2011 Volkswagen Routan Road Test Review

Trevor Hofmann - CAP staff
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Published on November 16, 2011

Published on November 16, 2011

It looks like a Volkswagen, yet under the skin beats the heart of the best-selling minivan of all time. (Photo: Trevor Hofmann, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on November 16, 2011

Face it, the Routan makes a lot of sense for VW and a sportier Grand Caravan isn't such a bad prospect all-round. (Photo: Trevor Hofmann, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on November 16, 2011

Published on November 16, 2011

Published on November 16, 2011

Tri-tone colour treatment adds to the Routan Highline's upscale ambiance. (Photo: Trevor Hofmann, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on November 16, 2011

Published on November 16, 2011

New standard leather-wrapped steering wheel adds more of VW's premium look and feel. (Photo: Trevor Hofmann, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on November 16, 2011

No shortage of aluminum-like surfaces. (Photo: Trevor Hofmann, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on November 16, 2011

Published on November 16, 2011

Published on November 16, 2011

Published on November 16, 2011

Leather-clad shifter boasts six forward speeds and manual mode. (Photo: Trevor Hofmann, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on November 16, 2011

Chrysler is the master of minivan entertainment and the Routan benefits by association. (Photo: Trevor Hofmann, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on November 16, 2011

Published on November 16, 2011

Published on November 16, 2011

Second-row seats are comfortable, but need to be pulled out to create a flat loading floor. (Photo: Trevor Hofmann, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on November 16, 2011

Published on November 16, 2011

Published on November 16, 2011

Handy bin, but no Stow 'n Go seat storage for the Routan. (Photo: Trevor Hofmann, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on November 16, 2011

Published on November 16, 2011

Published on November 16, 2011

Published on November 16, 2011

Published on November 16, 2011

Published on November 16, 2011

Published on November 16, 2011

That's a full-size Ikea Kivik sofa in back! Yup, there's no shortage of space in the Routan. (Photo: Trevor Hofmann, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on November 16, 2011

Published on November 16, 2011

There's been a fair bit of snobbery amongst Volkswagen "purists" when the name Routan comes up in conversation. Terms uttered under a revulsive breath include "badge engineering" and even "sacrilege!" Obviously folks that take their Volks loyalty a bit too far. Others point to a conspiracy theory, saying ex-Chrysler COO and past VW chair Wolfgang Bernhard, the brainchild behind the Routan project, received a lucrative backroom payoff. Or maybe the deal was part a VW payoff to Chrysler in order to release their cost-cutting guru? Or possibly, yes just possibly the vehicle simply made good sense at the time and, low and behold, still does?

Arguably the best looking Chrysler Town and Country/Dodge Grand Caravan of the three available, Volkswagen took what was then and remains the best-selling minivan on the market, restyled it with VW design cues, refined its interior with softer-touch plastics, an appropriately badged steering wheel and a few other details, and rechristened it with one of their memorable names that really doesn't mean anything outside of tribal Africa or ancient Persia. Actually, unlike Tiguan and Touareg, Routan has nothing has no historical significance at all, but rather Volkswagen created the name by combining the words "route" and "an," not unlike how its European equivalent, Touran was named by combining "tour" and "an."

At the end of the day, or rather at the end of its third model year of production, the Routan rolls along as one of the better vans in the industry. In fact, model year 2011 marks some significant improvements since first launched. Like its American cousin (or should I say Canadian cousin being that all three vans are produced in Windsor, Ontario), the 2011 Routan received the much-improved new 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 engine, with output from the old 4.0-litre V6 increased by 32-horsepower from 251 to 283 and torque, despite 400 fewer cubic centimeters, up a wee bit too, from 259 lb-ft to 260, with 90-percent available from 1,600 to 6,400 rpm.

More important than performance is the new engine's refinement, going from foot soldier to flying ace thanks to variable cam timing with dual independent cam phasing to flatten any peaks in power output, an exhaust manifold that's integrated into the head, chain driven cams, a timing chain instead of a belt for longer wear and therefore lower repair costs, and lightweight aluminum construction. Engine accessories, such as the air conditioning compressor and alternator, are bolted directly to the block in order to reduce vibration, and production cost. The new engine is green as far as gasoline-powered V6 mills go, meeting California LEV II+ evaporative emission requirements, Tier 2, Federal Bin 4+ emissions requirements, and Clean Fuel Fleet Certification (CCF-LEV) in all other U.S. states.

And what about fuel economy? Oddly it's identical to the outgoing 4.0-litre engine's estimated rating of 12.2 L/100km in the city and 7.9 on the highway, which makes it slightly better than average in the city, where most of us drive, and not quite as the majority of its non-Chrysler/Dodge rivals efficient on the highway. Like the old engine, the new one comes mated to an efficient six-speed automatic, smooth shifting and benefiting from manual mode via a console-mounted shift lever.

