Contrary to popular and publicized opinion, Chrysler did not invent the minivan in 1984.

True, the Dodge Caravan, Chrysler Town & Country and Plymouth Voyager were introduced that year and have become America's first family, serving 55% of the market.

Granted, the Caravan is America's best-selling van, even the country's ninth best-selling vehicle, right behind Ford Escort and Honda Civic.

But pioneer honors go to Volkswagen, which rolled out its first people-hauler 43 years and seven million vans ago.

Now comes a third generation from the houses of Hanover and Wolfsburg, the front-engine, front-drive EuroVan, which extends Volkswagen's reputation for building the world's only van capable of containing a medium-sized garage sale.

Remember Veedub's 1949 Microbus?

The title came from 21 windows, which clearly qualified the van as a microscopic bus. In Germany, it was nicknamed the bulle because, like an ox, it could carry its own weight.

In 1980, the Microbus began again as the Vanagon.

It remained roomier than Arizona and on an evolutionary cycle that would lead to four-wheel drive with traction equalizer and to a liquid-cooled engine. It earned popularity as a pop-top camper equipped with absolutely everything. Including the kitchen sink.

The Vanagon was a definite success--albeit as a category of one and despite some infamous flaws.

Its four-cylinder engine developed only 90 horsepower. That wasn't enough to do much beyond nudge and trundle a vehicle that fully loaded weighed close to four tons. Or two Cadillac Eldorados.

Cargo space and headroom on the inside were earned only by adding inches to the outside. That made the Vanagon a six-footer, and tall flanks presented to even mild crosswinds had the vehicle lurching and reeling as if it were failing a sobriety test.

And the little stinker delivered only 17 m.p.g.

So Volkswagen--which once hoped its compact vans would reduce American station wagons to dinosaurs--settled for exclusivity and a market among suburban carriers of potted ficus and haulers of little people to weekend camp sites.

Into this commercial climate of 1984 came Chrysler's vans, then Ford with the Aerostar and more recently GM with its space shuttle triplets: Chevrolet Lumina, Oldsmobile Silhouette and Pontiac Trans Sport.

All offered V-6 power and heftier horsepower, and although they were bulkier and slower than anything but trucks, these domestic minivans were relatively well-mannered in traffic and when butting Santa Anas sweeping Interstate 10.

Those who believe the EuroVan--even with imported assists from Toyota's Previa or Mazda's MPV--will ever loosen Detroit's grip on 92% of the U.S. van market probably bet good money on Ross Perot.

Although it is a well-built, easier-driving, thoroughly equipped vehicle, the EuroVan continues to fall short in some obvious areas.

Power has been increased, but not enough. Volkswagen makes much of the EuroVan's safety equipment and construction, but air bags aren't available.

Press releases mention "better fuel economy . . . 21 miles per gallon," but that's on the highway with a five-speed manual transmission. With automatic transmission, gas consumption remains 17 m.p.g. in town and 19 m.p.g. on the road, numbers the domestics can better with V-6 engines.

Despite rounded corners as token aerodynamics, the EuroVan is still a little too square and upright in its styling. It comes closer to delivery van than to recreational traveler. The steering wheel is not adjustable andangles heavily forward; the set is that of a firetruck's.

Although the van's purpose is generally fun, frolic and carrying the family to grandma's house, the interior is rather severe, predominantly gray and devoid of warming colors.

Still, on balance, EuroVan's improvements over Vanagon are signif cant:

* Power improved to 109 horsepower from a five-cylinder engine borrowed from Audi. Torque, the actual pulling power of the engine, has risen to 140 foot-pounds. It peaks at low speeds and will keep tugging until next Tuesday.

* Towing capacity is 4,400 pounds on a braked trailer with enough suspension travel, braking efficiency and pulling power for an additional 1,500 pounds of passengers and freight.

* EuroVan has passed all National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash tests for passenger cars. An enlarged front crumple zone and construction strengthened by pillars and cross members convert the van's interior into a cage for people.

* The vehicle seats seven adults with a total cargo volume of 201 cubic feet. That's more room than Chrysler Caravan (116 cubic feet), Lumina-Silhouette-Trans Sport (113), Aerostar (136), Previa (158) and MazdaMPV (110). Yet it is shorter than the Volvo station wagon and even Honda Accord, thanks to transverse mounting of the engine and some tricky flatter attachment of radiator against grille.

* The rear loading height is just 20 inches--with no lip to snag loads sliding over the sill. The door step is only 14 inches above the ground--and the side door slides slick and easy on seven rollers, double the standard on most other vans.

EuroVans come in three models and two seating configurations. There's the EuroVan CL, starting price $16,640, with two bucket seats up front, two more in tandem and a three-person bench in the rear. The GL, at $20,420, has the same seating arrangement but offers better materials and nicer appointments.

EuroVan MV tops the line ($21,850). It has captain's chairs for driver and passenger, rear-facing seats behind them and a three-person bench that can be folded flat and into a double bed.

Essentially a country version of the metropolitan CL, the MV has a trestle table that flops down from one side, more storage compartments than Bekins, side curtains so bears can't peer in and several hundred beverage holders. Unfortunately, most will hold only a small Dixie; the average camper's thermal mug just doesn't fit.

A $2,530 Weekender package can be ordered for the MV. It includes a pop-up roof containing a second double bed, window screens, second battery and a refrigerator. But no kitchen sink this year.

With four-wheel independent suspension, the EuroVan is a little better equipped to handle the crosswind wobbles. But it's far from perfect, and until some power reverses the laws of physics and the effect of lateral force on vertical surfaces, that isn't likely to change.

Although it's not a fast vehicle by any means, the worth of the EuroVan's engine is its ability to deliver solid, low-end power and keep on tugging hard until 60 m.p.h.

But at those speeds, the engine roars and the transmission seems to be straining. Kick it down for more power, and the immediate r esponse is more noise.

If the vehicle is not ordered to stroll around corners, it will display a definite habit of rolling around curves. But it turns tightly and is lighter on its wheels than one would expect, and the quality build, as with all German automotive products, should last a lifetime.

In some areas, such as available cargo room, the EuroVan is the best there is. In other areas--acceleration and freeway handling among them--the EuroVan still falls on its nose.

And today's buyers seem much more interested in performance, in that family sedan heft, than in a little extra room for more sheets of plywood.

Earlier this year, European journalists named the EuroVan their International Van of the Year.

But the Dodge Caravan, it should be noted, has only been manufactured in Europe for less than a year.

1993 Volkswagen EuroVan MV

The Good Interior 35% roomier than average minivan. Exterior shorter than Vo vo and Honda sedans. Quality construction. Funky following.

The Bad Too much weight, not enough horsepower. $22K doesn't buy air bag, or anti-lock brakes. Poor gas consumption.

The Ugly Driver's mood in crosswind.

Cost Base $21,850. As tested $22,745 (includes automatic transmission, sleeper seats, front and rear air conditioning, rear-facing seats in midsection, sliding windows, and table with overhead strip light.)

Engine Five-cylinder, transverse-mounted, 2.5 liters, 109 horsepower.

Type Front-engine, front-drive, seven-passenger compact van.

Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, with automatic, 15.5 seconds. Estimated top speed, 105 m.p.h. Fuel consumption (automatic) EPA city and highway, 17 and 19 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 4,246 pounds.