First Drive: 2012 Volkswagen Routan SEL
Wolfsburg's Re-badge Falls Short
It seems almost every American family has a story or experience with the original Volkswagen Beetle. Whether you lived in Duluth, Miami, Manhattan, or Malibu, the quirky German compact was all over American roads in the 1960s and '70s. Perhaps VW's Microbus wasn't as widespread as its compact cousin, but there's no question it had nearly as much of an impact on automotive culture, especially if you lived in California, or were a devotee of the Grateful Dead.
The original VW Microbus was a definitive counterculture icon of the '60s and '70s. To this day, the original air-cooled models and even the later water-cooled, rear-engine Vanagon fetch shocking five-figure prices in California coastal towns, as they are prized by collectors, surfers, and high-schoolers alike.
The Eurovan that came after the Microbus and Vanagon, while quirky in its own right, wasn't exactly a sales success here, and it drove out of the U.S. market in 2003. It would be effectively replaced five years later with the Routan, a re-badged Chrysler Town & Country (or Dodge Grand Caravan, take your pick.) There are various theories as to why this happened, but the long and short of it is Wolfsburg believed it needed a van model in the U.S. but apparently didn't want to go to the trouble and expense of federalizing and importing one of its European offerings.
Although there's nothing particularly objectionable about the 2012 Volkswagen Routan we recently had in for a test drive, there's nothing exceptional about it, either. Other than some mild styling differences inside and out that distinguish it from its Chrysler brethren, there is nothing uniquely Volkswagen about it, unless you count the fact that you can't get Chrysler's innovative Stow & Go seating in the Routan.
From behind the wheel, the Routan has a distinctly American feel. There's no VW magic in its DNA, at least none that pokes through its thoroughly Yankee pedigree in any appreciable measure. Although our tester was the top-shelf SEL Premium trim, complete with HID headlights, memory seats, navigation, dual power-sliding doors, and a power rear hatch, the inescapable fact is that this vehicle is a utilitarian people-hauler. It has that unmistakable workhorse feel of a minivan or airport shuttle. And that's not the kind of feel you want when shelling out hefty $45,100 for a specimen equipped like our tester.
But for kiddie-hauling duty, the Routan has a lot going for it. It has copious cupholders, or getraenkehalters, as VW likes to call them. Thirteen in all, six of which are clustered around the driver. There's the obligatory convex inside rearview mirror to keep a watchful eye on rambunctious youngsters, an available built-in rear-seat DVD player, and the hazard lights thoughtfully flash for several seconds after the power side doors are opened.
The Pentastar 3.6-liter V-6, introduced in 2011, provides adequate motivation, but you're always aware of the Routan's overall mass pitted against the engine's somewhat peaky torque curve. While 283 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque seem like a lot on paper, they have to contend with nearly 4500 pounds of not-so-mini minivan. Consequently, deliberate merging or passing requires a healthy shove of the go pedal. At least the Pentastar has a reasonably pleasant, muscular growl at full whack, although the flaky six-speed automatic transmission always seems a step behind what you actually want it to do.
Over the past few years, Volkswagen has teased us with several concepts that hark back to the groovy days of the Microbus, most notably the eponymous concept of the same name in 2001, and the smaller-sized Bulli in 2011. Both were enthusiastically received by the automotive press. Yet here we are with the utterly unremarkable, badge-engineered Routan.
Although it's unlikely we'll ever see the return of a mid-sized rear-engine van from VW, the brand has proven it can successfully apply a heritage retro theme to a modern platform, as it did with the original New Beetle in 1998, and arguably even more successfully with the 2012 revival. In my mind, there's only one brand that could truly make the minivan cool again, and that's Volkswagen. Sadly, the Routan is not the van to do it.
|2012 Volkswagen Routan SEL Premium|
|BASE PRICE||$45,100 (est)|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD, 7-pass, 4-door, van|
|CURB WEIGHT||4494 lb|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||202.5 x 76.9 x 68.9 in|
|0-60 MPH||8.1 sec (MT est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON||17 / 25 mpg (est)|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||198 / 135 kW-hrs/100 miles (est)|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.98 lb/mile|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||Currently|