When you're in first grade and your best friend moves to Montana, its hard to understand why. Certainly I didn't.

My friend Paul had the coolest van, a VW microbus that I thought was the BEST. Looking back through the decades, I realize that it's entirely possible that someone with the mindset to buy such a vehicle in the early '70s would WANT to move to Montana. Possibly to a commune.

The years haven't been the kindest to VW and its beloved rear-engined/rear drive bus, which has became the provenance of Deadheads and ex-hippies. Minivans have entered the picture and VW watched as thousands of buyers bypassed the original to buy a Chrysler or some derivative instead.

Certainly the VW's brick-like appearance and anemic four-cylinder power seemed from a different era, one where Jerry Garcia didn't have gray hair.

So, at last year's auto shows, on the heels of the successful VW New Beetle show car, VW previewed a new, forthcoming Microbus, which scored volumes of press, not to mention renewed interest in VW people movers.

Wisely, VW has updated its current van and the result is surprising.

The front-engine/front-wheel-drive van, blandly dubbed the EuroVan, retains the same package as before but with two notable changes: a significant boost in horsepower (which happens all the time) and a significant reduction in price (which rarely happens).

It comes in two trim levels: the GLS with a base price of $26,200 and the MultiVan or MV for $27,700. These prices have been reduced by as much as $5,000! But it hasn't come at the expense of content.

Volkswagen has replaced the wheezy four-cylinder with the 2.8-liter VR6 engine. With four-valves-per cylinder, this six has a stompin' 201 horsepower and 181 foot-pounds of torque. It's pulling around 4,344 pounds, so power is good, but not outstanding. A four-speed automatic is standard and proved good at being in the right gear and downshifting promptly. Occasionally it downshifted with a disconcertingly hard clunk.

The power rack-and-pinion steering is weighty, and there's some sense of road feel through the vertical steering wheel. (A horizontal steering wheel isn't available, sorry.)

With a length of a mid-sized car and the height of a Ford Excursion, this car does have a top-heavy feel. Maybe that's why VW has installed Electronic Stability Program (or ESP) as standard. It helps the handling. While you won't go barreling into corners or flinging the van about with abandon on twisting roads, ESP does lend a degree of confidence to the driver. There is some hobby-horsing back and forth over bumps, but otherwise the van is well controlled, with bump absorption in the best European manner. Braking was quite good with some nose-dive. The Anti-Slip Regulation traction control system is standard.

Handling overall is much better than you'd expect. The car's brick-like appearance has some presence on the road -- drivers tend to back off. This same large appearance makes it easy to spot in the parking lot. Driving this van takes a bit more care and skill than with others, but that's part of its quirky charm.

Also retaining that quirky charm is the driving position, something that is truly part of the VW van experience. Despite being a front-driver, front-seat occupants sit extremely far forward, Your legs rest between the front wheel wells just aft of the engine. Couple that with chair-high seats and the high driving position, and you look eye-to-eye with only the largest of SUV-drivers. It does afford excellent visibility in all directions.

The front bucket seats that are rock-hard fatigue your backside, but provide excellent back support. There's room between the front seats to get to the rear of the van.

The dash is functional, with large gauges that are easy to use. The radio and Climatronic automatic climate controls are a bit of a reach, with small buttons that are a bit too fussy and small given the size of the vehicle. The standard AM/FM/Cassette provides adequate sound. At night, the dash lights are illuminated in VW's trademark purple and crimson lighting. It's really groovy.

Standard gear includes power locks, cruise control, stereo system, intermittent wipers, power windows, power mirrors, heated windshield washer nozzles, rear defroster and wiper, illuminated vanity mirrors and an automatic transmission.

The rest depends on how the van is equipped. The test vehicle was a GLS, which contains two bucket seats in the center row and a bench seat in the rear. Bucket seats front and center have height-adjustable armrests on all sides. All seats have headrests and air ducts. Even the rear bench was roomy enough to hold my 6-foot-2-inch frame comfortably. Cabin height makes it easy to walk from one row to another. Amazing.

The MV gets the same seat set-up, but the middle bucket seats face backward rather than forward. The rear bench converts to a bed. Also available in the MV is the Weekender Package. This package has a pop-up roof with a two-person bed, window screens, a refrigerator, second battery and alternator and side curtains.

That isn't to be confused with the Camper. Sporting a longer wheelbase, it contains a double bench seat which converts to a 2-person bed, a pop-up roof, captains chair, gas stove, refrigerator, beverage tray, steel sink and dining table.

Despite all the people space, cargo space is plentiful with the seats in place and even mammoth with them folded.

When it comes to vans, few offer the utility and versatility in so small a footprint. If you want a van that stands apart from your standard grocery getters, the VW EuroVan stands heads and shoulder above the rest. Literally and figuratively.

Engine: 2.8-liter DOHV V-8
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
Tires: P225/60R16
Wheelbase: 115 inches
Length: 188.5 inches
Width: 72.4 inches
Curb weight: 4,344 pounds
Cargo volume: 20 cubic ft. (Seats in place)
Ground clearance: 7.1 inches
EPA rating: 15 city, 20 highway
Test mileage: 17.5 mpg
Fuel type: Premium
Assembled in: Hanover, Germany