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Styling, dashboard, some controls, steering wheel, carpet, no under-stack storage space or Stow ’n’ Go, some options, springs (suspension), wheels, and tires
In 2008, Volkswagen launched full-sized minivans for North America — adding Volkswagen styling and tuning to Chrysler minivans. The 2011 Routan carried some of the upgrades from the 2011 Chryslers.
The Volkswagen styling is more attractive, and better suited to hiding the van’s bulk, than any other current minivan’s — yet, the hard points are the same as the Dodge and Chrysler.
The 2008-2011 Chrysler and Dodge minivans can feel somewhat over-isolated, but the Routan has the connected-to-the-road feel of mid-1990s Chryslers. For 2011, the Volkswagen Routan gained Chrysler’s new Pentastar engine, adding top-in-class power.
Drive normally, and the engine will rarely ever rev past 2,000 rpm, except perhaps when merging onto a highway or getting up to speed on a rural road; shifts are barely perceptible. Push your foot down, and the transmission quickly downshifts, putting you into the 3,500-and-higher power band. The six-speed automatic’s low first gear helps with quick launches.
By default, the transmission is in a “sport,” with an “Eco” button. Once you press the button, the car remembers where you set it on future trips. Both behaviors are opposite from the Chrysler versions.
The engine has good low-end torque, even before the always-rapid downshift. Hit the gas at any speed, and the engine will quickly rev, even if locked in gear; and, starting with 3,500 rpm, you can feel those 283 horsepower. When roused, it sounds like a sports car. There’s a definite delay before you get the kick — not a long delay, and you get enough instant response so it doesn’t feel “rubber bandy.”
Tires were up to the standards of the powertrain; avoiding squeals on quick launches was easier, despite the low first gear (unlike the Chryslers). The ride is firm, handling potholes and rough roads with little fuss or noise; there’s a close-to-the-road feel. Poor road surfaces are well damped, and bumps are felt, not heard. Wind noise is somewhat high at 65 mph, but is not noticeable at lower speeds; it is not excessive.
There was nothing cheap-feeling or cheap-looking: there were no sharp edges, and nearly every surface was “soft touch.” The seats were years ahead of the 2008 minivans, and even the lowly SE has perforated “leatherette.” The up/down lumbar support was a good addition, as well. That said, the seats could still be better cushioned.
The dashboard was not as upscale as the Chrysler setup, but was less likely to reflect glare from the Sun. The dark sections were all color-matched, including panel inserts.
The instrument panel was taken from the 2008-2010 Dodge/Chrysler twins, not the 2011s, but with differences. Volkswagen uses four gauges, and the pointers come to a tighter end, avoiding the blunt tips of the Chrysler versions. A “nut-burl trim” panel brings up the overall tone on the SEL Premium — and only the SEL Premium.
At night, Volkswagen’s annoying signature red lighting illuminates all the controls without hurting night vision. Gauges were backlit by Chrysler’s Indiglo lighting, and were black-on-white both day and night.
The temperature was marked in degrees, the fuel in fractions; the tachometer went up to 8,000 rpm (the redline remains at 6,500 though it’s marked as 6,000); the speedometer rises to 140 mph versus 120. Thus were the gauges “Volkswagenified,” and made slightly less useful, than the Dodge.
The dashboard shifter does not have as good a feel as the column or console shifters, but does let you to choose lower gears or higher ones.
Cupholders are molded into each door’s map pocket; four are in the sliding center console top (two in front and two in back); two more are in a sliding compartment in the center stack that also contains just two coin holders.
Covered by a sliding top is a massive empty storage area, including a power outlet. All the storage areas have rattle-damping measures.
The three-way climate control is easy to use; you can set the front driver and passenger temperatures separately, and choose the vent system, with a separate control for turning on the a/c compressor. All buttons are large enough for control with gloves, logically placed, well labeled, and backlit at night. There’s no "automatic-medium" setting, and pushing the Auto button puts the rear climate control onto auto, along with the front.
Overhead, our test car had the optional rear-seat video (separate monitors for both second and third rows, capable of simultaneously showing different videos), standard second-row climate controls, and snazzy white LED lighting.
Nothing but sliding doors can give such a huge opening and convenience. In back, since there’s no place for a door to slide into, a top-hinged hatch is used; big-SUV-style dual opening doors and accordions were never adopted by any minivan maker, for whatever reasons.
Both Chrysler and Volkswagen allow either manual or power door and hatch opening and closing.
Our test car had the hard-drive stereo; adding music from CDs, DVDs, and thumb drives was very easy, as long as they were MP3, not AAC. The satellite radio system was well integrated into the stereo, as was the optional video player, with good sound.
