SANTA ROSA, Calif. -- Cruising along the 101 freeway out from San Francisco, one driver senses we're steering a luxury sedan -- one of those sleek movers equipped with an agile suspension, lots of throttle power behind the pedal and cushy comfort from a contoured bucket which contorts under power controls to umpteen positions.
This is an entirely pleasant experience driving a deluxe vehicle, please understand, with soothing symphonic music filling the expansive cabin from nine speakers of a premium audio system with more than 500 watts of power.
Forward and side visibility, projected outward through massive tinted windows, encompasses the road scene in a superior design. Steering wheel, tilted precisely to a preferred angle, feels of soft leather, as does the driver's seat.
A handy cupholder -- one of many scattered around the compartment -- cradles a latte mug within easy reach.
With little effort, hands can cut the steering wheel and quickly change lanes. With only slight pressure exerted, right foot can summon some serious horsepower to scoot ahead of lesser traffic.
What a fine four-door luxury car this tester seems to be: It's refined with fancy comforts for passengers, liberated with exacting handling mechanisms, enthusiastic from a forceful engine.
Yet the image which opposes this impression of driving a fine luxury sedan appears in our rearview mirror: The reflection is not the confining quarters of a four-door sedan but the cavernous cube of a van, with second and third rows of seats in place and still enough room remaining in the rear to stock a load of luggage.
So we must remind ourselves that the vehicle we're steering along the 101 happens to be a minivan. It's also the latest vehicle from Volkswagen of Germany but it bears a peculiar name: Routan.
Cast on an extended platform with a choice of powertrains in front-wheel-drive (FWD) format, Routan becomes a plush statement for carpooling transportation.
It has a wheelbase stretching ten feet long, which creates a vast passenger compartment with seats for seven.
A low platform affords minimal step-up height comparable to a sedan so it's easy to climb aboard this minivan. The sliding slab door on each side positioned behind a front hinged door allows easy entry for backseat riders while a lift-up hatch door on the tail brings access to the cargo bay.
Crisp styling for the exterior package of Routan features a strong prow and streamlined hood with lines sweeping up to the canted windshield and over a flat roof as support pillars on the flanks go dark to blend with tinted windows and create the impression of a long streak of side glass.
The brash face reveals a chrome-bladed grille tucked between corner composite headlamps with louvered air intake vents cut into the deep fascia. Flanks are relatively flat with strips of body-colored protective molding and round arching wheelwells.
A blunt rump has twin-lamp taillight assemblies wrapping around corners and a thick body-colored bumper.
Climb aboard the Routan and you'll discover a three-row passenger compartment with storage spots everywhere: Doors contain useful storage compartments; the dash makes room on the right side for dual glove boxes; there's an optional multi-function console between the two front buckets and a section slides rearward up to 21 inches so riders on the second row can use it too; as many as 13 cup and bottle holders dot the cabin, including bottle holders integrated into the sliding side doors; there are covered stow bins below deck in the second row and these containers can hold a lot of gear out of sight; another stow spot is the deep well located behind the third-row bench.
Routan renders three grades -- S, SE and SEL -- with seat arrangements changing with each trim.
The conventional layout for Routan S edition shows a pair of bucket seats on the first row and a second-row removable bench with reclining seatbacks. A third-row bench splits 60/40 and folds into stow bins concealed in the floor. An option for Routan is a one-touch button for power-folding the third-row bench into the floor.
For Routan SE and SEL models the second-row bench is replaced by a pair of removable captain's chairs. If you pull out second-row seats and fold down the third-row bench, the flat-floored cargo bay which remains is huge -- totaling to 144 cubic feet.
Standard for safety on all editions are frontal air bags and curtain-style air bags extending above side windows for all three rows of seats. Also standard is a four-wheel disc brake system tied to an anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake assist (EBA), plus electronic stability program (ESP) anti-skid device with all-speed traction control (ASTC) and a tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS).
For motivation, Routan has two V6 engine choices. For Routan S and SE, the standard engine displaces 3.8 liters and delivers 197 hp at 5200 rpm and torque of 230 lb-ft at 4000 rpm. In Routan SEL the single-cam 4.0-liter V6 produces 253 hp at 6000 rpm with 262 lb-ft of torque at 4100 rpm.
An electronically controlled six-speed automatic transaxle works with either engine. Volkswagen fills Routan with lots of gear.
The list of features for Routan S includes air conditioning, four-way manual adjustments for front seats, a removable second-row bench and stowable split bench on row three, cloth fabric seat upholstery, a leather-bound tilting steering wheel, cruise control, power front windows, power heated exterior mirrors, 16-inch tires on steel wheels with wheelcovers, and an audio kit with AM/FM/CD plus six speakers.
Upgrades for Routan SE range from triple-zone manual climate controls to eight-way power adjustments on the driver's seat, captain's chairs for row two, power sliding side doors, a security alarm and 17-inch alloy wheels.
Routan SEL totes the 4.0-liter V6 engine with leather seat upholstery, three-zone automatic climate system, power controls for the liftgate, a floor console with adjustable storage bin, heat elements in seats on front and second rows, and power adjustable pedals.
Options in packages install navigation equipment, a backseat video DVD entertainment kit, a rear backup camera, remote engine starter, roof rails and a sunroof. Volkswagen starts the price ladder at $25,200 for Routan S.