By on June 13, 2012

One thing I heard over and over in the Transportation Design biz is how the real world of car design is nothing like what you learn in school.  It’s probably the same for any Industrial Designer or anyone in the creative arts, but to a lesser extent.  We are passionate about cars.  To wit: my former CCS classmate Mike Chan is taking his education and automotive (okay, motorcycle) design experience to launch his own design: the Chrono Case. Do me a solid and check out the man’s hard work, and maybe consider participating in the Indiegogo funding thing. Why?

Because we all need to save designers from creating design nightmares such as the VW Routan. The weatherstripping is reason enough to become a design entrepreneur à la Mike Chan.  From one CCS person to another, best of luck to you, Mike.


Why not put a VW front end on a Chrysler minivan?  My time at CCS tells me it can happen, but why it must never!  My MBA understands why the beast was born.  From here, quite honestly, the unique sheet metal isn’t the least bit offensive.  While VW’s rounded design language fights the boxy chassis of a proper van, there’s enough tumblehome to match the hood bulge and flared bumper elements. And without a front license plate, the deep chin and thrusting nose is somewhat appealing.

And while Brooke Shields’ presence made the VW of minivans far more appealing for most suburban men, the Routan is actually quite beautiful from this angle. Try to disagree with me, you cannot!


Still quite a looker, but the obvious BMW E60 5-series homage in the lighting pods is a bit much for me.  Then again, these look better than the originals, adding far more refinement to each hunk of plastic than Bangle’s baby.


A premium German Chrysler Minivan with no fog lights?  Oops.


Wait…a premium German Chrysler Minivan with a whip antenna?  Actually that’s not the problem, I got beef with the execution: the need for a large negative area to fit the aerial is proof that this design was a quick and dirty affair.  If we still must use whip antennas, let’s just slap them right on the fender like an old school Ford Aerostar.

And why is there a fake crease near that antenna? Honestly, I have no clue.


Oh boy, that’s a big hunk of DLO fail. Let’s go back again to the Ford Aerostar for the correct answer: a hunk of glass in lieu of the black plastic triangle with chrome trimmings. Then again, why can’t all vans be like the concept and (original) production Pontiac Trans Sport?  Was being that modern, that radical really so bad? That design needed refinement, not abandonment.


Not much to see here, this is just a regular van. Except for the well-integrated rail for the sliding door: putting this unattractive element at the base of the greenhouse with the rear glass does a fantastic job in cleaning up the package.  Chrysler pioneered the minivan’s rail integration back in 1996, and everyone followed suit shortly after. So maybe that’s why VW wanted one for themselves?


I wish the door handle’s cut lines were as blocky as the rest of the van, but that’s a minor nit to pick. The uninterrupted, door track free, quarter panel is much appreciated. More to the point: shove it, Honda Odyssey.


The plastic trim overlap on the C-pillar looks horrible.  The majority of vehicles have uninterrupted top window frames/rails for a reason.  This looks counter-intuitive and downright cheap.


Another element of the 1996 Chrysler minivans (among others of the era) that I truly adored was the smooth transition from bumper to tailgate. The Routan seemingly has a worse bumper-tailgate motion than its Caravan brother, even the now-extinct Chevy Venture and Ford Freestar were superior in this regard.  Minivans were so much prettier 20 years ago!  I never cared for flannel shirts and The Spice Girls, but now I do miss the 1990s.


Whoops, let’s step forward for a moment: these racks are impossibly low to the roof.  I’m sure this helps aerodynamics, but good luck keeping the roof scratch-free when strapping down luggage to it. I’d like taller ones with a quick release feature…but I’m certain that’d never make production!


These taillights have the same circular theme of the VW Beetle analyzed before, but there’s less real estate to make them suitably spectacular.  As such, they look half-hearted.  Why fight the box?  Either make Ford Aerostar style lights (eliminating the useless bit on the tailgate) or re-think the genre like the original Trans Sport.


I’m not a Chrysler, I’m a gen-u-wine Vee-dub!  Can’t you see it in my eyes and my big chrome nose, son? No amount of Vaseline on the lens can fix this.


Note how weak-kneed this lense’s contouring is…compared to the new Beetle. It’s further proof that some brands can’t extend themselves very far from their core offerings.


Let’s end on a high note!  The CHMSL (third brake light) is a rather slick affair.  I like how it’s integrated into the rear spoiler, forming a hard but clean negative area.  The black sensor thing in the negative area is somewhat well done: I doubt there’s a better place for it on a normal production van, but a flush mount woulda been pretty trick.

And with that, thanks for reading and have a great week!

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19 Comments on “Vellum Venom: 2012 Volkswagen Routan...”

