The new Volkswagen Routan is a minivan, its first in six years. VW's last effort in this market, the EuroVan, was panned in the U.S. This time, Volkswagen has turned to Chrysler. The seven-passenger Routan is basically a Chrysler Town & Country with a different interior, a Volkswagen exterior, and revised suspension settings.
The 2009 Volkswagen Routan lacks the seating features that make Chrysler minivans unique, the Stow 'n Go and the Swivel 'n Go seating arrangements. The reason: The Routan has the underfloor storage areas that come with Stow 'n Go, but Volkswagen opted to make the second-row seats thicker and more comfortable, so they won't fit in the storage bins. The third-row seats fold into the floor, and the second-row seats can be removed to create a flat load floor that is big enough for 4' x 8' sheets of plywood. When the third-row seats are up, there is a handy well behind them that's great for groceries.
The Routan is offered with two engines, the Chrysler 3.8-liter V6 and the Chrysler 4.0-liter V6. The 3.8-liter V6 is adequate for around-town duty, and the 4.0-liter V6 offers decent pickup and passing power.
We found the Routan offers a smooth ride and the driver enjoys a commanding view of the road. Handling, however, is somewhat cumbersome. The ride is pleasant enough, ironing out most bumps, but it can feel a bit top heavy at highway speeds. In short, it is not as pleasant to pilot as the Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna, and Nissan Quest are.
Entertainment features will keep the kids' attention, however. The Routan offers single and dual screen DVD rear-seat entertainment systems. Video game systems can be plugged in, and each screen can show something different, including the front navigation screen. Also offered is VW's JoyBox hard-drive radio. It has a 30-gigabyte hard drive that can hold thousands of song and picture files.
The Routan is priced about a thousand dollars more model for the model than the Chrysler Town & Country. It has a much nicer interior than the Chrysler, but lacks the Chrysler's innovative seating features. Like the Chrysler, the Routan is a great rolling living room for families.
Volkswagen Routan uses the same architecture and some of the same body panels as the Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan. It's a large vehicle, but it's about the same size as several competitors, including the Nissan Quest, Honda Odyssey, and Toyota Sienna. Cargo room is comparable.
The boxy main body is the same as the Town & Country's, but the Routan has VW styling from the front pillars forward. The grille is unmistakably Volkswagen, resembling that of the new Tiguan compact SUV. The tailgate is also a VW design, with the main element being the VW logo placed dead center.
Base models have manual sliding doors on both sides while higher line models have power sliding doors. The top-line SEL model has a power rear liftgate. On no model does the rear glass open separately.
Routan comes standard with 16-inch wheels; 17-inch wheels are standard on SE and SEL.
The Routan's greatest advantage over the Town & Country is the quality of the interior materials. The Routan also takes advantage of most of the T&C's thoughtful entertainment features, but lacks the innovative seating options that give the Chrysler a considerable advantage in the minivan class.
Where hard plastic dominates the dash and doors of the Town & Country, the Routan has nicely padded door armrests and a quality soft-touch upper dash. It's not all luxury level, though. The lower dash is hard plastic and the trim piece that bisects the dash is thin plastic. On one model we drove, this piece didn't fit well either. The white-faced gauges with black numbers are sourced from Chrysler. Surrounded by a faux aluminum trim piece, they are not that easy to read in bright sunlight.
The radio is set high on the center of the dash, and VW offers a version of Chrysler's UConnect Tunes and UConnect GPS hard-drive radios called JoyBox. JoyBox is also offered in two versions, one with a navigation system and one without. Both include a touchscreen, and both versions have a 30-gigabyte hard drive that holds music and picture files. Those files can be ripped from a CD or downloaded from a thumb drive plugged into the vehicle's USB outlet. When the navigation system is ordered, the hard drive also holds navigation map information. The navigation system has voice activation, and comes with one year of Sirius satellite radio.
Routan's controls are easy to use, though those on the right of the radio or touchscreen can be a bit of a reach for the driver. The climate controls are located below the radio, and they're self explanatory. The gearshift is mounted between the radio and the instrument panel. It's easy to reach, leaves plenty of room for other controls, and includes an electronic gear readout in the instrument cluster.
Room up front is plentiful. There is plenty of head room, and leg room will only be lacking for the tallest drivers. The front captain's chairs provide an upright driving position with an SUV-like view of the road. A tilt steering wheel and available adjustable pedals should help most drivers tailor a comfortable seating position, but some might prefer a telescoping steering wheel to bring the wheel closer to the driver.
When it comes to storage, the Routan has two glove boxes and some cubbies in the center stack for small items storage. A total of 13 cupholders are found throughout the van. The standard console has four integrated cupholders and a small storage bin. The SEL's premium center console has four cupholders and a small bin on top that slides back to reveal a larger storage bin below it. The lower bin also slides back. With both layers slid back, the top level moves back a total of 21 inches, which allows parents up front to pass drinks and sandwiches to the kids in back. The premium console is also removable to allow easy access to the back seats.
