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2011 Volkswagen Routan SE Road Test Review

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2011 Volkswagen Routan


SEE ALSO: Volkswagen Buyers Guide

Judging by the number of examples I see on the road, the Routan has given Volkswagen a solid toehold in the minivan class since its debut in model year 2009. No, it's not a new Microbus, and yes it was unashamedly developed in partnership with Chrysler. But joint ventures are the way of the auto industry, and who better to work with on a minivan than the genre's inventor?

The 2011 Routan may look just like earlier models, but there are a couple of is a significant improvement behind its recognizably Volkswagen grille: the previous 197-horsepower 3.8-liter and 253-hp 4.0-liter vee sixes have been replaced by a new 3.6-liter V6 with 283 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. More power usually means more fuel needed, but not here - improved engine design means better fuel economy. EPA estimates of 17 mpg city, 25 highway versus the previous 16/23 don't seem like much of an improvement, but the 21 mpg overall I got during my week was better than the 17 with a 2009 3.8 -- and power and acceleration are noticeably improved. The 40-hp Microbus was a long time ago…

Trim levels are still S, SE, and SEL, although there have been some changes standard equipment since the Routan's introduction. No surprises there, and changes have mostly been in the direction of improving value for buyers. All models have three-zone air conditioning, power outlets, cruise control, and underfloor storage space beneath second-row passengers' feet. And of course (this is a minivan…) plenty of cup and bottle holders and storage spaces. The S has all of the basics; the SE adds convenience and comfort, replacing cloth upholstery with V-Tex leatherette and adding a power-adjustable driver's seat, power sliding doors, bright LED reading lights for all rows, heated front seats, Bluetooth® connectivity, a long overhead console, and available navigation and rear-seat entertainment systems. SEL and SEL Premium add leather upholstery, a power-stowing third row, and more for a luxury minivan experience.

A Routan SE with the navigation and rear-seat entertainment systems has been my transportation for the past week, and no complaints. The new drivetrain is a great improvement, especially with better gas mileage. As before, VW's own suspension tuning makes the Routan a better-driving vehicle than most of its competitors, and the interior space and configurability thereof make a minivan the best choice for hauling people and their stuff. And it's not bad at all for just plain hauling stuff, especially odd-sized stuff -- I inherited some otherwise-unused ancient black-and-white photographic equipment and got it all into the well behind the third row with no difficulty. And no chance of sliding around the interior. I still could have gotten seven real people inside at the same time, too, had I needed to, and with greater ease and comfort than in a large three-row SUV.

VW seems to be marketing the Routan primarily to VW owners who need something bigger than a Passat and don't want or need an SUV like a Touareg, but it's a good choice for anyone with a need for an upscale minivan.

APPEARANCE: Success in the minivan class goes to the conservatively and functionally styled, and so the Routan is the box it came in, with VW front and rear styling added. The other side of the family is only apparent from the side.

COMFORT: Inside is what matters for a minivan. It has to change, often quickly, 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, with the nav and/or entertainment packages, a power liftgate. 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. The SE's synthetic "V-Tex" upholstery material looks and feels more like leather than most vinyl.

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 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. The entertainment system does remove two of the overhead storage bins, replacing them with video screens.

SAFETY: All of the expected airbags, safety harnesses, and child-seat tethers are found in the Routan, with front-seat side and driver's knee bags now standard across the lineup. 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: "German-engineered" is not merely marketing hype here, as VW put a serious effort into turning an American minivan into one that would appeal to Europhile Volkswagen owners. 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, although its 4600-pound weight does mean it's no GTI. Physics is physics… Ride comfort is still very good, and safety should be enhanced by the improved maneuverability.

PERFORMANCE: If the best thing about the 2011 Routan is not immediately visible, it certainly is noticeable when driving. That would be the new engine, Chrysler's 3.8-liter dual overhead cam, 24-valve aluminum alloy "Pentastar" V6. Its 283 horsepower (at 6350 rpm) and 260 lb-ft of torque (at 4400 rpm) are a significant improvement over even the old 4.0-liter V6, and its more-efficient design means that power is made with less gasoline. Right foot to the floor, and the Routan has no problem merging into traffic. Highway hills see some shifting from the six-speed automatic as it tries to keep fuel economy as high as possible. If the driver finds that objectionable, manual shifting is easily available. EPA rating is 17 city, 25 highway. Initially, mostly around town, I saw 17. A hundred or so miles of highway upped that to 23 (average), which then went back down to 21 after more time on stop-and-go surface streets. That's better than an underpowered air-cooled Microbus from the past, and now you get real heat and air conditioning and don't have to plan a route to avoid steep hills…

CONCLUSIONS: The Volkswagen Routan gets a new engine for 2011.

SPECIFICATIONS 2011 Volkswagen Routan SE

Base Price $ 34,750 ($31,770 without option packages) 
Price As Tested $ 35,570 
Engine Type DOHC 24-valve aluminum alloy V6 
Engine Size 3.6 liters / 220 cu. in. 
Horsepower 283 @ 6350 rpm 
Torque (lb-ft) 260 @ 4400 rpm 
Transmission 6-speed automatic with manual-shift mode 
Wheelbase / Length 121.2 in. / 202.5 in. 
Curb Weight 4595 lbs. 
Pounds Per Horsepower 16.2 
Fuel Capacity 20.5 gal. 
Fuel Requirement 87 octane unleaded regular gasoline 
Tires P225/65R17 100T Michelin 
Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, ABS 
Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / twist-beam axle 
Drivetrain transverse front engine, front-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 17 / 25 / 21 0 to 60 mph est 7.5 sec Towing capacity 2000 lbs / 3600 lbs with towing package

OPTIONS AND CHARGES Destination Charge $ 820