The 30 gigabyte hard drive holds a lot of music; and you could sit and watch movies on the screen, as long as you were in Park. The lack of a station-changing knob was awkward with the satellite radio, which has over a hundred channels; it takes a while to go through with your finger on a button. Changing bass, treble, or midrange took a press to the physical Audio button, then the virtual Equalizer button, then multiple presses on a virtual equalizer (though you could "click and drag" directly on the image of the equalizer knobs).
Switching modes required pressing both hard and soft buttons (or using the wheel-mounted mode button): press once on Radio or Media, and you get touch-screen choices of AM/FM/Satellite, or Disk/DVD/AUX/VESA. For radio, it shows a list of presets, four per screen, with the names of the stations. The hard drive/disc has hard drive, disc, auxiliary (the little jack on front of the screen), VES (video DVD), and USB control, so that you can use your built in controls to navigate the contents of your high-quality music device. You can’t put iPod files onto the hard drive, but you can copy from thumb drives, and it also records from DVDs - fairly quickly.
The overhead video screen had a high quality picture, and the supplied headphones let kids could listen to their movies (or TV shows) without bothering the driver. Perhaps more important, the screen, which pulled down from the roof, didn’t interfere much with the rear-view mirror, as some other video systems do, and was out of the way of kids’ feet.
Optional safety features include blind spot monitoring, rain-sensitive wipers, mobile Internet, and rear cross path systems. The backup camera provides a fairly clear color picture of where you’re going, with a guide line and red-yellow-green distance indicator.
Another "accident avoidance" safety feature was the individual-wheel tire pressure alert underneath the speedometer. That area can also be used to show distance to empty, average mileage, or temperature and compass heading.
Getting in and out was easy, thanks to a nicely engineered floor height; unlike comparable SUVs, the Routan minivan required no climbs to get in. Grab handles are still supplied at all the doors just to make sure, but they probably won’t be needed; and if you have wheelchair-bound relatives, you can get set up with an aftermarket wheelchair loader installer.
Both front seats and both middle seats had attached, soft flip-up armrests, which work better than the Toyota models that have a ratchet mechanism. The middle seats are not quite as good as the fronts, but they are still far better than the middle row on the outgoing models, and comfortable enough for long trips. The rear row is comfortable and there is plenty of legroom as well.
There is no Stow ’n’ Go system with the Routan; the seats flip up, but don’t fold into the floor. The underfloor bins are still provided, but they can only be used for cargo, which in fairness is all they’re likely to be needed for with most customers.
The rear seats are easy to stow, creating a flat cargo floor; an electric stowing system is available and thoroughly unnecessary except for showing off.
Above the van, the roof rack was unusual: the crossbars were folded into the side supports, increasing the aerodynamic efficiency of the Routan and minimizing the cosmetic intrusion of the rack.
The middle seats had individual cupholders in the doors, and rear seats had the old-style molded-in-sides cupholders carried over, it seems, from 1984.
As in the past, the interior is cavernous, and folding down various combinations of seats allows for a great deal of storage capacity. Traditionally minivan interiors have been surprisingly tough and capable of withstanding a lot of abuse.
Controls were generally sensible and well labeled. The left hand stalk had controls for both front and rear washer/wipers, while the cruise was moved from a ministalk back to the wheel, where it accompanied the audio controls and trip computer buttons.
Door controls were at each door, on the key fob, and in an overhead row of buttons, in logical order; the buttons were large and clearly marked. The touch-screen stereo on our test car was harder to deal with than a conventional unit, especially for audio modifications (which required two touches to the screen, diverting attention from the road); there are audio controls on the wheel, but they don’t cover balance/fade or bass/treble.
The key goes into the dashboard, a nice feature that’s becoming more common since Chevrolet revived it a decade ago; headlights have a knob and rheostat. High intensity discharge headlamps were very well focused and very bright; the cutoff was sharp and clear to avoid blinding oncoming traffic, a feature shared mostly with BMW. Visibility was generally very good, aided by large sun visors, a huge, low-to-high windshield, massive amounts of door and rear glass, and narrow front and B-pillars, but was hampered by the middle-row seat headrests, large rear pillars, and large video screen folding down from the roof (when so equipped).
The parking brake is a traditional but awkward push-to-release pedal; a foot brake makes sense in a vehicle sold only as an automatic, but a release lever would be preferable.
