2009 Volkswagen Routan SEL

A Chrysler by any other name would be, um… a Volkswagen?

2009 Volkswagen Routan SEL
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There is little to distinguish Volkswagen’s Routan minivan from its Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country origins – very little.

What is different between this German van and its American cousins is the suspension, some of the seating options, the exterior (ever so slightly so we might add) and the price –although it’s really not as different as you might expect.

FAST FACTS

1. The Routan is essentially a Chrysler Town & Country with a stiffer suspension and more weighted steering – even the price is almost spot-on.

2. It comes with two Chrysler engine/transmission combos with a standard 197hp 3.8L V6 (and five-speed auto.) and a 253hp 4.0L V6 (with a six-speed auto.).

3. The larger engine actually gets better fuel economy with a rating of 17/25 mpg (city/highway).

ZE GERMAN SUSPENSION

For starters, one of the first things any VW sales associate will tell you is that the car has a German suspension, which is true. Overall, the car is slightly stiffer than the Chrysler or Dodge counterparts – which can be a good thing or a bad thing. There appears to be less body lean and overall it feels slightly less boaty. The down side is that it is a little stiffer and you hear the sheet metal creaking as the chassis rides over bumps – although the sound of a few kids is sure to overpower that.

The Routan does use the same basic suspension as its American counterparts, with a rear twist-beam setup. This is really only a semi-independent suspension and while a fully independent setup isn’t required for driving enjoyment, it would help reduce some of the chassis flex and subsequent creaking. Still, most other manufacturers make use of this setup, including Toyota, with Honda being the only fully independent exception.

Interestingly, the stiffer Routan suspension is actually used on the Caravan and Town & Country in Europe. The Routan also has tighter steering, ideal for tracking straight-on while tearing up the autobahn, but around town it can seem laboriously heavy.

WELL-DESIGNED INTERIOR, BUT OPTION PACKS REALLY ADD-UP

As for the seats, the Routan does not come with the swiveling second row captain’s chairs found on the Dodge & Chrysler models and instead has two second-row reclining, fold flat and removable Captain’s chairs with a 3rd row folding bench seat.

The second row seats are heated on top-line SEL models (like on our tester), but not on lower S and SE models. Leather seating comes standard on SEL models.

As for the front seats, on the SEL they come with a standard 8-way power driver and 4-way manual front passenger setup with lumbar support, with an 8-way power passenger seat optional.

All models get power front and 2nd row windows with power vented rear quarter windows. SE and SEL models get 2nd and 3rd row sunshades and both get 3-zone climate control. Cruise control and power adjustable pedals are standard on the SEL with a memory option for the pedals available as part of an option.

The steering wheel for SE and SEL models comes standard with audio and cruise controls and an option pack includes controls for the Electronic Vehicle Info Center (EVIC). The audio controls, just like on the Chrysler vans, are located on the reverse side of the steering wheel. Initially this seems like the most absurd place to put them as there is no marking for which paddle controls which function. Once you’ve figured it out, however, you realize this setup is ingenious because you never have to take your hands off the best (and safest) position on the steering wheel.

When it comes to audio and the all-important video functions of the Routan, there are several options depending upon the model chosen. SEL models come with an AM/FM/6-CD changer with an auxiliary input and an in-dash screen with MP3 and DVD capability. The $3,100 Rear seat Entertainment Package adds to that a 30GB hard drive with a USB port, two 9-inch LCD screens (one for the 2nd and one for the 3rd row), wireless headphones and Bluetooth compatibility. The $2,475 Navigation Package adds a touch-screen navigation system, a back up camera and one year of Sirius Satellite radio (also offered individually). The final package, the $5,200 Premium Package, includes a 9-speaker 506-watt sound system (it also comes with a sunroof, remote starter, HID headlights, a power folding 3rd row and the ultrasonic rear park assist with audio warnings).

Oddly, the backup camera and rear park assist function come in separate packages, so if you want them both you have to pony-up almost $7,800. Yikes!

And things get more expensive from there, but we’ll come back to the price later.

THAT ALL-TOO-FAMILIAR LOOK

As for the look of the Routan, its design is hardly a departure from its U.S.-sibling. There may be a VW badge on the front, but it’s still damn near impossible to tell the different vans apart from any distance.

The Routan is a cavernous beast inside, with more than enough storage space. In fact it’s hard to call these things minivans any more. You feel like you’re driving a full-fledged bus – especially with the advantageous seating position that puts you up almost as high as a pickup truck.

Interior space with the 3rd row folded down is an incredible 83 cubic feet. That space expands to 144 cu-ft when the 2nd row seats are removed.

As for the usability of the passenger space, it’s just as good as any van with more cup holders, storage bins and cargo nets than you can count.

In terms of towing anything with the van, the max tow rating is 2,000 lbs., which can be upgraded to $3,500 lbs with the $2,325 Trim Pack 3, which includes a height adjusting rear air-ride suspension. Unfortunately it can’t be paired up with the Premium Package.

ALL THE SAFETY FEATURES YOU’D EXPECT

On the safety front, the Routan, being a family-hauler, has everything you might expect, including ABS and stability control standard. Also standard are front airbags as well as side curtain airbags for all seating positions. And of course the Routan features the LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren) car seat hooks.

4.0-LITER V6 OFFERS LOTS MORE POWER AND BETTER FUEL ECONOMY

While I have continually mentioned both the Grand Caravan and the Town & Country, the latter is really the only comparable model of the two, as the Dodge doesn’t offer near the amenities, nor does it offer the 4.0-liter V6 engine and six-speed automatic transmission. The Dodge is also vastly less expensive.

The Grand Caravan comes with a 3.3-liter V6 and optional 3.8-liter V6, whereas the base Town & Country, like the base Routan, comes with the larger 3.8-liter V6 with 197hp as standard equipment. My SEL tester came with its standard 4.0-liter V6 with 253hp and 262 ft-lbs of torque. VW says this is enough for the Routan to reach 60 mph in a reasonable 8.9 seconds.

But power isn’t the only reason to choose the larger engine, due in part to the use of a six-speed automatic transmission the larger 4.0-liter engine actually gets better fuel economy with a rating of 17/25 mpg (city/highway) versus 16/23 for the 3.8-liter engine.

SURPRISINGLY, IT’S COMPETITIVELY PRICED

The final and possibly most important point about the Routan is the price. It is NOT, as you might expect, bundles more than a Chrysler. The Town & Country ranges from $27,160 to $37,600 ($31,645 to $37,645 CDN) for a standard model whereas the VW ranges from $25,200 to $33,600 ($27,975 to $39,975 CDN). So for a standard trim model in the U.S., the VW is actually cheaper. Add on all the gadgets and gizmos, however, and the VW ends up being the more expensive buy… but only slightly. All said and done our SEL tester with most every option under the sun totaled a hefty $44,375 – about $800 more than a comparable Town & Country at $43,130.

THE VERDICT

Since it went on sale in the summer of ‘08 the Routan hasn’t been a particularly strong model for VW. Taking everything into consideration, there isn’t any particular reason to purchase the Routan over a Town & Country, but then again, there’s no reason not to either. It’s really a matter of personal preference and one has to think that the real factor hurting VW’s sales of its new minivan is the fact that the company is so late to the game and that the competition is so well established.

PLUS

Bountiful amounts of cargo and passenger room
Powerful V6 in SEL Model gets good fuel economy
Steering wheel controls on reverse side

MINUS

Back-up camera and rear park assist offered in separate add-on packages
German steering and suspension

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