Pros: Potentially good value; nicer interior and better handling than Chrysler counterparts
Cons: Quivers over bumps; higher trim levels offer questionable value
The 2012 Volkswagen Routan makes VW's minivan experiment look a lot smarter than it did a couple of years ago. That's because the vehicles that the Routan is based on, the Dodge Grand Caravan and the Chrysler Town & Country, received thorough make-overs last year. Previously, the Chrysler twins were subpar offerings with poor all-around quality, so we questioned VW's decision to use these models as the basis for its new van. But now there's a new V6 and a slew of other improvements in the mix, so the Routan has a much better foundation to build on.
Now for the inevitable question: Is the Routan as good as those perennial all-stars from Japan, the Honda Odyssey and the Toyota Sienna? In a word, no. Despite Volkswagen's best efforts to improve the interior and tighten up the suspension, the Routan still largely looks and acts like those familiar Chrysler products. As we said, that's no longer such a bad thing thanks to all the recent upgrades. But the Japanese vans still have a decisive edge in head-to-head competition.
Whether the Routan makes sense for your family will likely be decided by the price. If you can get a great deal on a Routan and save thousands over a Sienna or an Odyssey, you might want to pull the trigger. Keep in mind that the Chrysler vans, fundamentally very similar to the Routan, might be cheaper still. But the Routan's stock has risen precipitously since last year's modifications, to the point that we now endorse this VW as a potentially smart choice.
Comfort & Utility
The 2012 Volkswagen Routan is a seven-passenger minivan offered in S, SE and SEL forms.
The entry-level S starts with 16-inch steel wheels, heated exterior mirrors, tri-zone manual climate control, a leather-wrapped tilt-only steering wheel, four-way manual front seats (no height adjustment), fold-flat second-row captain's chairs with in-floor storage tubs, a third-row folding bench with foldable headrests, cloth upholstery, cruise control, dual glove boxes, power rear quarter vents and a six-speaker sound system with an auxiliary input.
The SE adds 17-inch alloy wheels, power sliding doors, adjustable pedals, a trip computer, an eight-way power driver seat with adjustable lumbar, heated front seats, leatherette upholstery, rear sunshades, Bluetooth and a six-CD/DVD changer. The Rear-Screen Entertainment package contributes a power tailgate, a nine-inch flip-down video screen with headphones and remote, a rear-view camera and a hard-drive-based touchscreen audio interface with satellite radio and an optional DVD-based navigation system.
The SEL adds different 17-inch alloys, automatic headlights, a sunroof, tri-zone automatic climate control, remote start, keyless entry with push-button ignition, leather upholstery, heated second-row seats, a power-folding third-row seat and an iPod interface. Optional are second- and third-row nine-inch video screens with an additional DVD player.
The top-of-the-line SEL Premium includes yet another style of 17-inch alloy wheels, a blind-spot monitoring system, driver memory functions, wood-grain interior trim, eight-way power front seats and a nine-speaker, 560-watt sound system.
The Routan's standard cloth front seats lack Volkswagen's typical firm support, but the leatherette and leather upholstery add notable resilience. VW's interior design gurus have been let loose on the dashboard, and the result is indeed of higher quality than what you get in the Routan's Chrysler platform mates; however, we still see too much Grand Caravan in this dashboard for comfort. The gauges are easy to read at a glance, and the controls are generally ergonomically sound, but the Chrysler-sourced optional touchscreen leaves something to be desired.
Second-row comfort is very good; the standard captain's chairs are like having an extra set of front seats in the middle row. However, the Routan's second-row seats lack the versatility of Chrysler's Stow 'n Go seats, which apparently got lost in the translation to German. Passenger space in the third row could be better, but it's adequate for kids, and even adults can get comfortable back there for short trips. Cargo capacity measures 32.3 cubic feet behind the third row, 83.0 cubic feet behind the second row and 144.4 cubic feet behind the first row-typical for a minivan but far more than in any SUV.
The Routan is rather thin on standard high-tech features, lacking both Bluetooth and iPod connectivity unless you step up to considerably more expensive trim levels. Also featured on these loftier models is a touchscreen stereo interface with hard drive music storage, a USB port and available navigation. That may sound like a killer combo, but this interface is actually a Chrysler-sourced unit that is well past its prime, memorable for its crude graphics and sometimes unintuitive operation. Tellingly, Chrysler has been phasing this system out in its latest cars, replacing it with a new touchscreen interface with a larger screen and friendlier graphics. At least the Routan has the distinction of being the only Volkswagen product with USB connectivity.
Also noteworthy are the two different rear-seat DVD entertainment systems. The first comes with one flip-down screen for both second and third rows to share, while the more advanced system includes a second flip-down screen. Your kids will likely approve of either, although other vans have moved ahead on this front, notably the Sienna with its enormous 16.4-inch split-screen rear monitor.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The Routan is powered by a 3.6-liter V6 rated at 283 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. The transmission is a six-speed automatic. The V6 makes some unrefined noises at times, but it packs a satisfying high-end punch, even if it's a bit soft off the line. Fuel economy is EPA rated at an adequate 17 mpg city/25 mpg highway.
The 2012 Volkswagen Routan comes with standard stability control, four-wheel ABS and seven airbags (front, front side, driver knee and full-length side curtain).
The government hasn't crash tested a Routan lately, but the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the 2012 Routan its highest rating of Good in every category and named it a Top Safety Pick.
The Routan isn't blessed with world-class structural rigidity, so it quivers more over broken pavement than its Japanese competitors do. The highway ride is quite pleasant, though, thanks to good noise suppression. Volkswagen has added a sportier tune to the Chrysler-sourced suspension, so body motions are a bit more disciplined in the Routan, but don't expect miracles; the Routan still handles a lot like a Grand Caravan, which means it has unexpectedly precise steering but plenty of body roll in corners.
Other Cars to Consider
Honda Odyssey - The recently redesigned Odyssey boasts an impressive technology suite and comfy accommodations, but its dull dynamics and odd styling are question marks.
Nissan Quest - Based on a Japan-market van, the Quest is taller and narrower than the rest, but it also has the nicest interior and an eager V6.
Toyota Sienna - Also recently redesigned, the Sienna offers the unusual option of a four-cylinder engine, but the engineering highlight is Toyota's peerless 3.5-liter V6. The Sienna also offers a novel split-screen entertainment system that allows two kids to do their own thing simultaneously.
Once you get up over $30,000, we think the Routan loses its luster, since you could get a solid Sienna or Odyssey for that kind of money. As such, we'd stick with the base S, which is a decent value at just over $27,000 to start.