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2009 Volkswagen Routan SE Review

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2009 Volkswagen Routan SE

What had started in the 1950s with the venerable Type 2 Microbus and continued with the Vanagon and EuroVan came to an end, in the US at least, in the early `00s. By that time the VW van had morphed from a relatively inexpensive workhorse to a pricey if well-equipped niche vehicle chosen by few. Most people looking for a van bought a minivan.

There was interest in the Microbus concept a few years back, but, unlike so many concept vehicles in recent years, the Microbus concept was not something ready for production, at least not at a competitive price. Europe had a choice of smaller vans, including VW's Touran; Americans wanted minivans.

So VW made a minivan for the North American market. With help, and who better than the inventor of the minivan, Chrysler. The Routan gives VW owners with growing families an alternative in the company's lineup, and utilizes what otherwise would be excess capacity at Chrysler's Windsor, Ontario, Canada minivan plant. New customers are welcome, too. While the basic underpinnings and drivetrains are Chrysler's, front and rear exterior styling, interiors, and the suspension tuning differentiate the Routan from its Dodge and Chrysler-badged cousins.

The Routan is offered in three trim levels: S, SE, and SEL. The S has everything really needed, and is anything but Spartan with such as heated power outside mirrors, power first and second-row windows and power vented third-row quarter windows, plenty of 12VDC power outlets, AM/FM/CD audio with auxiliary input jack, 2+2+3 seating, coat hooks, cupholders, grocery bag holders, and storage space galore, and manual dual sliding doors and tailgate all standard. The SE, expected to be the most popular model, adds upgraded exterior and interior trim, power sliding doors, triple-zone manual climate control, upgraded audio, a power driver's seat and second-row captain's chairs with underfloor storage tubs, the multi-compartment "overhead storage system", second- and third-row sunshades, and a greater choice of option groups. Add a power tailgate, leather seating, triple-zone automatic climate control, and other interior upgrades, and available luxury features like a navigation system, rearview camera, parking assist sensors, and premium audio, and equip it with a more-powerful engine and you get the SEL. As with 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.

Drivetrains are from Chrysler. The 197-horsepower 3.8-liter ohv V6 is used in the S and SE, and the 253-hp sohc 4.0-liter is in the SEL. Both are matched to a six-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift mode, and all are offered in front-wheel drive form only.

I've just spent a week with a Routan SE, after first meeting the van a few months ago when it was introduced to the press in Marin County, CA, not far from my house. At the introduction, the drive route was mostly on roads that would seem to be more suited for a GTI than a minivan. Both Routans I drove, an SE and an SEL, did commendably well, with considerably better handling than expected from a minivan. But that's not the usual reason for minivan purchase, and so time at home was good to explore the Routan's domestic side, with driving limited to city, highway, and a bit of backroad. With twin power sliding doors, the rear seat that folds flat into the floor -- or flips back for tailgating -- and all that room *plus* the underfloor storage, it's one useful and versatile machine. Power was never lacking, fuel consumption was about as expected at 17 mpg for mostly non-highway driving, and the ride quality and driving experience was pure Volkswagen. Minivans may not be status symbols, but they are useful, and Volkswagen has a very good one.

APPEARANCE: Form follows function. A minivan is a box, with a bit of styling at the ends and corners. That is the 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: In no other type of car is the inside more important than a minivan. It has to be convertible between passenger and cargo duty, has to have easy access for everything and everyone, and has to be comfortable enough to prevent family discord on long trips. The Routan SE scores well, with convenient power side sliding doors for easy access and a counterbalanced liftgate that does not require extreme strength. Seat design and foam is exclusive to VW, firm but supportive in the European manner. In the SE, the driver's seat is power-adjustable, with all others manual. The second-row captain's chairs are equivalent to the front seats in comfort, with adjustable back angle. They can be reclined nearly flat, as can the front seats - but not all at the same time if occupied. Second-row seats can also be tumbled up and/or removed. The hidden cargo compartment under the floor in front of the second-row seats holds more than some sports car trunks, safely out of the way. The third row is split 60/40, and holds three people, preferably kid-sized. Each side can separately be folded into the floor or flipped backward for tailgate parties or picnics. Upholstery is cloth in the SE, but it's Chrysler's stain-resistant "Yes Essentials", a good feature since kids and pets will be kids and pets. The dash is pure VW, in both design and materials, with first-rate build quality. The only hint of Chrysler is the shifter, positioned high and to the immediate right of the steering wheel - where it's easily reached, very good. Visibility is good, aided inside by a convex "conversation mirror" above the regular rear-view to keep watch on passengers. Storage space abounds, with door pockets, two glove boxes, open storage on top of the dash, a removable floor console, and more bottle and cup holders, and coat and grocery bag hooks than you could possibly use at one time. There's even an "umbrella tray" outboard of the driver's seat. The overhead console adds more storage, and the LED spotlights in the SE and SEL are great for night-time use.

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: VW put a serious effort into turning an American minivan into a "German-engineered" Volkswagen, and I suspect that chassis development got as much attention as the interior. Yes, it has the same MacPherson strut/twist beam axle suspension architecture as its cousins at Chrysler, but 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 appliance status. Ride comfort is still very good, and safety should be enhanced by the improved maneuverability.

PERFORMANCE: A Routan is not a 21-window Microbus, and that's a good thing when it comes time to go up a hill... The 3.8-liter pushrod overhead valve V6 found in the S and SE is more than merely adequate for motive power, with 197 horsepower (at 5200 rpm) and 230 lb-ft of torque (at 4000 rpm), matched to a six-speed automatic transmission. The transmission works well enough that "D" is fine most of the time, but manual shifting is easy due to the position of the shift lever. EPA fuel economy is 16 mpg city, 23 highway, and with 17 overall for the week with little highway driving that's pretty accurate.

CONCLUSIONS: Volkswagen's Routan is a thoroughly modern minivan, not an exercise in nostalgia.

2009 Volkswagen Routan SE

Base Price			$ 29,600
Price As Tested			$ 30,290
Engine Type			pushrod overhead valve V6
Engine Size			3.8 liters /231 cu. in.
Horsepower			197 @ 5200 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			230 @ 4000 rpm
Transmission			6-speed automatic with manual-shift mode
Wheelbase / Length		121.2 in. / 202.5 in.
Curb Weight			4507 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		22.9
Fuel Capacity			20.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement		87 octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires				P225/65R17 100T Bridgestone Turanza EL400
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc,
				 ABS, ASR, and 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 / observed		16 / 23 / 17
0 to 60 mph				10.2  sec
Towing Capacity			2000 lbs standard, 3500 w/towing package

Destination charge			$ 690