tax position on the petrol engined models is class average (see fact file), the diesels will, for the first year of the carbon dioxide-based regime at least, fall into the lower bands. The 'standard' TDI (167g/km) will be rated at 18% of BIK price and the more powerful PD (170g/km) at 19%, in both cases including the 3% diesel supplement. Without this the TDI would be in the lowest bracket for 2002/3, 15%.Assuming the Government retains the diesel penalty, even for so-called 'cleaner diesels' like Volkswagen's pumpe duse, the TDI PD's liability will rise to 21% in the second year and 23% for 2004/5.
From the outside the new Sharan does not look wildly different from the current one. However, Volkswagen assures us that no fewer than 62% of parts have been modified, or are new compared with the previous model. The grille is colour-coded while the bonnet gives a more 'elongated' appearance - although the vehicle is in fact only 14mm longer than the original model. The rear end has the D pillars extending into the tailgate and new tail-lights with reflector-strip integrated into the tailgate.
On the road, from the driving seat, the most striking changes are to the interior and - of course to the manual transmission. The new driving compartment is stylish, with good quality, pleasantly-textured, 'slush moulded' facia - similar in design to the Golf and Passat - and there are new trim colours and materials. Instruments are set in bright rims and are blue-lit. An uprated heating/demisting/air-conditioning system was fitted to the test cars driven in France and will be standard on all cars sold in Germany - although it is still not quite as quick to respond to demisting needs as it should be. Some of the large glass area seems to take a long time to clear.
Much attention has been paid to oddment stowage, with useful compartments above the passenger airbag and in the middle of the control panel, both with cushioned, hinged flaps - and there are fold-out cup holders. The slatted air outlets seem to have been taken from the Passat/Bora parts bin while the contours of the front seats have been changed and do give good support. All Sharans are now seven-seaters as standard and all also get ABS, twin airbags, factory-fit 'Beta' radio-cassette and manual air-conditioning. SE versions have 'Gamma' radio cassette, luggage cover and a new storage pack featuring an umbrella holder and coat hangers.
The Sport version gets special 16 inch alloys and the Carat has walnut trim and Alcantara/leather upholstery. Options throughout the range include automatic dimming rear view mirror, gas discharge headlights, ESP, front and rear parking sensors, front-seat side-impact airbags and two different navigation systems.
First launched in 1995, just under 20,500 first-generation Sharans have been sold overall, with 4,347 sold in the UK last year. To date, the 1.9 110bhp TDI has accounted for more than half of all UK sales with the 2.0 litre 115bhp taking about a quarter. In Western Europe, large MPVs currently account for a 2.6% share of the total market with one in five being a Sharan.