- The Washington Times - Friday, November 28, 2008

Volkswagen doesnxt have huge expectations for its new Routan minivan. They will be happy to sell 35,000 to 40,000 annually.

This is not a big number – about 5 percent of the segment. Considering the expense of researching, designing, engineering and promoting a new vehicle – not to mention retooling a factory for its production, itxs not surprising Volkswagen decided to develop its minivan on the shoulders of another. In this case the Chrysler Town & Country provides the foundation.

Not only do the two share some sheetmetal and all of their key mechanicals, they are built side by side in Chryslerxs factory in Windsor, Ontario, Canada.

With its tongue firmly in cheek, Volkswagen has been running a series of Routan ads featuring Brooke Shields chiding expecting mothers for becoming pregnant solely for an excuse to buy a Routan. It’s classic Volkswagen marketing. More seriously, however, Volkswagen is also touting Routan as the only European-inspired minivan sold in America. Acute handling, responsive steering and a typically Volkswagen fun-to-drive quality is what the company hopes consumers will sense when test driving Routan. They want us to think of it as the Beetle of minivans. Ixm not sure how many will make that leap.

Walking by a Routan on the street, you may well not recognize its kinship with Town & Country. There isnxt much that is very distinctive about most minivans from the A-pillar to the tail. It’s the front ends and rear ends of minivans that provide most of their styling personalities. Routan’s grille and front fascia look nothing like the Chrysler’s front end.

Likewise the wheels, headlights and taillights are unique. In the world of basically cookie-cutter minivan styling, this is more than enough to distance Routan from its kissing cousin.

Offered as the $25,390 S, the $30,290 SE and the $33,890 SEL, Routan is competitively priced. Another byproduct of letting Chrysler do most the heavy lifting. Even the S features air conditioning, third-row fold-in-the-floor 60/40 bench seat, heated outboard mirrors, power accessories and a six-speaker audio system with CD player and auxiliary input jack.

Volkswagen expects the SE to be the best selling of the three trim levels. It has power-sliding side doors, a three-zone air conditioning system, eight-way power driver’s seat, two captain’s chairs replace the S’s second-row bench seat, steering wheel-mounted redundant controls for the audio system with six-disc DVD changer, and a trip computer.

Among the upgrades in the SEL are leather seating, automatic three-zone climate control, power adjustable pedals and heated first- and second-row seats. A rear-seat entertainment system is available in all three versions. Both price and features vary among the three trim levels. It is $2,600 in the S, and $3,100 in the SE and SEL. A DVD-based navigation system that includes a 30GB hard drive for music storage is also available at a $2,475 premium.

Under the hood, Chrysler supplies the getup and go. The S and SE rely on a 197-horsepower 3.8-liter V6. Powering the SEL is a 251-horsepower 4-liter V6. Both funnel their output through a six-speed driver-shiftable automatic trans- mission. The 3.8L is a solid utility engine. It performs adequately around town and cruises without objection on the highway.

It strains a bit when asked to gather some speed in passing situations, but gets the job done. For more of a Volkswagen-like experience, the 4L delivers more excitement. Fuel economy is about average for the segment. The 3.8L has an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 16 mpg in the city and 23 mpg on the open road. The 4L actually rates better with an EPA number of 17 mpg city/25 mpg highway.

A twist beam rear axle and a front independent setup with modified McPherson struts provide the suspension. Volkswagen claims it put a lot of work into giving the suspension a decidedly European feel. Its efforts werenxt wasted.

The suspension is noticeably firmer and tad more athletic than in the Chrysler. All four wheels front disc brakes that are monitored by an antilock system. Traction control, stability control and emergency brake assist are also standard.

Although the seats – particularly the front buckets – look about the same in the Chrysler and Volkswagen, they seem to have more side support in the Volkswagen. The leather seats in the Routan SEL are certainly richer looking with their stitched edges. Similar in layout to the Chrysler’s instrument panel, the Routan’s exhibits a few subtle differences.

Essentially, it is attractive and user friendly. A conversation mirror is mounted in the overhead console for keeping an eye on the kids.

The second-row seat(s) is removable, but canxt be folded into the floor as the third-row seat can. With the third row stowed and the second row removed, there is 144 cubic-feet of cargo space

The third-row seat can also be adjusted to face backwards for tailgating. A whopping 17 cupholders are sprinkled around the cabin.

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