2009 VW Routan 3.8 SE (USA)

Over the years, the motor industry has seen many examples of collaboration, some more overt and obvious than others. With the ever increasing costs of developing new model, and constant demands from the marketing departments for yet more niche vehicles, it is no surprise that there are more and more instances of similar products bearing different badges out in the market. Some of these partnerships are long-lasting, and some seem to be a pragmatic one-off for a particular need at a given time. Even so, more than a few eyebrows were raised when VW announced that their new Minivan, the Routan, was little more than a Chrysler product, with a bit of VW style to the trim, and what they rather amusingly call “European tuned suspension”. Amusing, not least, because this product is intended for sale only in America. Although it has been available for a few months now, I have seen very few on the road, and so was somewhat surprised at the rather depleted Hertz facility at Denver airport, to find several were parked up, and that one of them had my name on it (even though I had booked a mid-sized sedan!). It was very late, and they had few cars, so I decided to give it a go. It turned out the cars were brand new. So new that my test car has temporary plates (or rather a sticker in the back window!).

Visually, VW have done a reasonable job at trying to make the Routan look like one of their products and not simply a Dodge or Chrysler with their badge on it. Although the silhouette of the car is the same as the latest Grand Caravan, you get a different grille and front lights, with huge VW emblem in the middle, and you get different rear light treatment, again reminiscent of the other models in the VW range. Even the name is familiar – an anagram of “Touran”, of course. Open the door, and inside, this definitely does not look like a Chrysler Group product. The VW’s dash is somewhat reminiscent of the Passat, with a dividing trim line in grey shiny plastic, angled from the vertical, right across the entire width of the car. Above it, a neat cowl containing the dials. In front of it, a smart steering wheel, covered in real leather that was a real tactile joy. The dash itself is moulded from the same sort of quality plastic that you would find in a Passat or a Golf. Look closer, though, and the Chrysler origins become more obvious. There are plenty of other areas where the plastic is hard, thin and of lamentable quality – the pockets on the reverse of the front seats felt so flimsy I dared not use them, and there are some nasty sharp edges to the little panniers at the sides of the boot. Open the bonnet, and the Chrysler provenance is not hidden at all. The engine proclaims itself to be Chrysler, and the manufacturing stickers all say that the car was made by Chrysler Corporation.

The Routan is offered with a choice of the two largest engines from the Chrysler range: 3.8 and 4.0 litres. My test car had the smaller unit, a 3.8 litre V6, which develops a not very impressive 197 bhp. This is coupled to a six speed automatic transmission, and front wheel drive. I only drove the Routan one-up, and you have to remember that the car had done precisely 212 miles when I collected it. It was then faced with the inclines and hilly roads of the Rocky Mountains for much of the test mileage. Surprisingly, it felt no less urgent than the Taurus X that I had stepped out of the previous day, with a reasonably even seam of power available, helped by the sweet changing automatic box. You can shift the gears manually, and as the lever is mounted very high on the dash, to the right of the steering column, you change up by flicking the lever to the right and down to the left. It worked quite well, but once you had selected manual mode there was no way of going back to automatic without going into Neutral and back to Drive again. The engine did get quite vocal from about 3000 rpm, and with some of the inclines and some very tentative drivers on the hills in Rocky Mountain National Park, it had to work quite hard sometimes. All this generated a thirst for a gallon of America’s finest 85 octane gasoline every 22 miles.

You don’t choose a MiniVan for its fun driving characteristics, but in reality the Routan was not too bad. It certainly felt a lot more composed than the SUVs I have driven lately, with tidy handling, reasonable feel to the steering and a smooth ride over a mixture of surfaces (the roads of Colorado are much smoother than California – mostly!). I’ve not driven the latest Grand Caravan, so cannot comment on to what extent the “European tuned suspension” has made any difference. The brakes got a good work out, as I took the Routan up Pikes Peak. I thought they were doing fine, but like just about everyone else, I failed the “brake temperature test” on the descent, and was forced to take a mandatory 45 minute cool off period part way down – they said mine were at 700 degrees and 300 was the allowable. No-one seemed to pass, unless you had driven down in 1st gear, which is quite ridiculous! Anyway, I thought the brakes were OK, then we had a storm of biblical proportions, and I began to wonder about their performance in the wet, when braking distances seemed to elongate far more than I would have expected. There is a foot operated parking brake pedal – push to set and push harder to release. The position of the pedals can be adjusted electrically, via a neat switch on the steering column, though as will be described later, that is not the thing which needs adjustment.

