Chicago Auto Show 2008: VW Routan Gets a Dash Stroking

When the rumor mill started to grind about VW and Chrysler’s minivan partnership, three questions echoed throughout the webosphere: Why? What will it look like? What will it feel like?

The first two queries were answered quickly yet, in certain circles, debated endlessly. The marriage allowed VW to re-enter the minivan segment quickly and easily using technology and resources already in place. Pictures hit the Internet a few days before the van’s February 6 debut at the Chicago Auto Show and reaction was mostly what we expected. Although the van’s silhouette is undeniably Chrysler, all-new exterior stampings provide a distinctive look.

The front end is suitably aggressive; VW says it was designed to be “strong and dynamic, yet friendly.” A chrome and matte black grille cascade between angled, sloping headlights, draped by a crisp hood. Fog lamps and a subtle lower valence are reminiscent of the GTI. The model shown features chrome mirror caps and door handles, which draw attention back towards the chrome window sills. Unfortunately, a roof-mount antenna is nowhere to be found, yet the rear is nevertheless distinctive. Tail lamps are inspired by the shape found on VW’s other hatches; the rounded two-piece lenses are a dramatic improvement over the red and amber pillars of the Chrysler siblings. The vehicle sits low (well, for a van) on two-tone chrome wheels, and VW says the suspension was tuned for firmer ride quality and handling.

The interior shares the bone structure of the organ donor, with seat frame, dash shell, shifter, and steering wheel lifted from the Chrysler parts bin. Once inside, though, warm, neutral leather tells a different story. It’s thoroughly impractical for hauling around rugrats, but serves well to showcase Routan’s features, such as heavy stitching and sporty, supportive seat bolsters. The cabin offers none of the Caravan’s thrifty charm or Town & Country’s coarsely molded elements — the Routan driver can adjust airflow and toggle switches without risk of bloodletting. The dash shell’s textured plastic yields slightly to the touch (considerably softer than that of the Chryslers), overlaid with a dark gray soft pad. The contrast isn’t quite as impressive as the two-tone effect of, say, the Passat CC, but it lends depth, dimension, and interest to the vast expanses of cream surfaces.

The interior also features power Stow ‘n Go seating in the third row, with the option of flipping the seats forward or back. A move by Chrysler prevented VW from including the much-hyped proprietary Swivel ‘n Go seating system, which is a disappointment — the feature would have been a nice throwback to VW’s camper heritage. However, Routan still has the advantage in regard to driver and passenger comfort.

What remains to be seen is whether or not Routan will find an audience. It’s an entry into a slowing market and seems imperative to VW’s “niche to volume” market strategy, but VW’s strong van heritage means they’ve got something special to offer. VW says Routan will appeal to the “rational and emotional needs” of the minivan buyer.

Routan’s sub-$25,000 entry price is competitive for the segment, cutting below the current star of the class, the Honda Odyssey. Of course, we at VWvortex are holding out for a range of DriverGear accessories. Yes, this van clamors for enthusiast attention. A set of tinted tails and a deeper upper hatch spoiler would easily make Routan the best-looking family hauler around.

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