Visit VW.ca, the automaker's Canadian retail site, and the suspension gets dubbed with "European-tuned," a term I haven't heard since before Pontiac got phased out. Just the same, VW did have their way with the undercarriage to create a more handling-oriented mid-van than the Chrysler/Dodge siblings, resulting in a family hauler that loves to carve corners on its way to hockey rinks and gymnastics classes.

The steering was firmed up as part of the process, while the new steering wheel design gives the Routan a more premium-like look that's in keeping with VW brand DNA. My tester came with a tri-tone interior, consisting of a black dash and upper door trim in soft-touch plastic, light grey lower dash and mid to lower door trim, and medium gray leather seats and carpeting for a truly luxe interior ambience. There was plenty of brushed aluminum-look trim on dash, door panels and centre stack, a trademark VW signature that transforms the Routan's cabin from domestic clique to Euro-chic.

Chryslers have long been technology leaders, especially the vans that have had the best in audio-visual systems since day one, and the Routan is benefactor with an available 6.5-inch touch-screen display backed up by a 20-gig hard drive, USB input, Sirius satellite radio, Uconnect hands-free phone connectivity and high-resolution rearview camera, all part of the Multimedia Package that's optional on Comfortline and standard on the Highline.

Say what? If you're not familiar with Volkswagen's Canadian trim levels, here's a quick breakdown. Three models are available, starting with the base Trendline at $28,575 plus $1,580 for destination, then followed by the Comfortline at $34,775 plus destination, and the top-tier Highline at $42,275. A quick rundown of trim level highlights starts with auto up/down powered windows, powered third-row quarter windows, keyless entry, heated mirrors, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, standard three-zone climate control, cruise control, AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio with auxiliary input, variable intermittent wipers, intermittent rear wiper, "Eco" fuel optimizer button, front-row side airbags, a driver's knee airbag, active front head restraints, tire pressure monitoring system, four-way manually-adjustable front seats, second-row fold-flat captain's chairs, a 60/40 split-folding third-row bench seat, and more for the base Trendline.

The Comfortline ups content to include heated "leatherette" seats with an 8-way power adjustable driver's seat, pillow-top first-row armrests, power-sliding side doors, brushed aluminum print trim, a trip computer, 6-CD audio, Sirius satellite radio, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, second- and third-row manual sunshades, chrome grille inserts instead of black, body-coloured mirrors and door handles instead of black, a Stow-in-Place roof rack, and more, while the base model's 16-inch steel wheels with covers are replaced with alloy rims.

The Highline adds Vienna leather upholstery, three-zone automatic climate control, automatic headlamps, a sliding and removable centre console, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, the aforementioned Multimedia Package, a power glass sunroof, a power tailgate, a rear-seat DVD entertainment system with dual screens, heated second-row seats, power-adjustable foot pedals, fog lamps, and more.

It sounds like a lot of content and that's true. In Highline trim the Routan is one well-equipped and ultra-comfortable van, but it's missing one important feature that, in my opinion, gives its Chrysler and Dodge cousins the critical edge over all other vans in the segment: Stow 'n Go second-row seating. The Routan gets the covered bins in the floors where the second-row seats in the Town and Country/Grand Caravan hide away when a flat loading floor is needed, and while these bins work well for extra storage I'd sooner have the flexible seating arrangement. I've lived with both and there's really no contest. Likewise, it would make sense for the Routan to feature Chrysler's Swivel 'n Go seating system, being that it was Volkswagen's camperized van, what some consider the initiator of the minivan segment, that popularized the rear picnic table concept in the first place, but both of these innovative seating systems are sacrosanct non-negotiables at Chrysler so, for good reason, there was no way VW was about to get its hands on either system for the Routan.

Of course the rear seats fold flat into the floor and if needed those in the middle can be removed, albeit with some effort, allowing cargo capacity to grow all the way up to 4,072 litres (143.8 cubic feet) from 2,350 litres (83.0 cubic feet) behind the second-row seats and 934 litres (33.0 cubic feet) behind the third-row. If you need more cargo space, i.e. a  or pull a boat or camper the Routan can be had with an optional towing package to increase its capacity from 907 kilos (2,000 lbs) to 1,633 kilograms (3,600 lbs).

Any minivan purchase is a practical decision that always comes down to personal priorities, and other brands aside, with the Routan that decision could be distilled down to Volkswagen style and handling versus Chrysler/Dodge rear seat functionality. All three vans are made in Canada and to VW's credit the Routan goes through an extra step when its own Volkswagen employees give each unit a final on-site quality inspection.

So call it what you want, but at the end of my week with the 2011 Volkswagen Routan I wasn't thinking about brand engineering or any other sacrilegious automotive blasphemy, but rather that I had just spent a very productive week in a particularly good minivan.
©(Copyright Canadian Auto Press)

Topics: Minivan, Volkswagen, VW, 2011, Routan, $20,000 - $29,999, $30,000 - $39,999,

Organizations: Volkswagen

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