For minivan shoppers, the 2009 Volkswagen Routan presents another variant of the Chrysler Town & Country.
Aside from a new nose and a new name the VW version—which is built alongside Chryslers and Dodges in Ontario—offers a retuned suspension and a revised interior. The suspension does indeed seem a bit firmer than the domestic-branded vans (although Dodge now offers a firmer suspension option of its own), but the symphony of creaky plastic from the voluminous interior remains. VW’s seats have better lateral support and aren’t as squishy under thighs, and the Routan’s door panels and dash are less flashy but more upscale. Against that, however, are the second-row seats, which must be lifted out of the vehicle for cargo hauling; Chrysler was not willing to share its handy Stow-‘n-Go or its kid-pleasing Swivel-‘n-Go seating with VW. (All three brands have a third-row bench that tumbles into the floor.)
Surprisingly, the Routan actually stickers for less than the Town & Country—although your Chrysler dealer is likely to include a wheelbarrow full of incentive money. And VW doesn’t bother with the base, 3.3-liter V-6. The Routan offers only the 3.8-liter and the 4.0-liter engines, the latter being the obvious pick of the litter as it’s not only the most powerful but also the most economical. The Routan must have seemed like a good idea when Chrysler’s then-CEO Tom LaSorda and VW’s brand chief Wolfgang Bernhard signed the deal in late 2007 for Chrysler to supply the vans. LaSorda got to run his factory at a higher capacity, and Bernhard got to cheaply plug a hole in his product lineup. But Routan sales haven’t come anywhere near expectations, and production has been suspended while the backlog of unsold vehicles clears.
Sorry, Volkswagen, but it appears that buyers expect something more from you than a warmed-over version of another automaker’s car. The Microbus concept from 2001 shows that there are people at VW who understand what a modern Volkswagen minivan should look like. Developing a proper VW minivan would certainly take more time and effort than the Routan, but I’d bet it would find a lot more acceptance. After effectively inventing the genre—if not the currently preferred mechanical layout—Volkwagen seems to be permanently flummoxed by the question of how to carry forward the Microbus legacy. One Canadian designer, however, isn’t so confused. Alexandre Verdier’s Microbus camper concept is an excellent, modern, and green take on the idea. Apparently it has caught the attention of Volkswagen, but not in a good way. Earlier this year, VW filed suit against Verdier for trademark infringement.