Volkswagen adds family minivan to lineup in short order

Sunday, April 19, 2009
Volkswagen added the 2009 Routan to its lineup by getting Chrysler to build a version of the front-wheel-drive Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country vans for the German auto company. (Associated Press)

You can't blame Volkswagen officials and dealers for wanting to retain every buyer they can, including families that want a minivan.

So VW added a family-oriented minivan, the 2009 Routan, to its lineup in relatively quick fashion -- by getting Chrysler to build a version of the front-wheel drive Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country vans for the German auto company.

The deal makes the VW Routan a roomy minivan with an assortment of storage spots and cubbies inside, easy entry and exit, above-the-pavement seat positions and many, but not all, of the features found in Chrysler's vans. It also means the Routan earned five out of five stars in federal government frontal and side crash testing -- the same rating as the Chrysler minivans.

Volkswagen did make some changes, modifying the front and rear styling of Chrysler's vehicles, improving the seats, interior door trim and dashboard, and tuning the suspension a bit for tighter handling. It also took only the two top Chrysler V-6 gasoline engines for the Routan, not the lower-powered, 3.3-liter V-6 that's found in the base Grand Caravan and Town & Country.

The Routan's starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $25,950 for a 197-horsepower model with six-speed automatic transmission undercuts the top-selling minivan, the Honda Odyssey, by $1,075.

But the Odyssey, which starts at $27,025 for a base 2009 model, comes with a V-6 that puts out considerably more power -- 244 horses -- while retaining a fuel economy rating that's the same as or better than the lower-powered, base Routan.

The Routan's starting price also is just $645 more than a base, 2009 Dodge Grand Caravan with 175-horsepower V-6.

Most people apparently don't know about VW's new van. No one gave the Routan any attention during the test drive.

The exterior shape is typical minivan, with the most unexpected element outside being the big VW badge on the middle of the attractive grille. It has been years since VW had a van in the United States.

Confirming the Routan's small mark in the market, sales in the United States so far total only 4,553 in the model year that began last fall. In contrast, Honda sells some 6,000 Odysseys in this country every month.

Still, the test Routan, a mid-range SE, was a comfortable people and cargo carrier. Everyone had adequate head- and legroom and cargo space was generous.

I especially appreciated that there was no liftover at the rear cargo floor, so I didn't have to hoist heavy suitcases far off the pavement. Total cargo room with second- and third-row seats folded down is on par with other minivans at just over 140 cubic feet.

Interior dimensions, such as third-row headroom of 37.9 inches, are mostly the same as in Chrysler's vans. But slightly different front styling and seats lead to a tad less front-seat headroom of 37.2 inches, instead of the 39.8 inches in a Chrysler van.

The Routan's seats look and feel different from a Chrysler. The upholstery on the test van was a functional, gray textured style expected in a German van, not an American one.

Seat support was firm, not mushy, like it always is in a VW, and kept me comfortable throughout a three-hour drive. The dashboard has typical VW no-nonsense style and easy-to-read gauges and controls. But the swiveling second-row seats and table available in Chrysler's minivans are not on the Routan option list.

Engine power came on easily in city traffic and on flat roads, and the transmission worked smoothly. But I felt the transmission seeking gears on hilly roads, and I readily heard the engine working as the van tried to keep its speed on uphill climbs.

The 3.8-liter overhead valve powerplant is an older, reliable unit at Chrysler. Torque in the Routan peaks at 230 foot-pounds at 4,000 rpm.

The uplevel Routan engine also is from Chrysler. It's a more modern, 4-liter, single overhead cam V-6 generating 253 horsepower and 262 foot-pounds of torque at 4,100 rpm. A key point is that despite its higher power, the 4-liter V-6 earns a higher fuel economy rating from the federal government than does the smaller 3.8-liter V-6.

Specifically, the Routan's base V-6 is rated at 16 miles per gallon in city driving and 23 mpg on the highway, while the 4-liter V-6 is rated at 17/25 mpg. Both engines operate on regular gasoline.

The Routan's ride and handling seem just a tad tighter, more managed than that of Chrysler's vans. Among the suspension updates are stiffer springs and dampers, but the van still has a big, nearly 17-foot-long body and a lot of weight that needs to be controlled.

So this is not a sporty VW ride. Passengers feel body lean in curves and corners, and on windy days, the Routan felt like a boxy block going through the gusty air.

Steering in the test vehicle wasn't as precise as I expected. I made many small adjustments to the wheel in curves and even found myself keeping a close eye on the van's direction and position in the lane even on straightaways.

It's best to add rear park assist to help gauge where the rear of the minivan is as you back up. It's difficult to see using just the rear window that's high up in the tailgate.

VW buffs may recall the company showed a concept VW Microbus at the auto show in Detroit earlier this decade. But low sales projections and limited appeal have kept a new Microbus on the drawing boards.

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