“Drivers wanted” was a marketing slogan from Volkswagen used to push the company’s sportier vehicles. Now they can reach out to drivers with larger families – the inventor of the Microbus has co-opted with Chrysler to build a minivan in Windsor, Ontario. The Microbus was as iconic a vehicle in the 1960s as the Chrysler Minivan was in the later part of the 20th century.
Many had expected a production version of the anticipated Microbus concept shown in 2001, however, VW looked at the production costs of such a vehicle and the shrinking market for said product at this time. Wisely, it determined that sharing a platform with what has been the segment leader in sales and innovation was the more prudent path.
I have to admit I am really not a fan of what has been termed badge engineering. This is the practice of taking an existing vehicle, slapping on a nameplate and calling it all-new. Needless to say, I was hesitant about the prospect of driving a VW derivative of the Chrysler Magic Wagon.
At first glance, the vehicle’s exterior has more in common visually with other import vans and the rest of Volkswagen’s line up, than it does with its slab-sided sibling. Volkswagen emphasized that all sheet metal, except the doors and roof, are unique to the Routan.
On the inside, a fair amount of money has been spent adding Euro-flare to a passenger cabin born of North American design. The materials have a more upscale look and feel to them that what is typically found in a similar domestic van. The top section of the dash is covered in a nicely pebbled, soft-touch, material that is accented with a brushed metal panel below it that divides the dash across the midsection. This smart looking combination then flows onto the door panels.
The steering wheel is a European looking three-spoke unit that is wrapped in a lush leather, a wise choice as this is the thing the driver has the most interaction with – it also speaks to the sporty nature of Volkswagen’s marketing thrust. Teutonic appearance aside, the realization is this steering wheel retains all the wheel-mounted controls found on the original Chrysler unit including the onboard computer buttons and entertainment controls.
Volkswagen opted to offer a single engine choice in the Routan – Chrysler’s 4.0L V6. It produces 251 HP and 259 lb-ft of torque. This decision mirrors the import models, which also only offer large powerful V6 engines. The engine’s torquey work ethic is relayed to the front wheels through the same six-speed transmission found in the Chrysler Town and Country.
VW will offer four trim levels – the entry-level Trendline, ($27,995), nicely attired Comfortline ($33,975), the rich Highline ($39,975) and loaded Execline ($49,975).
The Trendline, although the entry level model is hardly Spartan. The list of features including dual manual sliding side doors, power windows and door locks, heated side mirrors, manual tri-zone climate control, tire pressure monitoring and a single disc in-dash Audio package with six speakers and an auxiliary input. Trendline models arrive with cloth-covered bench seats in both the second and third rows. The third row seats not only drop backwards for “tailgate” parties or staring out the back of the van, but also fold completely into the floor for a flat storage area behind the second row. Chrysler has not offered to share their Stow ’n Go nor Swivel n’ Go seating with Volkswagen. The middle row can be removed (a heavy proposition) or the seat backs folded forward in an attempt to increase the cargo capacity.
The Comfortline adds alloy wheels (over the base 16-inch steel rims with wheel covers) while cloth captains’ chairs replace the bench seats in the second row. These seats also are removeable and the backs will fold flat for storage. An eight-way power driver’s seat is included along with a trip computer and steering mounted audio controls. While the audio package now includes a six-disc DVD/CD changer and Sirius Satellite radio, the rear cabin entertainment system (with wireless headphones) is an $1800 option. The Multimedia package brings a single DVD/CD slot, 20-gigabyte hard drive (for media storage), USB connectivity, a 6.5-inch touch screen and a back-up camera system for just $600.
The Highline adds a number of convenience items including such niceties as heated leather first and second row seating, a power sunroof and lift tailgate, as well as automatic tri-zone climate control. Options are also enriched to include a $2800 Navigation system with 30 GB media hard drive, rearview camera and U-connect Bluetooth hands-free phone system. A premium rear seat entertainment system (a $2400 upgrade) includes separate 8-inch screens for the second and third row seats. The neat part is the two screens can play different movies.
The Execuline comes complete with the only options being a block heater and towing package.
Many buyers in the minivan segment will immediately notice the pronounced lateral side seat bolsters found on the front bucket seats and second row captains chairs. The seats have been tailored to match the driving dynamics Volkswagen set out to infuse into the Routan. The upside to the lack of Stow ’n Go seating is that the middle row seating is as comfortable as the front row.
Suspension components were beefed up including stiffer springs, shocks and antiroll bars. During my brief time behind the wheel the feel of this seven-passenger vehicle was one of something remarkably civilized in the ride department, yet harder cornering did not induce noticeable body roll. The German engineers have done a commendable job in boosting the handling and feel without sacrificing the overall ride qualities demanded of a family van.
The reason VW launched the Routan was to retain the customers the company was losing to its key competitors. The good news is that while there are unmistakable similarities between the Routan and its Chrysler counterpart, there are distinct differences. It has a sportier feel, a much-improved interior and the dash for which European rides are heralded.