A large percentage of TTAC readers arrive here via a Google search of a specific vehicle. They know nothing of– nor care much about– our “take no prisoners” editorials or Inside Baseball auto industry analysis. So, in their honor, let’s start with THE key fact: the VW Routan is a rebadged Chrysler minivan. Rebadged as in mildly reworked. So why buy a VW Routan instead of a Chrysler product? For the same reason you’d buy a Chrysler minivan over a Honda Odyssey or Toyota Sienna: no reason at all, really. But there’s more to it than that. At least in theory…
Externally, the Routan’s metalworkers have done what they could to differentiate their “German engineered” product from its American/Canadian cousins (i.e. nothing much). If the Dodge Caravan is a lunchbox, and The Town and Country a Chrysler 300 sedan inflated by 500 percent, the Routan is an inflated lunchbox with a VW nose. That said, the Routan’s schnoz demonstrates the importance of a vehicle’s “face;” VW’s plunging trapezoid re-brands the box, transforming it into a significantly more coherent vehicle. Whether or not the resulting VW-ness appeals depends on how many hours/dollars you’ve spent at a VW dealership.
The aesthetic improvements continue inside… somewhat. VW recast the Chyrsler product’s cheap ass dash in a faux painted metal. For those who remember the original Microbus, it’s a constant reminder of the innovative, iconoclastic vehicle that the Routan is not. There’s no disguising the Routan’s modern roots: a non-Germanic vehicle made for people comfortable living inside a box. If you can’t see the problem, blinded as you are by the steering wheel’s big-ass logo, you can feel it. The switchgear and cabinetry respond with Chrysler-esque imprecision.
Also lacking: Chrysler’s oh-so clever Stow-n-Go seating. Jumbo cargo schleppers will have to remove the Routan’s mid seats and leave them somewhere. On the flip side (get it?), the Routan’s second row seats are considerably more comfortable than Chrysler’s origami ones. If you’re going to be carting more humans than old armoires, the Routan is the way to go.
Our test van had a power tailgate, which is helpful. You can lift things out, hit the gate with your elbow and walk away. The power-folding rear seat is jewelry: a nice touch that serves no practical function. Minivanistas will know that reconfiguring seats means crawling around in the back moving CD collections, abandoned sippy cups, Tonka trucks and such before you can start the folding. After that, who cares if seat accordionage is just a button away?
They’ve Veedubbed the Dodge, but it’s still a Dodge. For example, the spare tire. You must lower it to ground from a knob on the floor near the driver’s seat. Had VW bolted the wheel to the front grill, I would have given this thing five stars just for old time’s sake. Hell, I may have bought one. As nice as the Routan is– with its cubbies and LED map lights and 13 cup holders (six passengers can two-fist it, with the driver leaving one hand on the wheel) and back-up video camera– it’s got as much character as Brooke Shields in The Muppets Take Manhattan.
The Routan offers the same engines as its supposed Chrysler platform mates (duh): a 3.8-liter V6 making 197 hp or a 4.0-liter V6 turning-out 251 ponies. Bigger is better. The larger-engined SEL is not slow; zero to sixty in 8.9 seconds is an acceptable sprint time for a 4621 lbs. family hauler. More importantly, there’s plenty of torque on tap, allowing smooth, predictable acceleration at all speeds. AND the bigger motor gets slightly better gas mileage.
VW claimed they spent millions on the Routan’s suspension to give it that “VW feel.” Marketing execs now join TV weather people and my high school guidance counselor as people whose information must be “recalibrated” with reality. The whole world is not a parking lot. There’s simply too much waft, wallow and float, even for a minivan. I’ve driven heavyweight Dodge Chargers and sprightly VW GTIs. Both donor companies can do better.
I didn’t take the Routan on the Autobahn. Maybe there’s a difference between this four-wheeled crate and Dodge’s version at 100-plus miles per hour. The set up did seem a tad more taut than the Caravan’s… if I concentrated. What I came to believe, after a couple of mixed miles, is that whatever VW spent got diluted. Tweaking a suspension, while keeping everything else, yields nothing very much.
Taken as a whole, the Routan is the most desirable of the three minivans sharing this platform– provided you don’t need the trick seats. If Honda, Kia and Toyota weren’t in this space, the Routan would rule. But they are, so it doesn’t.