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Driver's Ed: A Groovy Family Van

After a year spent shopping for a new car, I was underwhelmed by the market's "choice." It was either something too obviously focus-grouped to appeal to my ebbing testosterone—a rhino-shaped pickup truck—or one of those little runabouts in green or red or white (or forest, magenta, and cloud if you're in sales). Then my four-year-old joined me on the hunt. In front of the salesman, I playfully asked her what she wanted in a car. Her answer, serenely direct: "I want a TV, Daddy." I flashed back to the times I was condemned to the back seat with my mom's friend's kid (always some prickly git) and given a Car Bingo card for a six-hour ride.

Soon, I found myself staring into the immense interior of a plain gray van. When I'd last looked inside one, 20 years before, it was a VW camper with Indian print curtains, a refrigerator for the Schlitz, and, you know, a foldout bed. We've come a long way since then (although the bed's still there). Conversion vans, as they're called, have built-in TV's and VCR's. Each passenger can plug in headphones while Mom or Dad sails tranquilly down the interstate. The seats are far enough apart to prevent sibling pinching and kicking. And yet, to a pickup-driver manqué, there's a serious class situation here. Conversion vans have venetian blinds in tinted rear windows. They tend toward names like Gladiator—not a Pathfinder or Outback among them. How about d'Elegant?That's actually a brand. Even the orthography is d'classé.

No matter: I set aside my deep Episcopalian misgivings and bought the basic Mark III for $25,000 (list price $40,000). I admit, my van doesn't have a built-in karaoke system or vibrating seats (real van options), but my frequent long-distance trips with my wife, two kids, and au pair onboard are dreamy. Those big captain's chairs are perfect beds for the kids. I don't mind hearing Mary Poppins in the background for the 84th time. That's 93 uninterrupted minutes to yak with my wife or listen to tapes on the front sound system. And while someone else drives, I nap on the bed and arrive fully rested after an eight-hour trip.

All of this comes at a price, socially. An ambitious yuppie down the street told me in her sweetest passive-aggressive style that my van was "ghastly." I replied that she'd probably like it a bit more once it came back from the shop with a bare-chested Native American woman under a tie-dye sunset airbrushed on the side. She avoids me assiduously now, and I think we're both happier for it.

Sadly, my pioneering automotive days may soon end. I recently saw an ad for the LX-tra, Mark III's new conversion van. It has rounded headlights and is painted a tasteful silver—a conversion van as it might be imagined by L. L. Bean. You know what that means. Après moi, le déluge d'élégant.

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