Volkswagen has a long history of building small vans. There was the Microbus, of course, as well as the more recent Vanagon and Eurovan. However, the "hippie van" was always just that, and the later vans were just too funky to catch on with a mainstream audience. Consequently, VW has never really had a competitive modern minivan. In hopes of rectifying this situation, the company introduced the Volkswagen Routan.
The Routan was actually a rebadged and reworked version of Chrysler's minivan. Its general shape didn't stray far from the Chrysler formula, but the Routan's redesigned front and rear suggested a Teutonic makeover. In the Routan's first two years on the market, the cabin had a more upscale feel than the Chrysler vans, including more supportive seating and a partially reworked dash featuring VW's signature red and blue backlighting. Below deck, Volkswagen engineers retuned the suspension for a more refined and responsive driving experience.
As such, we found the Volkswagen Routan to be more desirable than its Chrysler siblings in these early years. However, by 2011, those siblings had implemented a series of changes that actually made them more similar to the Routan, and that previous advantage Volkswagen enjoyed was largely erased. Ultimately, the Routan was discontinued after four years of production.
No matter what year you're looking at, it's hard to make a case for buying what was essentially a Chrysler minivan from Volkswagen. Not only does Chrysler's spotty quality record remain a concern over the long haul, but competing used minivans like the Odyssey and Sienna are better buys in most respects.
Most Recent Volkswagen Routan
The Volkswagen Routan was introduced for 2009 and produced through 2012. A seven-passenger minivan, it was available in S, SE, SEL and SEL Premium trim levels.
Base S models included 16-inch steel wheels, air-conditioning, second-row captain's chairs, a foldaway third-row split bench seat, a touchscreen-operated audio system and the usual assortment of modern conveniences. Stability control and a full complement of airbags were also standard.
The SE added larger alloy wheels, power side doors, a power driver seat, "leatherette" seating trim, heated front seats, rear sunshades and Bluetooth. The SEL got you tri-zone climate control, leather seating, a rearview camera, heated second-row seats and an iPod interface. The SEL Premium added a variety of luxury items like xenon headlights, keyless ignition/entry, driver memory settings and an upgraded sound system. A rear-seat entertainment system and a hard-drive-based navigation system were available on all but the base trim.
In its first two years on the market, the Routan S and SE trim levels were powered by a 3.8-liter V6 that produced 197 horsepower, while the SEL featured a stronger (and, surprisingly, more economical) 4.0-liter V6 that put out 253 hp. A six-speed automatic and front-wheel drive were standard. For 2011 and '12, every Routan was powered by a 3.6-liter V6 that produced 283 hp.
Anyone who has spent time in a Town & Country or Grand Caravan will instantly recognize the Routan's switchgear, dash-mounted shifter and basic overall design. The materials quality moved closer to that of its Chrysler siblings, but still remained a bit disappointing compared to most of Volkswagen's other models. The Volkswagen Routan version also lacked the Stow 'n Go second-row seats, but at least its conventional seats were nicely shaped. The third-row bench folded flat into the floor, while the second-row bench or captain's chairs could be removed for serious hauling duty.
In reviews, we found the Routan's original base engine to be sluggish and overmatched -- the SEL's larger V6 (and the later 3.6-liter V6) offered much livelier performance, and so equipped, the Routan was one of the fleetest minivans available. The Routan's ride and handling were a cut above the contemporary Chrysler minivans, but the van's overall dynamics still weren't segment-leading.
There were other less significant changes. For 2009 and '10, the base S came standard with an uncomfortable second-row bench seat that was later replaced with standard captain's chairs in upper trims. These early years also lacked the Routan's standard Chrysler-sourced touchscreen stereo interface and available Garmin navigation system.