The Routan didn’t need to grow on us; it was immediately likeable, with its nimble, connected feel and easy-power powertrain. There were also useful features that prospective car buyers don’t usually experience until after taking the plunge, which go far beyond the ability to change preferences using the easy trip-computer interface. The multitude of door controls provides a lot of flexibility, while the lockouts keep you safe - as do the door safety mechanisms. The various dome and map lights did a surprisingly good job of lighting up the entire minivan at night; while the LED-plus-neon interior on our car is cool and lets people have personal lights without much driver distraction. And, of course, there’s the ability to carry your whole personal music collection in the dashboard, if you get the hard-drive stereo.
We appreciated having the hazard flashers go on whenever the side doors were opened and the key was in the ignition (this is a feature that has to be manually turned on from the trip computer). We also appreciated the dual LED taillights, a major safety upgrade when one considers just how many cars out there are running without one or two of their brake lights (perhaps this is a local phenomenon).
The Volkswagen Routan, "the minivan with seating for seven and the soul of a VW," starts at $28,570, more than the Dodge and less than the Chrysler. Stepping up to the SE brings the price to $33,410, and moving to the SEL Premium we had jacks it up to $44,060 (all prices include $820 destination).
That’s a lot for a minivan, but the Volkswagen Routan SEL Premium comes with a lot, being the top of the line. Keeping the 283 horsepower V6 in check are electronic stability control and four-wheel antilock disc brakes; there are front airbags, driver’s-knee airbag, side airbags up front, side curtain airbags for all three rows, individual tire monitors, and an alarm, as well as a rear video monitor and obstacle detector for backing up safely.
Entertainment features include a touch-screen navigation system with satellite radio, DVD player, hard drive, wireless phone connector, USB connector, and 500-watt amplifier pushing nine speakers. The rear seat video system described earlier is standard — complete with dual screens that can show different movies, two sets of wireless headphones, and two sets of auxiliary input jacks for the twin video systems.
Luxury seating on SEL Premium includes Vienna leather with contrasting stitching, nut-burl trim, power-folding rear seats, and two rows of captain’s chairs (the middle row is removable and can fold flat), both of which are heated.
A large power glass sunroof that slides open; the rearview mirrors are heated, have driver memory, and incorporate turn signals.
The usual items are also included - power locks, power doors, power hatch, cruise control, fog lamps, rear washer/wiper and defroster, height-adjustable steering column, floor mats in front and rear, trip computer, dual glove boxes, leather-wrapped wheel, adjustable pedals, power rear quarter vent windows, memory seats (driver and passenger), automatic air conditioning (for three zones), pinch protection on all windows, intermittent wipers, chrome exterior mirrors and door handles, and AC outlet.
Finally, the Routan SEL Premium includes remote start (with or without convenience features like automatic a/c and heated seat activation — you choose in the trip computer), a load-leveling suspension, and bright high intensity discharge headlights. Any mysteries about the pricing of the Volkswagen Routan SEL Premium should be dispelled by this point.
In every case, you get a three year or 36,000 mile basic warranty with towing assistance plus a 5/60 powertrain warranty; and Volkswagen provides free scheduled maintenance during the basic warranty period. The minivans use engines and transmissions built in the United States (some engines might be made in Mexico); 82% of the content is from the US and Canada on American-engined models.
The Windsor plant’s new quality systems and standards are promising; while their minivans have generally achieved average or better quality ratings, the goal is "much better than average," and many measures are being taken to achieve that. Some are old ones, such as being able to stop the line when a problem is found, or sending advisors to suppliers, or tracking problems more closely, or empowering workers, or doing more preventive maintenance. Customers will, regardless, most likely find that their minivans are better backed and better made than they have been.
Overall, the Volkswagen Routan is a Chrysler minivan at heart, carrying its strengths; but it has unique styling which some would say is more successful than its competitors, particularly in reducing the apparent size of the van and making it look a bit more sporty. The main drawback to the Volkswagen version is the lack of Stow ’n’ Go, though some may actually prefer the VW setup. The Routan may be ideal for those in import-heavy neighborhoods where people look down on a humble Chrysler or Dodge, or bombard the owner with "facts" about how unreliable American cars are. It’s also a less common purchase, for those who want the utility of a minivan, but don’t want to see the same vehicle parked down the street... and at the mall... and everywhere else. There are very few Routans made, and it’s possible you’ll never see another one.
All things considered, the Volkswagen Routan is one of the best minivans you can buy — a good solid choice, a fine alternative to traditional SUVs or large crossovers, a people-and-cargo carrier par excellence. But, then, so are the Chrysler Town & Country, and the Dodge Caravan, and they are bound to get better as Chrysler invests more in the plant and goes after problems encountered by even single owners in the field. Fortunately, you don’t have to pay $44,000 to get one.
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