The 2001 Volkswagen EuroVan flunked the potato-chip test. It's difficult to sit in the third-row seat of VW's quirky and somewhat outdated answer to the minivan, crunch your way through a bag of chips and hear the conversation going on in the front seat. I tried it on a nearly three-hour drive from Albany to Lake Placid. Between the chomping and the wind and interior noise, I couldn't hear a word. My friends in the front thought this was quite funny. "We were talking about you," they said. I switched to a Snickers bar to hear better. But the episode served to illustrate EuroVan's often anachronistic nature.

Competitors like Chrysler have refined their 2001 minivans to have Carnegie Hall-like acoustics that lend themselves to quiet conversations regardless of the snack food being consumed or the adverse road conditions encountered. Volkswagen still needs to work on noise, vibration and harshness, which is unfortunate considering this is at least the third launch of the German-built vehicle in North America. But there's some good news for 2001, as the company hopes to double EuroVan sales from a dismal 2,200 last year. The seven-passenger vehicle finally gets some serious horsepower for 2001, along with a major price cut, and is on sale now.

The old EuroVan was "slow and overpriced," admitted Frank Maguire, Volkswagen of America's vice-president for sales and marketing. To remedy that, VW shaved $5,100 off the 2001 EuroVan sticker, pricing the base GLS at $26,200 (not including a $615 destination charge) vs. $31,300 in 2000. It's also added a more powerful 201-horsepower 2.8-liter VR-6 engine, mated to a standard four-speed automatic transmission. The new engine makes 61 more horsepower than the previous one.

In addition, Volkswagen says EuroVan is the only van - mini or maxi - to offer a standard electronic stability- and traction-control system that can keep a driver from swerving out of control in an emergency situation. Four-wheel anti-lock brakes are also standard on EuroVan.

"Of all the products we sell, this is the real sleeper of the franchise," Maguire said. "It's for people who are living a little bit on the edge. This is not at all the soccer-mom minivan." That's for sure.

In fact, EuroVan may be the ultimate party-mobile. The MV (for Multivan) version can be outfitted with an optional $3,235 Weekender package that features a pop-up roof with a two-person bed, curtains, screens and refrigerator.

But there's a long list of stuff you can't get on EuroVan - stuff you can get on more conventional minivans - including side air bags, an optional video entertainment system, a standard CD player, dual sliding doors, a removable rear seat on the base model, a power liftgate or even a glove box. The boxy styling on the EuroVan looks like the old Volvo, before the Swedish automaker got its new, sleek makeover.

These anti-establishment characteristics may explain why EuroVan is big i n certain geographic pockets of the United States, including northern California and Vermont. And also why EuroVan wasn't even seen in VW showrooms from 1994 to 1997. EuroVan is off-beat enough to appeal to buyers who see themselves as "different" and are turned off by such mainstream minivans as the Ford Windstar, Honda Odyssey or Dodge Grand Caravan, VW's Maguire said.

VW says EuroVan buyers tend to be "VW loyalists," who are married with children and in their mid 40s. They have a household income of $80,000 to $100,000. The EuroVan is often the third vehicle in their personal fleet.

While the German offering may seem like a footnote in the minivan market, EuroVan serves a larger purpose. Part of its function is to hold open the door for Volkswagen's belated foray into utility vehicles. Within the next two years, Volkswagen is planning to introduce its first modern SUV, which was initially code-named Colorado. VW executives say the state of Colorado is reluctant to re the moniker. And Chevrolet has trademarked the name for use on its next-generation compact pickup in 2003.

There's also the distinct possibility that the retro VW Microbus concept vehicle, which debuted at the 2001 North American International Auto Show, may become a production vehicle, perhaps as early as the 2004 model year. EuroVan therefore is a little reminder that VW is not just a company that makes cars.

On a EuroVan test drive in upstate New York, we checked out the two versions. The base GLS is configured like a traditional minivan with three rows of forward-facing seats. The $27,700 MV looks more like a setting for a card club, with second-row seats that are positioned rearward, so that all rear passengers face each other. The MV also features a standard rear bench seat that converts to a bed. Our GLS test vehicle was priced at $28,215, including destination, and came equipped with an optional $1,000 sunroof with windscreen and $400 heated front seats. Both trim levels get unimpressive gas mileage at 15 miles per gallon in city driving and 17 mpg on the highway.

EuroVan provides excellent road visibility, with a high driver's seating position more like an SUV than a typical minivan. The combination of a fully independent front suspension and front-wheel drive make the EuroVan feel quite responsive when it comes to parking and maneuvering on the highway. But its tall profile makes it feel tippier than some minivans on tight turns, and strong side winds can make it feel a little unstable. And there are design flaws on the EuroVan that are worrisome, including front cupholders that are so close to the floor you have to take your eyes off the road to get to them. The rear cupholders seem old-fashioned because they don't accommodate juice boxes. The rear tailgate is too big and heavy. And the middle seats will be too heavy and cumbersome for most women to remove by themselves. But if you fancy yourself an automotive iconoclast and need the practicality of a van, the German-built EuroVan may feel just right.