2009 Volkswagen Routan – Click above for high-res image gallery

The Volkswagen Routan's "German Engineering" ad campaign has provided plenty of irony-laced comedic fodder for the Autoblog water-cooler, and VW's own press release doesn't help, heralding the Routan as "a stylish alternative to the minivan." An alternative to what?

In a perfect world, VW would have revolutionized the moribund minivan segment with a production version of the 2001 Microbus concept, thereby capitalizing on V-Dub's cheeky heritage in the same way the new Beetle did in the late '90s, and perpetuated by other vehicles like the MINI Cooper and Fiat 500 today.

Thankfully, all is not lost. According to VW's Product Planning Manager, Bret Scott, "We would never say 'no' to the possibility of a Microbus revival." But in the meantime, we have to make due with this: the 2009 Volkswagen Routan, a reworked Chrysler Town & Country that VW execs call (with a straight face) "The Beetle of minivans."


Related GalleryFirst Drive: 2009 Volkswagen Routan

Photos Copyright ©2008 Damon Lavrinc / Weblogs, Inc.


Now that you've stopped laughing and have caught your breath, let's look at substance. The Routan eschews the Dodge Caravan/Chrysler Town & Country's front and rear end with an admittedly attractive set of fascias. But viewed in profile, all it takes is a few well-placed hands covering the bow and stern to reveal the Routan's Windsor, Ontario roots. The new front end is undeniably VW, with trapezoidal HID headlamps, a deep air dam and grinning grille, while the rear taillights, redesigned hatch and 17-inch wheels (standard on SE and SEL trims) do their best to compliment the van's lunchbox proportions.



It's a similar story inside. The switchgear, stereo, electronics, optional sat-nav and redundant audio controls mounted on the underside of the steering wheel are all carryovers from the Pentastars, but the headliner, dash and door materials are easily a step above the Caravan and Country on which the V-Dub is based.



Power sliding rear doors are standard on the SE and SEL, as is three-zone climate control (automatic on SEL) and a host of information is housed in the instrument cluster, including dual trip odometers, temp display, compass, fuel range, trip time and gear indicator (SEL models also benefit from a tire pressure and audio display). Choose the S trim and you're left with a blacked-out panel on the bottom of the tachometer. The SEL's power-stowing third row and electronic lift-gate is a worthwhile feature for families on the move, but Chrysler's famed Stow-and-Go and Swivel-and-Go seating is notably absent, replaced with a set of more comfortable chairs occupying the Routan's mid-section.



On the topic of seating, the driver and front passenger enjoy more bolstering than any minivan has the business to offer. It's one indication that Volkswagen's 100,000+hour Routan reworking put a premium on driving dynamics, stiffening the springs and dampers while also adding a dose of "Euro feel" (their words, not ours) to the steering. The effect is good, but hardly soul-stirring – exactly as you'd expect in a minivan. Steering is light, but not quite overboosted, and while body roll is de rigueur for the segment, it's slightly less pronounced in the Routan compared to its structural siblings.



As for power, here's all you need to know: go big. The long-in-the-tooth 3.8-liter V6 needs to be put out of its misery post haste. The SOHC 4.0-liter V6 not only offers more power (251 hp and 259 lb.-ft. of torque versus 197 and 230), it also gets better fuel economy to boot (17/25 city/highway versus 16/23). Both engines are mated to a six-speed automatic that does its best to shovel power to the front wheels, and with the 4.0-liter V6 delivering a 0-60 time of 8.9 seconds (not entirely bad for a barn on wheels), it's all the more reason to opt up for the SEL package.



Volkswagen aims to take a 5% chunk out of the minivan market here in the U.S., and the Routan actually has a shot of stealing a few buyers cross-shopping comparably equipped Honda Odysseys, Toyota Siennas and Nissan Quests. We somehow doubt that VW's core demographic will be looking at the Dodge and Chrysler products that form the foundation of the Routan, particularly when you consider price. The entry-level S model (with the 3.8-liter V6) starts at $24,700, while the range-topping SEL begins at $33,200 and heads into the high $30k-range. For comparison, the Odyssey starts around $26,000 and crashes into the $40k ceiling when decked out with all the amenities. For buyers looking for a practical family hauler that isn't one of the usual suspects, the Routan could fit the bill. But until VW decides to live up to its lofty ideals and bring back the Microbus, those of us looking for some style and sense will be left wanting.


Related GalleryFirst Drive: 2009 Volkswagen Routan

Photos Copyright ©2008 Damon Lavrinc / Weblogs, Inc.

The automaker provided lodging for this event.