  • avatar

    About the case. Neat design, but wrapping an iPhone inside what’s essentially a Faraday cage…. Yeah, I dunno.

  • avatar

    Around here — there are actually more newer Routans than T&C’s/Grand Caravans. I live in an area that is very import friendly (or is that domestic adverse??)and I’d say the Chrysler/Dodge brand is rather damaged.

    And despite VW’s non-stellar reliability image, there are lots of Jettas, Passats, even EOSs, so, yes Routans, too.

    So among the world of Odysseys and Siennas (the preferred mini vans, I’d say) the Routan is a reasonable player.

  • avatar

    In our area, there’s about a $9,000 difference between the Routan and the Grand Caravan. From what I understand, Volkswagen even sends their Routans over to the Chrysler shops for certain kinds of work.

    I know this may be a little unfair, but I can think of better ways to spend my money than on a so-so nose job.

  • avatar

    Going in to the shop for my routine maintenance on my GTI, I see these things pull in once in a while. Its just not a VW, they have the wrong key, the wrong interior switches, the wrong dash layout….etc. It was literally a badge job and really not a very good one at that….

  • avatar

    The Pontiac Transport was the Aztec of it’s day. Even worse, was the lumina APV version. Once the dustbuster moniker caught on, it was too late to save them. Not to mention they came with the woefully underpowered 120 hp 3.1L v-6 which was just a horrible engine all around. Minivans shouldn’t pretend to be more than they are, boxy and basic functional utility vehicles, at a low price. This is one area dodge has always gotten right.

    • 0 avatar

      Now I entirely disagree. Having driven both the first and second generation u-bodies, they weren’t perfect, but they were at least interesting to look at. At that point, no design had popularized high-mount tail/signal lights nor had anything attempted to cut the wind like the much derided “dustbuster” shape. For their time, they were reasonably well appointed and as noted, the 3.1 was no powerhouse, but I found that it could certainly get out of it’s own way. Also, you’ll not see a rusty Lumina/Transport/Silouhette with the fiber panels. Having driven an example of each for a few years at a clip, they maintainted their looks and cleaned up well. I hope that Sajeev is speaking tongue-in-cheek when referencing the Aerostar as a design template as to my eye, they were quite homely. When I look at the front of one, I cannot think of anything but a drawing of Millhouse from the Simpsons. The only saving grace of the Aerostar is the incredible amount of abuse they can take and keep going.
      Were U-bodies great? Not at all, in fact they were pretty miserable (in my experience) from a reliability standpoint, but at least they didn’t look like everything else on the road! If perhaps there were more diversity in minivan/family hauler design, we’d not be stuck with the punkin’-on-wheels SUV/CUV boom.

    • 0 avatar

      I liked the Aerostar concept better than the production…but I still thought it was a decent design for the early 1980s. Not nearly as impressive a feat as the U-bodies.

      Comparing the U to the Aztek is totally out of line. Even if you think its ugly, it was not half-assed.

      Combine the minimalist rampy goodness of the Aerostar’s body with that unbreakable design, and I must admit that I like ’em. I wish my Ranger had its rear suspension.

    • 0 avatar

      The original U bodies eventually came with the Buick 3.8 V6 installed, I know the Oldsmobile version did. The revised ones that came out in 1996(?) were an over-reaction to the dustbuster moniker (IMO) and went too far to the conventional side of the style ledger.

      I would have liked to have seen a 2nd generation of the dustbuster, with uprated engines in long and short wheelbases with two sliding doors. As zamoti said, you don’t see rusty versions of these vans. That’s something that GM really should have stuck with, at least for vehicle like these, critics be damned.

      I would agree that Chrysler has always done the minivan the right way. I’ve not driven a Routan, but I have driven the Grand Caravan and found it to be quite competent, for a vehicle of it’s mission.

      WRT Aerostars… Whaaa??? The vast majority I ever encountered were another reason why I haven’t looked seriously at a Ford product in almost 20 years. Really puzzling considering their origins (Rangers).

    • 0 avatar

      The Trans Sport concept looked great, with that upward-hinged side door reminiscent of the L’Universelle. Unfortunately, in translating it into a production vehicle, the nose got stretched out a lot and the rear got boxier and less interesting. Those changes were probably driven by the goal of building a vehicle that would easily pass crash tests, use existing drivetrains and sliding door tooling, and be priced for the mass market. The result, unfortunately, was the compromised Dustbuster look. Looking at one from the side, it seems like the driver is sitting at least as far back from the front bumper, if not more, than in an ordinary midsize sedan. Kinda takes away some of the packaging advantages of a van.

      • 0 avatar

        “Then again, why can’t all vans be like the concept and (original) production Pontiac Trans Sport? Was being that modern, that radical really so bad?”

