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Cargirl: Is Routan the Cure For Minivans?

This woman I know told me how much she loved her Honda Odyssey. Six months later she told me she hated it. Did something happen, I asked? Did you have an accident?

“No,” she said. “I just hate this minivan.”

I don’t think she hated her vehicle. I think what happened is life. Too many spilled sippy cups, too many trips to the grocery store, too many five-year-old hissy fits and handling all of it as a single mother. Life happens in all its glory and when you are at the end of your rope you look for an outlet for your anger if you’re a healthy person. She dumped it on her minivan.

Maybe the real reason women have turned their noses up at minivans is because the styling makes them feel like Swiffers on top of already feeling like delivery and livery services. Those tough durable seat fabrics scream “go ahead: spill your apple juice. It’s just going to bounce right off me.” It leaves no excitement for that minivan driving soccer mom. There’s nothing sexy or stylish about a Town & Country or a Dodge Grand Caravan. Practical, yes. Practical, some might say, to a fault.

Practical or not, sales of minivans have gone downhill steadily with some automakers including Ford, Mercury, Saturn, Pontiac and Mazda abandoning the segment altogether. Total sales in 2007 were 793,000, down from 971,000 in 2006 and from 1,070,513 in 2002. This year, minivans are still declining––about 20,000 units from January 2007 to January 2008.

Women--all women, even those cleaning peanut butter and jelly out of their kids’ hair--want to feel a sense of style in their lives and I think that’s another reason the minivan category has tanked. Along came the crossover. It was new, it was fresh, it was cool. Of course it doesn’t have the access or the room but it’s fashionable. And we are prone to embrace those fashion trends. Just look at our closets.

So when I saw Volkswagen introduce the seven-passenger Routan, a minivan built by Chrysler here in North America, at the Chicago Auto Show, I thought maybe a minivan with a twist of VW might revive the category.

“Routan” is a made-up word combining the word “route” with the suffix “an.” (VW adds "an" to the end of all its vans in Europe.) The VW Routan is based on the Chrysler Town & Country/Dodge Grand Caravan, but it has a couple of significant differences and those things may be enough to make Moms embrace it.

First, the Routan’s exterior design front and back disguises its minivan look with a VW chrome grille and headlamps like those on VW’s Eos convertible. The rear, too, is styled with wrap-around taillamps that have VW genes. Second, the Routan interior is appointed with fresh, modern fabrics and textures. Fit and finish is up to VW’s meticulous standards. Third, suspension and steering were tuned by Volkswagen in Germany. Volkswagen assures us that the Routan will drive like a VW and not like a Chrysler.

The second row is equipped with captain's chairs. Available features include a rear-seat entertainment system with two nine-inch screens, navigation system, power liftgate and dual power sliding doors.

The functionality of the minivan is preserved; it’s just really stylish. You can’t top sliding doors for access, you can’t beat the openness of the back for depositing sports equipment and grocery bags, you can’t find the upright driving position in anything else big enough to haul families.

Two Chrysler engines are offered--a standard 3.8-liter V-6 with 197 hp, or an optional 4.0-liter V-6 with 251 hp. A six-speed automatic transmission is standard on both engines. Traction and stability control are included as standard features. There are not figures yet for gas mileage but the vehicle will certainly beat those SUVs. It would be nice if there were plans for a diesel but there aren’t at this time.

Official price information has not been released, but Volkswagen says the Routan will start at less than $25,000 and be sold exclusively in North America.

So while Ford, Mercury, Mazda, Buick, Pontiac and Saturn minivans are going to the archives, VW brings it on.

Are we deeply sad that VW didn’t blow us away by announcing that they would build that fabulous Microbus they’ve been talking about? We are. But partnering with Chrysler to test a vehicle that is in a declining segment was smart of VW and probably the only way they could go. VW doesn’t have the volume to buy the tooling to produce a minivan itself--but of any brand, its whole history is intertwined with vans. And building a good-looking one might just inject some life into the segment.

In the meantime, we can all hope for more carefree times when a Microbus is just the ticket for a road trip across the country.--Kate McLeod
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