With the Routan, Volkswagen had a chance to fix many of the oversights found on the Chrysler Town & Country/Dodge Grand Caravan platform on which the new minivan was based. While the Routan is a definite improvement over both previous-generation Chrysler products, there's still room for improvement.
Whether or not you agree with VW's decision to restyle its competitor's minivan for the U.S. market rather than build its own from scratch, the German brand did manage to get at least one thing right about the Routan: This people-mover is better-looking than either Chrysler product. Staffers praised the improved interior materials and seats. Still, the basic Chrysler interior layout is nearly identical (though Stow 'n Go seating isn't available in the Routan), and it's easy to point out the cheaper components. The light-feeling shift lever, outdated navigation system (standard in our top-trim version), and cheap switchgear and plastic trim all drew complaints.
Volkswagen says the Routan's improvements go beneath the surface, and to a degree, that is correct. Spring rates that are significantly higher than those of the Chrysler duo give the Routan a more planted feel on highways and twistier roads with only a slight penalty in ride quality. Per associate online editor Benson Kong: "I'm not exactly sure what the Routan's 'European-tuned suspension' entails, but it works. The minivan's suspension seems to have found a good compromise between cruising civility and reactive roadholding, though this Volkswagen obviously skews toward the former."
Volkswagen also chose to outfit the SEL model with the most powerful of the available Chrysler engines-a 251-horse, 4.0-liter V-6. For 2011, a single 283-horse Pentastar V-6 is offered for the entire Routan range, and that's a good thing. According to senior photographer Brian Vance, the large V-6 felt a little sluggish when used for its intended purpose of people-hauling.
"Load the Routan up with six passengers, and it's easy to feel a noticeable lag in performance off the line," Vance notes.
Associate online editor Nate Martinez concurs. "The V-6 with six-speed automatic has enough grunt to get the van going relatively quickly, but it struggles to pull with people and their gear aboard. The mill is also loud at wide-open throttle, and fuel economy isn't stellar. It gets even worse when lurching in stop-and-go traffic."
Still, for all the complaints our staff had about power, concerns about braking-just as with our previous long-term 2008 Chrysler Town & Country-were far greater. We found the rotors yet again not up to the task of hauling down this heavy minivan from speed, especially with a full load of passengers. "All our Town & Country's old ghosts are coming back to haunt the Routan already," noted associate editor Scott Evans at the 13,000-mile point. "The brakes are fried and will make the whole vehicle shudder violently when you use them hard-and they aren't great at restraining the vehicle to begin with."
Evans' comments came just 7000 miles after we'd already had the brakes serviced for the same issue. Testing director Kim Reynolds, no stranger to a minivan, simply remarked, "A shame VW didn't insist on an improvement in the brakes before allowing its name to be put on this vehicle." It's worth mentioning that the brake service, along with three standard services at 6000-mile intervals, were performed at zero cost per VW's three-year free maintenance program.
Still, the Routan acquitted itself well as an around-town hauler. It was praised for its comfortable ride, few squeaks and rattles, and storage capacity. Executive editor Ed Loh used the VW to shuttle guests around Los Angeles for a weekend, leaving the family of five impressed by the dual LCD entertainment screens, satellite radio, and passenger space.
"The Routan was generally excellent and much admired by our French friends," Loh jotted. "The father was amazed by all the automation and impressed by the power-sliding doors and tailgate, but the remote start really blew his mind."
As competition has moved forward, the Routan feels a little behind the times. What move will VW make when the Routan reaches the end of its product cycle? That remains to be seen. For now, Reynolds sums things up best. "All in all, it's a better looking, previous iteration Town & Country, which is to say-well, I don't know what."
From The Logbook
"Whenever I have a passenger along in the Routan, I have to go through the whole
tiresome story of it really being a Chrysler and, frankly, I'd rather have a vehicle I don't
have to explain over and over again."
"For deal-seekers who don't want to pay for a V-6-powered Toyota Sienna or Honda
Odyssey, the Routan isn't a bad choice, but it isn't a great one either."
"The transmission is about as smooth as they come and the ride quality is quite good.
Were it not for the rapidly failing interior and brakes, it would have been a very nice