In the far back, the Routan has a deep well behind the third row, which makes hauling groceries easier. Even with all seats up, the Routan has 32.3 cubic feet of cargo room behind the third row. The third-row seat is split 60/40. It folds into that well in one or two sections. Three straps are attached to the back of each seat and they're marked 1, 2, 3. To fold the seats into the floor, first pull strap 1, then pull strap 2. You have to give strap 2 a good yank and help the seat along with your other hand. It can require leverage that some moms might not have. Strap 3 pulls the seats back up. A better option is the power folding third row seat, which can be set to four positions, including what VW calls the tailgating position. In this position, the seatbacks act as seat bottoms and the bottoms act as backs facing the rear of the van.
While Chrysler offers three seating options for the second row, VW offers two options without nearly as much utility. Standard seating in the S model includes a removable, reclining two-passenger second-row bench seat with covered storage bins in front of the seats. The front seats must be moved far forward to allow access to the storage bins. SE and SEL models have two captain's chairs. These seats also recline and the backs can fold flat on top of the bottoms. The seats in both options can be removed, but they're heavy and you need somewhere to store them. With the second-row seats removed and the third-row seats folded, the Routan has a flat load floor, 144.0 cubic feet of cargo volume, and enough space to fit a 4×8-foot sheet of plywood.
Also offered are single and dual rear DVD entertainment options. Both have a nine-inch DVD screen in the second row and the dual system adds one for the third row. When the vehicle is in Park, video can be sent to the front navigation screen. Video game systems can be plugged in, and each row can watch or play something different. Four sets of headphones are provided. Unlike the Chrysler, the Routan does not offer Sirius Backseat TV.
Aside from styling and interior materials, Volkswagen was able to make this van its own with suspension tweaks. Changes to the springs, dampers, bushings and steering gear resulted. However, without any changes to the suspension geometry, the Routan still handles and rides much like the Town & Country. Volkswagen touts the Routan's European ride and handling, but we sensed little difference between the Routan and the Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Caravan.
Like the Town & Country, the Routan is tall, heavy and long. Those traits make describe a good hauler but they make for cumbersome handling. With a bit quicker steering ratio over that of the Chrysler, the Routan reacts a little quicker to driver inputs. Still, the steering is very light and has lots of play on center. Drive it hard into a turn and it exhibits lots of body roll, leaning in turns. Pushed beyond the grip of the tires, it understeers. In other words, it prefers to keep going straight rather turning in quickly. Granted, most owners will never drive this aggressively, but the Honda, Toyota, and Nissan vans offer tighter, more responsive handling.
What most people want is a smooth ride, and here the Routan delivers. Most bumps are handled without transmitting a jolt to passengers. Sharp ruts can crash through, though. While the Routan does have some of the Town & Country's floaty feel on the highway, it doesn't seem to sway as much and feels slightly better buttoned down. On the whole, the Routan isn't as luxurious as the Toyota Sienna and it isn't as carlike or a as sporty as the Honda Odyssey or Nissan Quest.
The Routan also doesn't compete with the best in class when it comes to engine choices. That's a shame because the Volkswagen 3.6-liter V6 is competitive with any V6 on the market. However, the Routan uses Chrysler engines, which are simply behind the times.
The 3.8-liter V6 is standard in S and SE models. It makes 197 horsepower and 230 pound-feet of torque, and it offers decent pep for daily commutes and most needs. Passing requires some planning and a lot of room. The six-speed automatic transmission sometimes hunts for gears. With a 0-60 mph time of 10.2 seconds and EPA fuel economy ratings of 16/23 mpg city/highway, the 3.8-liter engine is not competitive with the majority of V6s available today.
The 4.0-liter V6 in the SEL is a better option. It delivers 253 horsepower and 252 pound-feet of torque, while getting better fuel mileage at 17/25 mpg City/Highway. The 4.0-liter gets the Routan moving nicely from a stop and teams with a six-speed automatic transmission to provide decent passing response. With a 0-60 time of 8.9 seconds, the 4.0-liter V6 is in the ballpark with the V6s offered by Nissan, Honda and Toyota, though it isn't as responsive or ultimately as quick. Properly equipped, the Town & Country is rated to tow up to 3500 pounds with either engine. We also found the 4.0-liter engine smoother than the 3.8-liter engine.
Tire and wind noise are well controlled in all models. Both engines cruise quietly, but under full throttle the 3.8 can intrude on conversation.
The Volkswagen Routan is a family friendly minivan with a higher quality interior than its parent, the Chrysler Town & Country. However, it lacks some of the best seating and storage features of the Chrysler. It rides smoothly, but handling and power are not as good as that of its competitors. And yet pricing matches the tops in the class, so the Routan may not be the best value in a very competitive market. The one advantage the Routan does have, however, is Volkswagen's three-year, 36,000-mile free maintenance plan.
Kirk Bell filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com from Chicago.