California Dreaming

Volkswagen vans are as much a part of the coastal California landscape as surfboards and seagulls. From San Francisco to San Diego, it’s almost impossible to drive a mile on the coast highway without passing a microbus, a Vanagon or a Eurovan. With a family trip to the central coast already planned, it seemed fitting that we should spend the week in VW’s latest people-box, the 2009 Routan minivan, to see if it possesses any of its predecessors’ mojo.

Unless you’ve been living on a remote island, you probably already know that the Routan is not entirely a Volkswagen product. Here’s the back-story: VW is potentially developing its own minivan, one that’s more affordable and family-friendly than the tall, boxy and expensive T5 Transporter that it sells in Europe. Until that product arrives (assuming it ever does), it needs to lay some groundwork to get 21st-century families thinking about VW vans in a 21st-century context. The short-term solution was to pair up with an established player to create a VW-branded vehicle that would not only drive buyers into Volkswagen showrooms, but also make a little profit for both parties. The right answer seemed to be Chrysler’s popular Grand Caravan/Town & Country vans, just in case the DNA wasn’t completely obvious.

So is the Routan just a re-badged Grand Caravan? Well, in almost every way it really is. To be certain, there is nothing really “VW” about the Routan’s mechanicals. In S and SE trim (the SEL gets a more powerful 4.0-liter,) it uses the same 3.8-liter, 197-horsepower V6, the same six-speed automatic, and the same MacPherson strut front and semi-independent torsion beam rear suspension as the Dodge. The bodywork is mostly carried over as well; the front clip and taillights carry the signature VW features, keeping the Routan from looking entirely like a stepchild in a Volkswagen showroom. The interior is perhaps the most Teutonic element, with seats sculpted in Passat-like shapes (and wearing a funky, Bauhaus-inspired geometric patterned cloth in our SE model), and the requisite black dashboard.

OK, so it’s clear where the Routan came from, but don’t assume its American roots make it any less a vehicle. While VW may have created the original minivan, it was the Caravan that really introduced them to the mainstream. After all, the Routan benefits from Chrysler’s quarter century of minivan expertise. With this in mind we hit the road to see if this crossbreed has the goods to wear the VW badge with pride.

Whether you think minvans are cool or not depends a lot on your perspective. Our three-year-old daughter Riley obviously lacks the historical frame of reference to understand the social stigma attached to minivans for a certain generation of Americans. Like her parents, for instance, who have sworn up and down they would never, ever own a minivan. What we see as a concession to the often mundane world of parental responsibility, her fresh eyes see as a toy box full of features her mom’s car doesn’t have.

Like power sliding doors, as an example. She’s grown up in a world where doors open themselves almost everywhere we go, and she’s absolutely overjoyed to be in a vehicle equipped with such a useful inclusion. In truth, we too became very fond of the convenience, though we quickly conceded control to our tot, who insisted on “doing the magic doors” all by herself.

Her mom and I found other things equally cool, like the under-floor storage compartments between the first and second row of seats. True, this space is also used for the center-row Stow-n-Go seating option in the Chrysler vans, a feature not offered on the VW at all. But for a vacationing family, the extra space offered us the security of bringing our most valuable belongings with us everywhere (a pair of laptops, a couple cameras, numerous iPods) without leaving them visible to prying eyes while we parked for yet another walk along yet another beach. With everything packed away in the hidden hold, the interior of the van looked as empty as a McMansion in foreclosure.

With captain’s chairs in the center row, Riley finally experienced the joy of occupying her very own seat. From her perch, the large side window afforded her large vistas of the Pacific coastline. It didn’t take long for her to figure out she could also open that window using her foot to activate the power switch. And when the rhythm of the road eventually lulled her to sleep, the standard roll-up sunshades provided a break from the intruding sunshine. From where the kid sat, the Routan was a pleasant and exciting change from the drudgery of her mother’s Volvo wagon.

From my seat, the experience was a little less thrilling. It’s not the Routan’s fault; it’s just really hard to find much joy in driving a minivan. The armrest on the driver’s seat seems to encourage a BarcaLounger driving position that really only works for laid-back cruising. At one point along the undulating Highway 1, my wife asked me what I’d rather be driving on that particular stretch. “Anything else,” is what I muttered, but the truth is, it wasn’t that bad.

The V6 has good punch at lower revs, and the transmission is a quick and smooth shifter. Around-town driving was always effortless, with smooth, quick getaways from stoplights and strong pulls up to highway speeds. Passing maneuvers at anything north of 60 mph proved challenging, however. Fuel economy was predictable at close to 22 mpg on the open highway and around 19 on the coastal roads.

On the twisty parts, the suspension plays along better than expected. VW calibrated the chassis to feel more European, and indeed the Routan feels more buttoned down that the last Chrysler variant I drove. Steering effort is light, as you’d expect from a mom-mobile, but not dreadfully over-assisted. Brakes (four-wheel discs are standard) are likewise up to the task at hand, but lack the firmness of pedal usually associated European vehicles.

In a week on the road, our optionless Routan SE (MSRP $30, 290) proved its worth as a family hauler. But it certainly isn’t blessed with the same kind of charming peculiarities that have made past VW vans such cult icons. ¬Where are the fold-up tables, the swiveling captain’s seats, the makeshift sofa-sleeper? I’d trade a pair of power sliding doors for a truly functional cabin.

Still, for the basic needs of family life, the Routan does the job. And while it lacks the coastal coolness of a Vanagon Syncro Camper, it certainly possesses a degree of suburban chic that just isn’t part of the Caravan’s story. Like it or not, the VW badge on the grille will make the prospect of a owning minivan a bit more palatable to many prospective buyers.

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