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VW Routan: Mediocre, barely

The minivan is a Teutonic clone of the Chrysler Town & Country (a Stadt und Land?), with worse construction and no Stow 'n Go in the second row. Bring back the Microbus!

May 15, 2009|DAN NEIL

Even by the dire standards of the current market, the new VW Routan minivan appears to be nailed to the showroom floor. A warmed-over version of the Chrysler Town & Country/Dodge Caravan, the Routan had chalked up a meager 5,582 sales as of April 20, according to Automotive News, and Routan production at Chrysler's Windsor, Canada, facility is now on indefinite hiatus, in roughly the same way that John DeLorean is taking a sabbatical from breathing.

I am sure that Volkswagen execs smarter than I, in suits shinier than mine, can explain why the company needed a painfully derivative version of a merely adequate product in a segment buyers were fleeing like a burning theater, a product that has less than zero to do with the VW brand. But I am stumped. Obviously, VW wanted a seven-passenger vehicle in its showrooms, and re-badging the Chrysler/Dodge -- the perennial segment sales leader -- was vastly cheaper than building a people-mover on its own.

But the Routan is such a shallow and insincere badge job -- so screamingly a Chrysler T&C, right down to the slack, wobbly feel in the gearshift, so lacking in the wit and nuance that has made recent VWs such a kick -- that it almost seems like corporate sabotage.

And here's the worst part: The one signature move for the T&C, its ace in the hole, so to speak, was the second-row Stow 'n Go seating, which allowed the mid-row seats to disappear under a flat cargo floor. Obviously as the result of some negotiated exclusivity, the Stow 'n Go feature is not available on the VW. Ditto the swiveling mid-row captain's chairs.

So, with all respect and deep affection for VW, I have to ask: Why the heck would I buy a Routan?

Yet the Routan has lessons to teach us. Consider that, in punditry about the rapidly consolidating car business, it's generally assumed that the remaining pan-national automakers -- for example, a Fiat-Chrysler-Opel-Saab conglomerate -- would build better cars for all, because these companies could leverage their best products and engineering in multiple global markets.

Not necessarily. Such far-flung, culture-clashed, debt-ridden mega-automakers could just as easily wind up making mediocrity the global standard -- and with less competition in the market, they'd have more incentive to do so. In this respect, the Routan seems like a preview of coming attractions.

Lesson two: Back in the days when the travails of the auto business weren't front-page news, consumers were far less informed about the back-of-the-house operations of the car business, the interlocking alliances and platform sharing that, for instance, made a GM a Suzuki or Toyota or Opel, depending on the car. Today it's hard to imagine any customer walking into the VW showroom blissfully unaware that the Routan is a re-badged product of the bankrupted Chrysler. Back away slowly, slowly. . . .

Lesson three: Know thy brand, again. The VW van -- whether you're talking Eurovan, Microbus, Vanagon, Westfalia, Multivan, splitty, Kombi -- is an indelible part of world automotive culture. For the few thousand seven-passenger minivan sales VW hoped to conquest with the indifferent and indistinct Routan, the company has forsaken this proud and cool brand equity. A bad bargain, that.

Why the company has not yet seen fit to revive the VW Microbus in a posh, postmodern way, as it has the New Beetle, simply eludes me. If I could buy a T5-chassis Microbus with diesel engine and a Westy camping package in the U.S., I'd even trade in my beloved Honda Odyssey.

So while the Routan is just sitting here on the showroom floor, not going anywhere, let's take a look around. The major cosmetic differences include revised headlamps and taillamps, a different front fascia and a VW corporate grille. In profile, only an expert could discern the VW from its Pentastar clone.

Inside, the differences are more pronounced though just as cosmetic. The Routan gets an upgrade in dash and door materials and the seats are more fully bolstered. The Chrysler gauges are swapped in favor of white-faced units with Teutonic lettering. The center console gets a swash of Deutsch-ified switches and control fascia, but the center console is essentially the same as the Chrysler's, including the optional audio and DVD navigation system, the MyGig. The Stow 'n Go feature is standard on the third-row seats.

VW claims to have retuned the Routan's suspension to be more sporty and affirmative. Notwithstanding the pointlessness of that exercise, the Routan still feels plenty pillowy and soft. In hard cornering the body lolls like a tongue out of a sleeping drunkard's mouth. And I must say the test model I drove did not feel as well constructed as the last T&C I drove. Indeed, with the various tiny, shivering bits throughout the cabin, I began to suspect the Routan was not getting the last full measure of devotion from the folks in Windsor.

Two engines are available: a 3.8-liter, 197-hp V-6 and a 4.0-liter, 253-hp V-6. Both are backed up by a six-speed automatic. As for acceleration, there is some.

The Routan will be a brief footnote in the long history of VW and perhaps an endnote in the saga of Chrysler. I expect soon enough VW will cancel its order with Windsor and give us the Microbus, and all will be forgiven.

Mostly.

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dan.neil@latimes.com

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

2009 VW Routan SE

Base price: $29,700

Price as tested: $33,000 (est.)

Powertrain: 3.8-liter, overhead valve V-6; six-speed automatic transmission; front-wheel drive

Horsepower: 197 at 5,200 rpm

Torque: 230 pound-feet at 4,000 rpm

Curb weight: 4,507 pounds

Wheelbase: 121.2 inches

Overall length: 202.5 inches

0-60 mph: 10.2 seconds

EPA fuel economy: 17 miles per gallon city, 25 mpg highway

Final thoughts: Showroom planter

Source: Volkswagen

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