Volkswagen was one of the first automakers to bring a concept vehicle to production virtually unchanged with the New Beetle a decade ago, but not all concept vehicles are destined for production. Europe was not interested in the Microbus, and a unique platform and high-cost assembly plant, plus limited sales potential meant that it stayed a concept. And although VW has a number of vans, from small to large to commercial, in the European market, none are the sort of vehicles that could sell enough to be viable on this side of the Atlantic. American minivan buyers want minivans as they exist here, now. Which means a not-so-mini size (compared to the original mid-'80s minivans), dual-sliding doors, a minimum seven-passenger capacity, multiple interior configurations, and available options, including rear-seat entertainment, multiple audio sources, phone connectivity, and navigation systems, plus power doors and a tailgate.
Enter the Routan. If it looks familiar, even with definably Volkswagen front and rear styling, that's because it is a joint venture with Chrysler, assembled at a Chrysler facility in Windsor, Ontario in Canada. It is more than merely a rebadged Chrysler Town & Country or Dodge Grand Caravan, as I quickly discovered at Routan's recent introduction to the automotive press in Sausalito, California.
Besides the obvious stylistic differences, VW set strict specifications for suspension tuning, interior design, materials, and quality control. The Routan had to look and feel like a Volkswagen.
Wonder of wonders, it does--but that's getting ahead of the story. The platform is pure Chrysler minivan, with MacPherson strut-front and twist-beam rear suspension. Brakes are four-wheel antilock disc, with ESP-stability control (as in all 2009 Volkswagens). The three trim levels are S, SE, and SEL. The S and SE have a push-rod overhead-valve 3.8-liter V6 engine, with 197 hp and 230 lb-ft of torque; the SEL gets an SOHC 4.0-liter V6 with 253 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque. Both are Chrysler power plants, and all models are front-wheel drive only, with a six-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift mode. Base prices range from $24,700 for an S to $29,600 for the SE (expected to be the most popular) and $33,200 for the SEL, or $38,400 for an SEL Premium. Add $690 for the destination charge.
With a different dash than the Chrysler minivans, upgraded materials, and improved fit and finish, the Routan's interior says "Volkswagen," not "Chrysler." All versions have dual-sliding doors, which are power-operated in the SE and SEL. The SEL also has a power lift gate. Optional rear-seat entertainment packages are offered in all models, with the SE and SEL also getting upgraded audio systems with hard-disk drives and USB ports. A navigation system is available for the SEL.
The available split, power-folding, third-row seat not only disappears into an area otherwise used as a storage well, but it can also be rotated backward for picnic or tailgate party use.
On the road, the suspension retuning is immediately apparent. Firmer springs and shocks and larger stabilizer bars, plus revisions to the steering make the Routan a pleasant and controllable vehicle on the road--and not just on the highway. The drive route was through the backroads of California's Marin and Sonoma counties, many of which are better-suited to a GTI than a minivan. In both SE and SEL trim, the Routan did well, and compares well with the Honda Odyssey, which VW considers its chief competitor. The SE's 3.8-liter engine is more than adequate, but the SEL's 4.0 offers noticeably better acceleration--and improved fuel economy, at an EPA estimated 17 mpg city, 25 mpg highway, and 20 mpg overall versus the SE's 16 city, 23 highway, 18 overall.
Volkswagen doesn't have illusions of being a major player in the minivan market, but the Routan will give current VW owners, whose families have outgrown the Jetta or Passat, a choice within the Volkswagen brand. It adds choice for anyone needing a minivan. A minivan is not exactly an aspirational vehicle; it's one bought out of necessity, but that's no reason to give up a pleasant driving experience. The Routan is at the top of the minivan heap, from a vehicle dynamics viewpoint, and still has all of the amenities expected in the class.
Downside? Well, sometimes the inner Chrysler shows through. The movable storage console between the SEL's front seats is a trick feature, but seems a little flimsy. Time will tell about that. And the name? "Rout" as in "route", plus "an," the standard VW MPV suffix.