If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Volkswagen last sold a minivan in the United States in 2003. That vehicle, the EuroVan, was far from competitive. Wanting to expand its North American presence, VW turned to Chrysler to build the next VW minivan. Based on the Chrysler Town & Country/ Dodge Grand Caravan, the 2009 Routan is a seven-passenger minivan with a VW-quality interior, but without some of the innovations that set Chrysler products apart.
The 2009 Volkswagen Routan is available in S, SE, and SEL trims. The S is equipped with such features as cloth upholstery, air conditioning, cruise control, manually adjustable front bucket seats, a two-passenger reclining second-row bench seat, third-row stowable split-folding bench seat, manual side doors, and P225/65R16 tires on steel wheels with wheel covers.
The SE has three-zone manual climate control, a power driver’s seat, second-row captain’s chairs, power side doors, an overhead storage system, second- and third-row sunshades, a universal garage door opener, and P225/65R17 tires on alloy wheels. The SEL is the best equipped with leather upholstery, three-zone automatic climate control, a power rear liftgate, heated first and second-row seats, power-adjustable pedals, and a Bluetooth hands-free cell phone link.
Options include a 506-watt audio system with 10 speakers, VW’s JoyBox hard-drive radio with or without a navigation system, Sirius Satellite Radio, a dual rear DVD entertainment system, a rearview camera, rear obstacle detection, high-intensity discharge headlights, a sunroof, remote engine starting, a trailer-towing package, and a power-folding third-row seat.
Under the Hood
Although badged as a Volkswagen, the front-wheel-drive Routan uses Chrysler engines. Routan S and SE versions have a 3.8-liter V6 that delivers 197 horsepower and 230 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm. The SEL has a 4.0-liter V6 that delivers 253 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque at 4100 rpm. Both engines are mated to a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual shiftgate. The 3.8-liter has an EPA fuel economy rating of 16/23 mpg (city/hwy), while the 4.0-liter nets 17/25 mpg. Maximum towing capacity is 3,500 pounds with either engine.
The Routan improves upon the Chrysler Town & Country’s interior with higher quality materials. The Town & Country’s hard plastic dashboard is replaced with a sturdy, soft-touch upper dash. Nicely padded door panels and more substantial seats add to the appeal. Still, there are some hard plastic pieces on the dash that aren’t up to the luxurious level of other VWs, such as the well-appointed Touareg.
Room up front is the same as in the Chrysler. The seating position is upright, with plenty of room and comfort, but a telescoping steering wheel would bring the wheel closer to the driver. The white-faced gauges can be a little hard to read in bright sunlight, and some of the audio controls are a little far away from the driver.
The Routan also takes advantage of some of the Chrysler’s thoughtful entertainment features, including a hard-drive-equipped audio system that VW calls JoyBox, and a dual rear DVD entertainment system. JoyBox is offered in two versions, one with a navigation system and one without. Both include a touch screen on the dash and a 30-gigabyte hard drive for music and picture files. When the navigation system is ordered, the hard drive also holds map information. Data files can be ripped from a CD or downloaded from a thumb drive plugged into the vehicle’s USB port.
Unfortunately, the Routan lacks the seating options that give the Chrysler a competitive advantage. Neither Stow ’n Go nor Swivel ’n Go seating is offered, although there are covered storage bins in front of the second-row seats. The seating configuration in the S trim includes a removable, reclining, two-passenger second-row bench seat, and a 60/40 split-folding third-row seat that folds flat into a well behind the seat.
This well is great for hauling groceries, and the rear seat can also fold into a rear-facing "tailgating" position in which the seatbacks act as bottoms and the bottoms become the backs. Straps are used to fold the seats down, and they may require leverage that some people might not have. A power-folding third-row seat is optional, easing the process of changing seat configurations.
On the Road
Volkswagen touts the Routan’s European ride and handling, but on the road the Routan simply feels like a large American minivan. While Volkswagen tuned the springs, dampers, bushings, and steering gear, the Routan still handles and rides much like the Town & Country. That means it’s tall and heavy, and therefore prone to body roll in turns. It also doesn’t react well to quick changes of direction, flopping from side to side instead of transitioning smoothly.
The steering feels light and has a fair amount of play on center, though it is a tad quicker than in the Chrysler. Between the cumbersome handling and the numb steering, the Routan does not invite aggressive driving. But then again, driving hard with the kids in the back is a good way to spill the Juicy Juice.
Most minivans are better at offering a smooth, quiet ride than capable handling, and the Routan delivers in this regard. Wind and road noise are well muffled and the engines only intrude on conversation under full throttle. Small bumps and highway expansion joints are barely noticeable inside. Only sharp ruts and big bumps will be felt by passengers, and even they are dampened considerably. There is also some float on the highway, but not as much as in the Chrysler.
The Routan’s Chrysler-sourced engines are adequate, but not up to the tops in the class. That’s a shame because the VW 3.6-liter V6 is competitive with any V6 on the market. The 3.8-liter V6 in the S and SE trims has decent pep for everyday driving, but passing requires some planning and the 0-60 mph time is a pedestrian 10.2 seconds.
The SEL’s 4.0-liter V6 is the better engine. With a 0-60 time of 8.9 seconds, the 4.0-liter V6 can get you out in front of traffic and provide confident passing response. It’s still not as modern or powerful as the V6s offered by Nissan, Honda and Toyota, but it’s at least competitive. The engines are mated to a six-speed automatic transmission that can sometimes hunt for gears.
Right for You?
The Volkswagen Routan is a family-friendly minivan with a higher quality interior than its progenitor, the Chrysler Town & Country. Volkswagen’s three-year, 36,000-mile free maintenance plan is another plus. Without Stow ’n Go or Swivel ’n Go, however, the Routan will only appeal to families who don’t haul lots of cargo.
Kirk Bell has served as the associate publisher for Consumer Guide Automotive and editor of Scale Auto Enthusiast magazine. A Midwest native, Bell brings 18 years of automotive journalism experience to MSN, and currently contributes to JDPower.com and Kelley Blue Book's kbb.com.