If you do not buy a MiniVan for its driving dynamics, you absolutely do buy it for the space, and the seating capacity. The Routan is a 7 seater. There are two separate front seats, with a stowage device in between them, two similar seats in the middle of the Routan and an asymmetrically split bench suitable for three at the back. Access to the rear-most two rows is through sliding doors. These are electrically assisted, and can either be set off by just releasing the handle, or by pressing the appropriate button on the key fob. They close electrically, too. Simple to operate, and everything that a Peugeot 1007 was not! VW does not have the “Stow and Go” feature on the Routan, but even so, you can enhance the fairly limited (but very deep) rear luggage space by pulling three different levers and straps (clearly marked and numbered), which will collapse the backrest onto the squab then tip the whole thing backwards to create a flat load space. The final operation was very awkward, but maybe the mechanism was simply very stiff. Even so, getting the folded down item to then flop backwards onto the floor was not easy. The middle pair of seats can be folded down out of the way, too, by simply folding the backrest onto the squab, creating a luggage area that is flat all the way from the tailgate. The whole seat can be tipped forwards, for a deeper luggage space. Although there is no ability to fold these seats into the floor, there are two very commodious stowage areas under where the middle seat passengers’ feet would be. One thing I did notice is that there is a separate unit suspended from the ceiling, between the middle seats, containing controls for air con, and this robs quite a bit of headroom. Taller people would need to be careful and would find it a nuisance. Up front, there is a huge stowage area which has 4 cup holders in separate trays, sitting between the front seats. There are a further 2 cup holders in the dash, along with various other smaller places to stow CDs, mobile phones, loose change and so on. There are decent door bins and there is a split level glove box. Great marks for practicality, then.

With one exception. I found getting in and out of the car really challenging. Initially I thought that the problem was that the seat was set high, but when I realised I could lower it, it did not really help, and I bashed my head on the inner door frame more than once. The problem seems to be that the combination of seating position I need (well forward for my short legs), clearance with the column (which goes up and down, but not in and out) and the shape of the door frame itself means that although it is not visually obvious there is far less clearance than in any other car I have recently been in. Well, OK, not the Corvette, but you make allowances for a sports coupe that you do not expect to have to make for a Mini Van. This is not the only ergonomic flaw, either. I have already mentioned that the gearlever is mounted on the dash, but it is too high up, and too close to, but behind the steering wheel, to be in a very natural feeling position. I’ve experienced other cars where the shifter is dash-mounted, such as the Honda Odyssey, and it was not a problem there.

The test car was in SE spec, which is the second of four available specifications. Overly generous it is not. The leather trimmed steering wheel was nice, and those electric doors would be quite useful. The stereo system was fairly basic, and still sported an old-style metal aerial sprouting out of the front wing. There was a form of climate control, but it proved pretty ineffective. Even with the fan on the fourth setting, it could not generate much flow of air, just a flow of noise. On a quieter setting, but set to “as cold as possible”, which was relative, not an absolute temperature, the inside of the Routan got sticky. There are separate controls for the rear passengers. Maybe part of the problem was exacerbated by the fact that the test car included a glass sun-roof, which made the inside of the car feel light and airy. I do still like sun roofs, even in the age of air conditioning.

Although there are some good points to the Routan, overall, I would struggle to recommend one. Whereas VW desperately needs a replacement for the 13 year old Sharan in Europe, the decision not to bring in the Routan was probably not a bad one. So, if the Routan remains a US only product, the question is why people would buy one rather than the Chrysler product. I am not sure I know the answer to that. VW has a very different market profile in the US, and relatively low sales volume, so I can see that they perhaps thought that the extra sales they could generate would only ever justify re-engineering someone else’s product, and Chrysler were presumably willing to do the deal, but the fact that you see heaps of Dodge and Chrysler ‘Vans and so few Routans, even allowing for the fact that it has been on sale less time, probably provides a clue. Whether this sort of re-engineering deal will be repeated is just one of many interesting questions that only time will answer for us. Regardless, if you want a MiniVan, just go and see your Honda dealer and test an Odyssey! It’s the better product.

2009-07-05 10:44:43

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