- The Washington Times - Friday, July 24, 2009

A few years back, Volkswagen titillated graying hippies and trendy soccer moms with a concept version of its 1960s-icon Microbus van. The thing was cooler than cool, but never to be: from the beginning, building it VW’s way would have been way too expensive to compete in America’s cutthroat minivan market.

VW was nonetheless determined to have a minivan in its showrooms. Everyone begged the company to pull the trigger on the new-age Microbus, but level heads in Germany concocted a less-costly solution: they contracted with minivan maestro Chrysler to produce the 2009 Routan.

We should be careful about the word “teamed,” I guess, because although VW’s stylists and engineers breathed on the Routan here and there, the company’s minivan essentially is a rebadged variant of the Dodge Grand Caravan. VW does the buyer better in terms of visuals — there’s only so much about the basic looks that could reasonably be changed — but you probably won’t get much argument that the Routan’s grille and front-end treatment offers way more character than a Caravan’s blobby face.

Another good point: engineers tweaked the suspension enough that you’ll notice the Routan corners the road a bit better than a minivan usually does. The same tightening also produces a ride that’s firmer and more supple than the run-of-the-mill minivan. All occupants, but particularly the driver, are the better for it.

Volkswagen trimmed out the Routan’s dash with some nicer Euro-invoking materials so the driver and front passenger get a classy view, but the majority of the interior is constructed of the same low-self-esteem stuff for which Chrysler has earned infamy: the plastics are dreary and the switches and controls serve grudgingly.

The Routan also is stuck with the drivetrains Chrysler fits in its own minivans. A serious effort to differentiate the Routan would have brought VW-made powerplants, but that kind of rebadging is rare.

So our SE model has a primordial Chrysler 3.8-liter V-6 with 197 horses, and progress usually is a strain. One of VW’s economical and strong-pulling diesels really would have made a statement for the segment, but the best you can do is move up to the Routan SEL, which benefits from Chrysler’s slightly more contemporary 4.0-liter V-6 that brings an additional 56 horsepower to the party.

With either engine, there’s a 6-speed automatic transmission that doesn’t seem to have particularly well-considered shift programming. Six-speeders are supposed to help fuel economy, but our long trip with the Routan didn’t net OPEC-cheating efficiency.

Another VW-Chrysler trade-off has to do with the seating. Chrysler is protective of its Stow ‘n Go and Swivel ‘n Go innovations for second- and third-row occupants, so VW didn’t get access to those features. The Routan’s last-row bench does fold flat into the floor (or smartly reverses for rear-facing tailgating activities), and though its second-row captain’s chairs don’t fold into the floor or swivel, in exchange they are pleasingly more supportive than the Chrysler-issued seats.

Pricing for the Routan is slightly more than for the equivalent Chrysler minivan. We were marginally peeved that the $32,720 as-tested price of our Routan SE offered nothing in the way of rear-seat video gear. That requires a $3,000 step-up to the SE with Rear Seat Entertainment model.

For those searching for a different minivan brew, or for aficionados of the VW brand, the Routan is a tried-and-true design with a unique flavor.

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