Minivans are nothing new for Volkswagen. In fact, many observers credit VW with inventing the minivan. When the first Microbuses appeared in the early 1950s, no one had coined the word "minivan." That wouldn't happen until Chrysler launched its first minivans for 1984. In the 1950s and 1960s, however, Volkswagen was essentially alone in the American market with a vehicle that offered minivan-like utility.
After the Microbus disappeared, VW continued the minivan concept with other vehicles - notably the Vanagon and the more recent EuroVan.
Now, in the 21st century, Volkswagan has returned to the minivan market with a new Routan, introduced as a 2009 model. Actually manufactured by the currently troubled Chrysler company, the Routan is said to blend "German sensibilities in design, fit and finish [with] European ride and handling characteristics." Volkswagen claims the Routan is "instantly recognizable" as a family member, especially due to its "stylized" grille.
Two V-6 engines are available. The standard 3.6-liter produces 197 horsepower and 230 pound-feet of torque. The available 4.0-liter V-6 generates 253 horsepower and 262 pound-feet. Fuel economy, according to EPA estimates, is 16 mpg in city driving and 23 mpg on the highway with the smaller engine, and 17 mpg city/25 mpg highway with the 4.0-liter. Both engines mate with a six-speed automatic transmission.
Routans come in three trim levels: an S model, starting at $24,700; midlevel SE at $29,600; and top-line SEL for $33,200.
Side-curtain airbags and an Electronic Stabilization Program are standard. Options include rear-seat video entertainment with dual 9-inch screens, navigation with a 30 Gigabyte JoyBox, power sliding doors with power windows, and power-fold third-row seating. Front- and second-row captain's chairs also are available.
Volkswagen's claim of European-style handling characteristics is accurate, in that the Routan does not feel much like any of Chrysler's familiar minivans. On the other hand, it doesn't have quite the precise and positive steering feel that's expected in a Volkswagen product. Until you're accustomed to it, the Routan even seems to wander slightly at times. After a while, though, the benefit of tauter handling becomes more evident.
Performance with the 3.8-liter engine is on the mild side. Even on utterly flat terrain, that engine seems to be struggling just a bit when accelerating.
Interior quality falls a bit short, too. For instance, the automatic-transmission gearshift lever has a loose feel that's uncharacteristic of a Volkswagen vehicle.
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