Test Drive: 2009 Volkswagen Routan SE
Depending on your point of view, the 2009 Volkswagen Routan is not the company's first minivan. In fact, technically it was VW that invented the minivan. Sure, it was a rear-engined, air-cooled, big-box version of the VW Beetle, and yes, it was often covered with crudely painted flowers and filled with smelly hippies, but in the 1960s, the VW Bus was just as ubiquitous on our roads as minivans are today. However, if you think that the 2009 VW Routan is a home-grown model set to reclaim Volkswagen's minivan glory, think again.
Instead, VW turned to the current king of the kiddie haulers, Chrysler, for its minivan needs. If the profile of the 2009 Volkswagen Routan looks familiar, it's because the VW Routan is built in the same factory as the current-generation Chrysler Town and Country and Dodge Grand Caravan. However, there is more to the 2009 Routan than simply a few badge switches. Like a teenager who backpacked across Europe for a summer, the VW Routan has enough Euro-influence to make it feel more worldly, even if it's still hemmed in by some basic shortcomings.
One of those shortcomings is the powertrain. The VW Routan is available with two engine packages, the 4.0-liter 251-horsepower V-6 that's the top-level engine in the Dodge and Chrysler versions, and the 3.8-liter 197-hp version available in mid-level Dodges and Chryslers. The weak-kneed 3.3-liter isn't available in the VW. We drove mid-level SE versions of the 2009 VW Routan, which are available only with the 3.8-liter V-6.
Nobody is going to mistake the agricultural growl of the Chrysler V-6 for the smooth whir of Volkswagen's own VR6 engine. However, we never felt the van needed more power than it had. Sure, we'd like more power, but we can't say we were disappointed by the Routan's acceleration. Part of the sprightliness is due to the VW Routan six-speed automatic transmission, which has one of the weirdest gear spacings we've seen. The first three gears come and go quickly, with only slight rev drops between them. The last three are much taller gears, so the van can theoretically save gas at higher speeds. The acceleration part works fine, but we'd prefer more evenly spaced gears in our vans, thankyouverymuch.
Ride & Handling
One of our complaints about the Dodge Grand Caravan we drove a year ago was the floating, wallowing, bouncing ride. Volkswagen's version of this platform remedies this considerably with unique spring and damper settings. The result is a van that actually rides and handles well. Fine, you won't be trading in your sporty VW GTI for a VW Routan minivan, but the 2009 Volkswagen Routan does a good job of reducing body lean in corners and providing a firm and controlled ride that's still comfortable.
The other VW Routan improvement is to the steering. Volkswagen uses its own steering settings, and while they're still numb, at least there's a bit more feel than the vague tiller provided in the Dodge and Chrysler versions of this same van. We still give the Honda Odyssey the nod when it comes to a minivan that's actually satisfying to drive, but that only applies to the most expensive Touring trim. For the rest of us, the less expensive VW Routan will do nicely.
Interior & Exterior
From the outside, the 2009 VW Routan minivan looks familiar, while not directly mimicking the style of the Dodge Grand Caravan or Chrysler Town and Country. The nose is different, but so is the rear of the van, which makes all the difference to our eyes. Gone is the odd boxy shape of the Dodge/Chrysler, replaced with a rearmost pillar that looks like it came off of a VW Touareg SUV. Combined with the new taillights, it makes the VW Routan look significantly better than its platform-mates.
The VW Routan interior, on the other hand, either shares too much or not enough with its siblings. On the "too much" side is the abundance of hard, mostly cheap-feeling plastic on the dash, doors, center console, window pillars and overhead console. Although it all looks to be assembled well, the quality of the plastic itself leaves a lot to be desired. On the "not enough" end is the lack of Dodge and Chrysler features like the Stow 'n' Go or Swivel 'n' Go middle-row seats, which fold into the floor or turn around to face the rear, respectively. According to Volkswagen, neither seating system satisfied the company's need for a comfortable middle seat, so it just went with standard flip 'n' fold 'n' haul 'em out seats instead. Also not available is the satellite TV system from the Dodge and Chrysler vans, although twin screens are an option.
We actually don't mind the absence of any of these things, mainly because we view them as dubious in value. Stow 'n' Go is handy, but the resulting seats are very thinly padded and uncomfortable. Swivel 'n' Go is nice if you like to get carsick, but if you ever have to remove them for extra cargo room, the seats weigh in at 90 pounds each. As for the satellite TV, we figure if a DVD isn't good enough, the kids can just look out the windows.
The rest of the VW Routan interior is pretty good and keeps what we did like about the Dodge Grand Caravan interior: flexibility and usefulness. There are lots of storage spaces, plenty of cargo space behind the third row, and all the seating positions are comfortable and easy to access. Volkswagen has mildly redesigned the center stack to bring it more in-line with the rest of the company's look and feel, but overall it's a thin veneer applied to an obviously Dodge design scheme. We do like the new front seats, however -- they're comfortable and firm, supportive for the long haul and with good grip in corners. Top-line VW Routan SEL models are available with Chrysler's MyGIG 30 GB hard-drive based navigation and entertainment system. For some reason, Volkswagen has renamed this system the "Joy Box." No, really.