On The Road Review: Volkswagen Routan Minivan

For the first time since 2003, Volkswagen dealers have a minivan offering in the USA. Wearing another African-desert based name, the Routan is a credible performer in a shrinking automotive segment.
Strangely, Volkswagen — the originator of the whole small-van genre — sources its North American van from Chrysler Corp. Back in 2005, Volkswagen made the decision to abandon its costly Microbus concept van project and elected to continue with fifth generation Transporter vans for most of the world. Meanwhile, VW would partner with Daimler/Chrysler, another German-based automaker, to create an American-sized van for the U.S. marketplace.

Since then, the Daimler/Chrysler partnership has blown up, minivan sales have been steadily sliding in the wrong direction and the worldwide economy has slowed total new vehicle sales to levels not seen in over 20 years.

None of this news, however, should taint your perception of Volkswagen’s latest offering. In a quest to gain significant marketshare in North America, VW needed to add more vehicle lines for its dealer network. The Routan van is a natural extension of VW’s family-oriented lineup.

Mechanically, the Routan mimics the Chrysler Town and Country and high-end levels of the Dodge Grand Caravan. Base power for S and SE-trim vans is a tried and true 197-hp 3.8-liter V-6 while SEL models get the upgraded 251-hp 4.0-liter V-6. Both motors are mated to an all-new six-speed automatic transmission. Incredibly, the larger engine returns higher EPA mileage ratings: 17/25-mpg as opposed to 16/23-mpg.
My loaded Routan SEL delivered pleasing levels of acceleration with a transmission that snaps off crisp full-throttle shifts. The Routan also rides and handles with the stable aplomb associated with the wide track, long wheelbase layout familiar to this segment. Steering feel matches the van’s understated German intentions too.

The VW packs all of the interior amenities that traveling owners expect in this boxy configuration. There are folding seats everywhere with Chrysler’s convenient Stow ‘N Go hide-away seat design, multiple bins and cubbies, plus a center console that can be moved from the front to the center bucket seats. The split rear bench seat is also very adult friendly with good thigh support, ample head room and easy access via the moveable second-row seats.

In loaded SEL trim, the tested Routan featured power sliding side doors, power rear liftgate, power sunroof, power folding third-row seats, power rear vent windows — convenience items that all add weight and complexity. Throw in the dual-screen DVD entertainment system, power pedals, load-leveling suspension, remote engine start, navigation, rearview camera and heated leather seating and you have a luxury wagon on par with the best vehicles in the market.

I would give high marks to the convenience of the power folding third-row seat. At first, this seems superfluous but once you’ve had to use this feature you marvel at its simplicity. The Routan also earns good grades for its comprehensive audio system with astute fingertip controls on the back of the steering wheel plus VW’s JoyBox version of Chrysler’s MyGig hard drive as well as its excellent over-the-road ride and composure. Doors close with a reassuring thud and the vehicle is generally much quieter than earlier minivans.

Oddities include a shift lever mounted high on the concise dash panel; wide thresholds that make exit a stretch; and a constricted view to the rear over multiple headrests and around wide roof pillars — the rear camera proves to be very valuable in this package. There are also some other signs of Chrysler’s involvement; some switches make audible reactions which is at odds with VW’s usual actions, while the inside door levers and other parts don’t work with the fluid precision that marks most German-engineered products.

Although minivan sales have slowed, the Routan is a worthy rival to the established Chrysler, Honda and Toyota products. With a three-year/36,000-mile free maintenance warranty plan and all of the features that have helped make Chrysler the world’s largest minivan producer, the new VW Routan will find a niche in this viable category.

Next week: Ford F-150 SuperCrew

Just the Facts: Volkswagen Routan Minivan

Routan is VW’s latest minivan offering for North America. Measuring 202.5 inches long on a 121.2-inch wheelbase, the seven-passenger, front-wheel-drive Routan is comparably sized to its primary rivals. Total cargo volume is a class competitive 140 cubic feet, more than any SUV.

Pricing starts at $24,700 for base S models with 3.8-liter V-6, curtain side airbags, anti-lock disc brakes, anti-skid system, tilt/tele steering wheel, heated power mirrors, split-folding second row bench, hide-away third row bench, digital media connection, fog lamps and 16-inch alloy wheels. SE trim adds tri-zone climate, power driver’s seat, center bucket seats, trip computer, outside temp display, second and third row sunshades, 17-inch alloy wheels and more for $29,600. SEL includes 4.0-liter engine, leather, heated front and second row seats, power pedals, power liftgate and more for $33,200. Add $690 destination. Fully outfitted SEL can list for more than $44,000.

Chrysler Town and Country starts at $26,430 with a smaller 3.3-liter motor; the Honda Odyssey begins at $26,255 with a 244-hp 3.5-liter V-6, while the Toyota Sienna with a 3.5-liter 265-hp V-6 starts at $24,540.
Routan is built in Windsor, Ontario, at the Chrysler assembly plant.

Volkswagen Van Timeline

The first Volkswagen van was called the Transporter Kambi Bus and it debuted in 1950. A rear-engine, rear-drive vehicle powered by a 25-hp 1.2-liter engine, the T1 micro-bus stayed in production until the late 1970s in Germany and Brazil.

In 1968, VW upgraded to the T2 second-generation van. This model gained a larger 1.6-liter 48-hp engine with a 2.0-liter 70-hp optional powerplant. By 1973, the VW ‘Bus’ had gained a camper package option as well as an optional automatic transmission. A few years later, VW even offered a four-wheel-drive version in some markets.

By 1990, the T3 Vanagon debuted. This model was the first front-drive VW van, yet it allowed for various chassis configurations that optimized the vehicle’s work potential for numerous commercial customers — including large passenger vans, flatbed trucks and even wreckers. By the time the Vanagon had evolved into its fourth generation, VW was offering both V-6 engine options as well as diesel variants.

In 2003, VW showed the world its Microbus concept van. Combining original T1 design overtones into a package with modern engineering, VW hoped that this van would enjoy more mass appeal in the markets with its greatest sales potential — like the USA. Unfortunately, the design did not work well with current crash standards and the project was abandoned.

Also in 2003, Volkswagen created the fifth-generation Transporter van for worldwide production, including South Africa and Brazil. The 2008 Routan van built in Canada by Chrysler LLC shares some of the T5’s outward appearance, but is otherwise unrelated.

Nicole Ouellette

Nicole Ouellette

When Nicole isn't giving advice she's completely unqualified to give, she runs an Internet marketing company in Bar Harbor, where she lives with her husband Derrick and their short dog Gidget. She loves young adult novels, cooking and talking French to anyone who'll talk back. [email protected]