In 2001, at the North American Auto Show in Detroit, Volkswagen displayed a prototype minivan that was ostensibly meant to replace the Vanagon. Called the Microbus Concept Car, it was strongly evocative of the iconic, rear-engined Kombi minibus VW manufactured from the early 1950s until the late 1970s. The idea was to run it up the flagpole and see how many people saluted.
I was at the show that year, and from the media and baby-boomers, at least, the response was immediate and positive.
The Microbus Concept arrived with a built-in industry buzz and you could hardly get near the Volkswagen stand. Here was a vehicle that would break away from the conventional people-carrier mode and take us back to those halcyon days of the 1960s.
It was interesting, unconventional, fresh and nostalgic without being maudlin. VW led us to believe that they would actually start building it, some time in 2005. As the former owner of at least two pop-top microbuses, I couldn't wait.
But, midway through 2005, VW scrapped the Microbus idea, apparently because of production issues. What we got instead was the Routan, which is essentially a Chrysler Town & Country with different badging.
VW says it features "German engineering" and shares very few components with the Town & Country, but I know a Chrysler minivan when I see one. What's more, the Routan is built at Chrysler's facility in Windsor, Ont., and features a V-6 engine also found in Chrysler's product line. You can call it whatever you like, but if walks like a duck and quacks like a duck ...
My tester, the Highline version, comes in at just under $46,000 after extras. And it's not even the top of the line. You can order the Execline model, which has a base price just a whisker under $50,000. That's a lot of money when you consider that a comparably equipped Dodge Grand Caravan - which has a very similar feel to it - costs thousands less.
Power for the Routan is delivered via a 4.0-litre V-6 that develops just over 250 horsepower. It's mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, with the shifter mounted on the dash, front and centre.
This arrangement is common throughout the industry - the Honda Odyssey has it as well - and I really don't care for it. Despite driving this vehicle fairly extensively for over a week, I never did get used to it. Maybe one would adjust over time, but there you go.
My other beef has to do with the dash display for the radio and climate control system. In a nutshell, you can't see it - especially if it's a sunny day. Poor design, pure and simple.
I also struggled somewhat with the power side doors, but then I usually do. I love 'em when it's raining and I've got arms full of grocery bags, but most of the time, it's just easier to open and close them manually.
Content level is reasonably high on the Routan Highline. Among other things, you get a three-zone climate control system, power rear tailgate, sunroof, leather interior, heated seats and centre console.
This is in addition to the other stuff found on the base Trendline model, which includes heated mirrors, cruise control, tilt steering, and power first- and second-row windows.
Options on my tester included the $2,600 Navi package, which also gives you a rear-view camera; a rear entertainment system ($2,400); and larger 17-inch alloy wheels.
The Trendline starts at just under $28,000, which makes it a much more attractive proposition than the Highline, as far as I'm concerned.
The Routan is just as driveable as any of the other minivans on the market, and has the same kind of cargo capacity (2,350 litres), but it lacks the performance and smoothness of the Odyssey, for example.
The V-6 engine doesn't have the pop or revving power that it should and is the least refined power plant in this segment.
Decent fuel economy, though - all things considered. The Routan leads this segment of the market when it comes to time spent at the pumps, if only by a smidgeon. And I did find it more comfortable than the last Grand Caravan I drove, which has a higher seating position.
One note here; the Routan does not have Chrysler's clever Stow 'N Go seating arrangement, nor does it have the Swivel 'N Go seats, which can be spun around to face backwards. Too bad; these are excellent features.
I'm usually a fan of VW products, and while I don't actually dislike the Routan, per se, I guess my biggest problem with it (aside from the name, which sounds like some sort of monster out of a Japanese horror flick) is that there's nothing here that says: "Buy me."
When I can get models from Honda, Kia, Hyundai and others, I'm hard-pressed to think why I'd choose this more-expensive alternative. It may have the VW logo on the front, but it ain't no microbus.
2009 VOLKSWAGEN ROUTAN HIGHLINE
Type: Seven-passenger, full-size minivan
Base Price: $39,975; as tested, $45,875
Engine: 4.0-litre V-6
Horsepower/Torque: 251 hp/259 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel Economy (litres/100 km): 12.2 city/7.9 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey, Kia Sedona, Hyundai Entourage, Dodge Grand Caravan, Nissan Quest
- Interior elbow room
- Comfy front seats
- Dash-mounted shift lever
- Radio/climate control display
- No compelling reason to buy this one
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