Review: 2010 Volkswagen Routan

When it comes to seven-seat (or more) people movers, one thing I know for sure: I am not, nor have I ever been, a minivan person. Of Volkswagen’s Routan, one other thing I know for sure — it isn’t your hippie cousin’s Microbus.

Now, I have nothing against minivans per se. I live in the suburbs. Their ubiquity has made them as much a visible part of our demographic makeup as Tim Hortons and Shoppers Drug Mart. In years to come, they will be remembered by the Gen-X and Millennial generations with the same fondness Baby Boomers have for the family station wagon. Almost all of our friends with two or more children had one parked in their driveways, when they weren’t in use transporting the progeny to after-hours activity programs (hockey, soccer, dance, etc.). Equally, all of our friends with two or more children got rid of them as soon as the kids grew up. In short, discounting their use by those in the trades, minivans were/are highly pragmatic grudge purchases. But, let’s face it, in terms of excitement, they border on somnolence.

As for the Routan, despite the Volkswagen logos affixed to its slab-sided body, it is as Canadian as maple syrup. That’s because it is manufactured in Windsor, Ont. by the good folks at Chrysler. Oh, the sheetmetal has been tweaked slightly and there are certain specific VW cues inside, but the Routan is essentially the more familiar Dodge Grand Caravan/Chrysler Town & Country. Why? Well, because Volkswagen didn’t have a seven-passenger vehicle in its North American lineup for customers who wanted to move up to something larger. And, since the minivan market is in a decline, why go to the expense of building and/or certifying your own when you can have someone else do it for you?

So, the Routan comes with same 4.0-litre SOHC V6 engine and six-speed automatic transmission as in the Town & Country (the Grand Caravan’s base engine is a 3.3L), churning out a solid 251 horsepower and 259 pound-feet of torque, which means the 2,096-kilogram minivan has more than enough juice to get out of its own way. Testing of the Chrysler by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada turned up numbers of 8.6 seconds to get from zero to 100 kilometres an hour and 7.6 seconds to accelerate to 120 km/h from 80, which is pretty quick for a two-ton brick. The V6 is also fairly quiet in operation and, considering the mass it’s moving, it is not overly swinish at the pumps. I averaged 12.8 litres per 100 km for a week, combining highway and suburban commuting, on par or better than many of the smaller SUVs and crossovers that are replacing minivans in the driveways of suburbia.

VW says the Routan features a unique European-tuned suspension and steering “matched for handling and improved driving dynamics in the tradition of Volkswagen’s German engineering heritage.” Apparently, this is public relations bumph for stiffer springs, dampers and bushings to quell unwanted body motion and impart a measure of connectivity with the road. While the Routan won’t tackle a highway on-ramp with the same aplomb as VW’s GTI uber-hatch, neither does it wallow like a trawler in the North Sea. Stopping short of fun to drive, it is nonetheless competent enough to impress. Said suspension doesn’t compromise ride quality, either, as bumps, potholes and other tarmac irregularities are equally dismissed.

The raison d’etre of all passenger minivans is to haul people and stuff. The Routan offers seating for seven in three rows with 32.8 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third row. For carrying more cargo, stow the third-row seats into the floor and the space increases to a cavernous 84.7 cu. ft. The seatbacks in the second row can be folded flat if even more room is required for longer items, with storage compartments and cup holders aplenty throughout the van.

Chrysler has to keep a few things proprietary, so the Routan doesn’t get the cool second-row Stow ‘n Go or optional Swivel ‘n Go seats. In all but the base Trendline version (which gets a bench seat), the Routan counters with front and middle-row captain’s chairs. Big and comfy, they sit high off the floor, providing a commanding view out. Legroom can be a mite tight for taller folk in the second row if those in the front are equally of the long-legged variety.

Along with the Trendline, there are three other trim levels — Comfortline, Highline and Execline, with increasingly more content. Standard features in all Routans include three-zone climate control, a CD player with six speakers, dual sliding side doors, front and side curtain air bags, tire pressure monitoring system and Electronic Stabilization Program.

Extensively equipped, nicely laid out and seemingly properly screwed together, at $40,575, the Routan Highline is also not exactly cheap, especially when one can wander over to the Chrysler dealer and eyeball the Town & Country Limited’s $35,845 sticker. As such, the rationale for the Routan seems to be in providing a vehicle for Volkswagen diehards with growing family or cargo-carrying needs to consider rather than defect to other brands. That’s their prerogative. I’m just not completely convinced there’s enough VW DNA in the Routan to warrant the difference.

Type of vehicle: Front-wheel-drive minivan
Engine: 4.0L SOHC V6
Power: 251 hp @ 6,000 rpm; 259 lb-ft of torque @ 4,100 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Brakes: Four-wheel disc with ABS
Tires: P225/65R17 (optional)
Price: base/as tested $40,575/$43,700
Destination charge: $1,580
Transport Canada fuel economy L/100 km: 12.2 city, 7.9 hwy.

Standard features: Automatic three-zone climate control, cruise control, dual power sliding doors, leather seats, heated front and second-row seats, second-row fold-flat captain’s chairs, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, power windows and mirrors, power vent windows, power sunroof, power-adjustable floor pedals, power tailgate, AM/FM/six-CD audio system with satellite radio and six speakers, automatic headlights, front fog lights, trip computer, manual second-and third-row sunshades, rear overhead storage compartments, removable front centre floor console, UConnect hands-free phone system, tire pressure monitoring system

Photograph by: Brian Harper, National Post