Any car company that wants to sell a wide variety of vehicles to a wide variety of customers is continually looking at its product lineup to see where it might be able to expand its offerings. After all, if you want your customers to be brand loyal, you need to give them choices when their lifestyles change.
Volkswagen has had a fair amount of success selling reasonably priced vehicles with a certain cool factor. Cars like the GTI, Jetta and Passat are popular with everyone from college students to younger baby boomers who want their cars to have a continental panache, but don’t feel like forking over the money for something like a BMW or Volvo.
But what about when those VW owners start having families? They’re probably going to need family-oriented vehicles to haul around kids in car seats, strollers and those gigantic packages of diapers sold at Costco. A Jetta’s back seat might be suitable for the first child, but when a second or third comes along (or you need to carry their cousins, friends and teammates), it’s going to be too small.
Sensing that they might like to sell something that holds seven passengers and their belongings, Volkswagen wanted to have a minivan in their showrooms. But bringing a vehicle to market from scratch costs billions. There are small VW vans in Europe, but they wouldn’t be a good solution for the majority of Americans, and the cost of just bringing one up to U.S. standards would be prohibited.
So VW took a huge shortcut and enlisted the help of Chrysler, which has had more than twenty five years experience in building minivans. Chrysler’s Town and Country and Dodge Caravan are a fairly new design, and VW was able to create their own distinct version using the basics as a starting point.
At first, it would seem that the 2009 VW Routan is just a Chrysler van with a Volkswagen grill stuck on the front. But start looking around a little more and you’ll see many other changes. From the taillights, to the instruments, to the seat upholstery, lots of changes were made to give the Routan a distinct character.
But the biggest changes are the things you can’t see. The suspension has been firmed up a little and the steering sharpened a bit, in order to give a more “European” driving feel. I didn’t have a chance to drive the Routan back-to-back with a Chrysler model, but those who have say it wasn’t just my imagination. The Routan responds a little more crisply.
Unfortunately it was impossible to change the engine, so the Routan has Chrysler power. Base S and SE models get a 3.8 liter V6 good for 197 horsepower, while the SEL has a larger and more power 4.0 liter unit, which makes 253 horsepower. The larger engine actually gets better mileage at 17 and 25 city/highway (versus 16 and 23 for the 3.8) due to its more advanced design.
While the base engine in my Routan SE test vehicle moved the van pretty swiftly, one rough edge became apparent: a very un-Volkswagen-like exhaust note. VW’s six cylinder engines make wonderful, smooth sounds while under acceleration. The Chrysler V6, not so much. If only there were some way Volkswagen’s engineers could have done something about that.
So although there’s a Chrysler engine under the hood, some things were left off the options list, in order to leave the Chrysler vans with some exclusive content. Neither the Stow ‘n Go seat system (where the center buckets fold into the floor), nor the Swivel ‘n Go arrangement (where the middle seats can turn backward to face the third row across a little picnic table) made it to the Routan.
But a lot of the other good things did make the transition. Dual power sliding doors are standard on the SE and SEL models, as is a power liftgate on the SEL. And the Chrysler sound system remains, but the option MyGig internal hard drive (for storing music right in the radio) becomes the JoyBox in VW-speak. And there are 13 cup holders, almost two for each of the seven passenger seats.
Volkswagen doesn’t expect to sell a ton of Routans, but considering the relatively low cost to bring it to market, that will probably be okay. Base price for a Routan S starts at $25,200, while the SE like the one I drove is priced at $29,700 before options. The top-of-the-line SEL, which includes the larger engine and a leather interior, has a base price of $33,600. For the full luxury treatment, there’s also an SEL Premium for $38,500.
Cool, hip people who drive Volkswagens may not like the idea of having to someday trade their smaller car for a minivan. But if they do, they’ll be glad to know that VW has one to offer them. It’s not a pure-bred Volkswagen, but it’s close.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz@pacbell.net.