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2009 Volkswagen Routan Minivan Preview

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2009 Volkswagen Routan Preview

The new Volkswagen Routan is not the new Microbus, and it is most definitely not an exercise in nostalgia. As well-received as the Microbus concept vehicle was a few years ago, it would have been far too expensive to produce. The market for a $40,000 base price (and more like $50,000 popularly equipped) VW van would be vanishingly small. The market for a $25,000 base price VW van, on the other hand, could be large enough to be practical and profitable -- if it could be brought to production quickly and efficiently.

How best to do that? A joint venture, building on the product of an existing manufacturer. So a deal was struck, with Chrysler. Surprised? Alliances in the auto industry, especially today, can be interesting. Very interesting. But who knows minivans better than Chrysler, inventor of the genre? From VW's viewpoint, the Routan gives existing VW owners who may have found that their Jetta or Passat is a little small after a couple of kids and associated kid stuff something in the VW line, instead of losing them to another automaker. New customers are welcome, too. All Routan sales add to the VW total. From the Chrysler side, there was unused capacity at the Windsor, Ontario plant that could be put to good use. So it's a win-win situation.

Besides the obvious styling differences, with contemporary Volkswagen front and rear clips, VW stringently specified changes to the interior and suspension. So interior styling and materials are to VW standards, and noticeably different from the Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan. A firmer suspension tuning improves ride and handling. The changes are not minor - thousands of hours and tens of millions of dollars were spent in design and development. The Routan name is a combination of "Route" -- where you can go in it -- and "an", Volkswagen's multipurpose vehicle (MPV, what minivans and similar vehicles are called in Europe) suffix.

V6 engines are Chrysler's, a 3.8-liter with 197 horsepower or a 4.0-liter with 253 hp, both matched to a six-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift mode. Trim levels are S, with the 3.8, starting at $24,700, SE, also with the 3.8, starting at $29,600, and the 4.0 SEL with a starting price of $33,200. Like all 2009 Volkswagens, Routans come with the ESP stability control system and the Carefree Maintenance Program, free scheduled maintenance for three years or 36,000 miles. Brakes are four-wheel antilock disc.

The Routan is on sale now, and was recently introduced to the automotive press in Marin County, north of San Francisco, California. After a brief morning introduction describing the van and its development, we were turned loose on a drive route that included roads that might seem more-suited to a GTI than a minivan. Volkswagen's reputation was made on cars with a fun-to-drive character, and the Routan, while no GTI (the laws of physics will be upheld, like it or not) is at the top of the minivan class for driving experience. The SE, expected to be the best-selling model, that I drove in the morning had no power deficiencies, but the afternoon's SEL was noticeably quicker -- and the larger SEL engine is also expected to produce better fuel economy as well.

All Routan models have the features that are expected of a contemporary minivan, with equipment and option availability rising with trim level. Even the S can be had with a rear-seat entertainment system; the SEL may be outfitted in luxury style with leather and a high-end audio/DVD navigation package, plus its standard power side doors and liftgate. All have a 50/50 two-passenger third row seat that folds flat into the floor and can also be tumbled backwards for tailgating.

The Routan is the first new entry in the minivan class in a while, and is an absolutely Volkswagen take on the subject. It combines all of the expected minivan virtues with VW's character and driving experience. Driving experience? In a minivan? Yes, if that minivan is a Volkswagen Routan.

APPEARANCE: There is a standard minivan formula, and the Routan adheres to it. The front styling is pure Volkswagen, with the company's chrome-trimmed grille and complexly-shaped headlights evident and looking straight off the Tiguan crossover or Eos convertible coupe. The rear view is also undeniably VW, with the trademark taillights and curve to the liftgate glass. Only in side view is the other side of the family apparent.

COMFORT: The inside of a minivan is far more important than its outside. The Routan offers six- or seven-passenger seating in 2/2/2 or 2/3/2 configurations, with the second-row captain's chairs or bench foldable and removable. Each section of the third row split bench can either disappear into the floor or be tilted back 90 degrees for tailgate party use. When it's up, there is a deep well behind, a great place to keep groceries from disappearing. Seat design and foam is exclusive to VW, and firm but supportive in the best European manner. Both the cloth in the SE and leather in the SEL offer great comfort, and there is plenty of space in all positions. Access is easy, with dual sliding doors in all models. Those in the SE and SEL are power-operated, as is the SEL liftgate - and third-row seat. The instrument panel and all interior materials are exclusive to the Routan, and the look and feel is pure VW. The driving position is very good, with a good view of the road - or, with the "conversation mirror" in the ceiling console, the rear occupants. Even the S has an AM/FM/MP3-capable CD/auxiliary input audio system, and optional rear entertainment. Higher levels get 6-CD changers, and an optional system with a 30GB hard disk, USB connection, and secondary DVD player with twin ceiling-mounted screens. Sirius satellite radio is available in all models.

SAFETY: The Routan has all of the expected airbags, safety harnesses, and child-seat tethers. VW-specific suspension and steering tuning improves maneuverability, for accident avoidance, and four-wheel antilock disc brakes with brake assist and ESP stability enhancement add further safety.

RIDE AND HANDLING: Attention to detail makes all the difference. Although the Routan shares suspension architecture with the Chrysler minivans, with MacPherson struts in front and a twist-beam axle at the rear, Volkswagen engineers changed the steering, springs, shock dampers, and suspension bushings, and matched them carefully. The result is a most un-minivanlike driving experience that elevates the Routan above mere family transportation vehicle status. Ride comfort is still very good, and safety should be enhanced by the improved maneuverability.

PERFORMANCE: Both Routan engine choices, the S and SE 3.8-liter pushrod overhead valve V6 or the SEL's 4.0-liter sohc V6, are more than adequate. I didn't notice any lack of performance in the SE until I got into the SEL. With 253 hp (at 6000 rpm) and 262 lb-ft of torque (at 4100 rpm) to the 3.8's 197 horses (at 5200 rpm ) and 230 lb-ft (at 4000 rpm), the 4.0 shaves more than a second from the 0-60 time -- and it does that on less fuel, with EPA estimated city/highway/overall mileage of 17/25/20 to the 3.8's 16/23/18. A more efficient engine design for the 4.0 is my suspicion for the improvement, plus it's worked less. Where I used manual shifting to keep in a single gear with the SE, I found less need for that with the SEL. In both, the six-speed automatic was smooth, quick, and efficient.

CONCLUSIONS: VW does something different with the Routan minivan.

SPECIFICATIONS: 2009 Volkswagen Routan

Base Price			S: $24,700 SE: $29,600  SEL: $33,200
Engine Type			V6
	3.8 liter: pushrod overhead valve,
		 197 hp @ 5200 rpm, 230 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
	4.0 liter: single overhead cam,
		 253 hp @ 6000 rpm, 262 lb-ft @ 4100 rpm
Transmission			6-speed automatic with manual-shift mode
Wheelbase / Length		121.2 in. / 202.5 in.
Curb Weight			4507 to 4621 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		22.9 to 18.3
Fuel Capacity			20.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement		87 octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires				S, SE: P225/65R16  SEL P225/65R17
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc,
				 ABS, ESP standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut /
				  twist-beam axle
Drivetrain			transverse front engine,
				 front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / combined	3.8: 16/23/18
				4.0: 17/25/20
0 to 60 mph	3.8 10.2   4.0 8.9 sec

Towing Capacity		2000 pounds, 3500 with towing package