        YES! The Pontiac Trans Sport was a gawd-awful doorstop of pig iron welded to its only redeeming feature, the 3800 series V6. Horrible seating swathed in GM mouse-fur, VAST open dash that spread out farther than most human beings can reach to get that fastly accumulating pile of insect carcasses and dust thick enough to grow potatoes in, and ergonomics designed with a Crayola the gaps were so wide.

        The Aerostar OTOH was never to be considered a serious mini-vanner. It was a stop-gap that Ford needed quickly to meet the new market. It had rear-wheel drive and many came with a 5 spd manual; two things anathema to the majority of minivan drivers. Great work van, solid and dependable, and not that hard to work on.

  • avatar

    At least from a distance, the packaging hides its Chrysler roots. More than a number of acquaintances were interested… until they found out about its roots. Caravan buyers will go for the Caravan, you hardly see a Routan around where I live.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    I’ve been seeing $6-8000 discounts in the Houston area recently on these. Personally I find the Routan a great looking vehicle….far more cohesive than the Odyssey and Nissan. If only it had Toyonda roots for reliability!

  • avatar

    One of the few gripes I have with my Honda Fit is the CHMSL blocking a portion of the center of the already gun-slitty rear glass. I wish they’d gone with a spoiler integrated light like this one. If the road behind me has a rise to it, the 3rd brake is very much in the way.

  • avatar

    I love me some vellum venom, but perhaps too much venom here for a minivan design? The VW version is surprisingly well differentiated from the Chryco versions, and easily the best looking (and perhaps even best of breed amongst current minivans). Nitpicking the taillight lense contouring seems a bit harsh. And the fake crease is clearly to continue the hood cutline back to the DLO, you may not approve but “no clue”? You are right about the overlap on the c-pillar, that’s a head scratcher, and the whip antenna is extra cheap looking, and I’ve seen them on more surprising vehicles than this.

    Sajeev, I have a serious question for you… what do you think of the finger lip on fuel filler doors? I think they look terrible, and with so many ways to avoid it (even without the expense of a remote release), I can’t think of an excuse to have them anymore. The new Focus sedan has one, but the hatch has a flush door (though, ugh, they added a dimple to show where to push to pop the door open). It’s a pet peeve of mine, curious what you think.

  • avatar

    Look, I get that the Routan is not a REAL VW, and I’m OK with that. As a lifelong REAL VW owner (including Golfs, Cabrios, Passats, Jettas, an Eos, and yes, even a Eurovan) I knew what I was getting myself into when I purchased a Routan two years ago. Having said that, aside from self-destructing front brakes and a failed wheel bearing, this van has been trouble-free (70,000 km and counting). I, too like the styling of the Routan better than either of the other RT triplets. The VW rhinoplasty makes the most of a pretty blocky, utilitarian shape. Despite the price difference on paper, generous incentives meant that I didn’t pay any more than a comparably-equipped Caravan or TC. I have a great relationship with my dealer (Cambridge VW in Cambridge, ON), so it came down to where I wanted to buy my Chrysler: the VW store or the Chrysler store. Most people assume it’s a VW, made in Germany. They are shocked when I tell them it’s screwed together by CAW labour down the road in Windsor. That in itself makes it unique, since it is the only Canadian-assembled “VW” in history. I like my Routan. Of course, as they say, YMMV.

  • avatar

    Thanks Sajeev for a great review – I always look forward to this column and was particularly interested to hear what you have to say about the Routan. A couple of points:

    1. VW inherited the Caravan / T&C well after the design was frozen, so they had a very limited ability of what they could change. For example, the horrible plastic trim on the sliding door (what was Chrysler thinking??) and the nicely-integrated sliding door track.

    2. Routan isn’t supposed to be a premium German minivan – just a “volume” (haha) product from a German manufacturer. The lack of fog lights is in keeping with the competitors.

    3. Since I’m not a designer, maybe I don’t get your tail lamp contour analysis, but one thing’s for sure: the Routan (MY 08) was designed well before the current Beetle (MY 12), so there was no “extending” from the Beetle to the Routan.

    4. I believe that black plastic “sensor” in the rear spoiler is the washer fluid nozzle.

  • avatar

    As the owner of a German car, the over-riding sense I get from their engineering philosophy is that they’re perpetually asking questions no one needs the answer to.

  • avatar

    When I sat in one of these at the Minneapolis Auto Show, I laughed out loud upon looking at the build sticker on the b-pillar that said- ‘Built in USA by Chrysler LLC’. The auto show models looked at me kind of wierd.

    Get rid of this monstrosity and bring over the Amarok, Vee-DUB…!

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