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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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Comments (16)
  1. Throw a TDI four-cylinder under the hood and you'd have a real competitor. Like it is, you have just another Odessey wannabe. A great vehicle (with a much nicer dash than its Chysler cousins), but nothing special.
     
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  2. Minivans are so out; I definitely see a trend of less obtrusive cars. Good on VW for leading the pack. I still enjoy my Jetta however ;)

    z
     
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  3. It is great to see VW back in the van business. Partnering with the minivan creator is a good move but a deisel engine would have been a real coup for VW in this segment. I will have to wait and see what they do powertrain wise before I consider this vehicle. With a growing family my Golf TDI is getting small and my '95 Passat wagon is getting old.
     
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  4. I am a Volkswagen girl all the way - really love the brand! We have two children but no minivan in the market really appeals to me right now...I saw the Routan at the Toronto Auto Show and it really caught my eye...I would definitely consider getting one if it came in a diesel and if it came with a manual transmission as it is getting harder and harder to pack the kids in my 2007 Jetta TDI!
     
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  5. Maybe VW and Porsche should team up on a minivan like they did on the SUV? A minivan with TDI, 19"s, Brembos, and leather Recaros instead of captain's chairs.


    sure....right....
     
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  6. Routan... Great name... I close my eyes and I can see and hear Damon Wayans lisp-ing his way through a skit from some re-run of "In Living Color" :-)

    I'm quite content to drive my family's decidedly unfashionable Honda Odyssey, which I regard as a near luxury car that just happens to be very spacious, comfortable and practical. Unlike Chrysler, Honda managed to design a classy and functional IP, and achieve great ride / handling balance with no help from Volkswagen engineers.

    If you compare the footprint of an Odyssey (or Toyota Sienna) with GM's Lambda quartet, you'll find nearly identical sized vehicles. But the minivans pack substatially more useable volume onto that footprint. When my kids are older and can open their own doors, perhaps those ubiquitous sliding doors aren't needed. But why should I sacrifice useable interior volume to be more fashionable?
     
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  7. The fact that VW have a long history of building vans is the very reason the company should not have opted to go with a rebadged Chrysler product. Sure, the front and rear end are sufficient enough to help it stand out and the quality levels are definitely superior to the Chrysler versions, but with such a rich history and the Microbus concept getting such positive feedback it is truly a shame that VW's new family car is the Routan. Why wouldn't they have simply brought over the Sharan from Europe and graft a new face and rear on that?
     
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  8. Eric,
    I am a little curious as to how the quality levels can be better than the Chrysler versions built in the same vehicle assemby plant? I would also be amazed if shock absorber valving can make that much difference in the handling, since all the components are almost surely identical to their Chrysler counterparts.
     
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  9. My generation (now 40s) grew up in Ford County Squires, Malibu wagons and, if your parents wanted to prove they were just a little different, Volvo 245s. These car-base wagons did the job just fine with virtually no mileage penalty over their sedan base counterparts. We played punch buggy instead of watching DVDs. We talked to our parents and sibblings instead of putting on headphones to block out everyone else. We read our homework right on our laps instead of a pullout folding table. We took our stuff out of the car when we got where we were going intead of stashing it in cubby or compartment. And we didn't spill food and drinks all over the car because we ate at the dinner table instead. Why do these parents let their kids turn their vehicles into rolling trash dumps?
    Minivans and McMansions - so five years ago! I don't think VW stands a chance with the Routan. I did think that microbus concept a few years ago was pretty cool though.
     
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  10. A smart business move,sure. A good idea? Probably not. Witness the Honda Passport (Isuzu Rodeo) of ten or so years ago. OK, the car industry has changed considerably in that time span, but "rebadge-engineering" is just a bad idea to me. GM is just starting to get it right and they've been at it a long,long,long time.

    If they can make it feel like a VW, that's great. But I'd always know I was driving a Chrysler underneath it all. Bring back the Eurovan!!
     
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  11. Sounds like the die hard Minivan people are having a hard time of letting go. The way some did with the demise of the once cool Stationwagons gone by the way of er the uh you know the "MommyVan"!

    I just bought one of those Lambda Quartet - GMC Acadia. And having stepped out of a full size Van, my family loved the spaciuosness along with the 21" TV, and head set plugs for the radio, they soon fell out favor once they saw how cool the Acadia was.

    Actually it hauls 8 people comfortably, yes we have sliding seats instead of sliding doors, but here's the kicker. I don't drive it to get extra good gas mileage. I tool along the freeways like the rest of the crowd, usually 70-77 mph and I am getting around 19 mpg. That is awesome when you consider how heavy the CUV is. But the nice thing is that it looks way cooler than a minivan because I always see the looks on Dads driving their antiquated MommyVan, that look of Envy! One other thing, 275 hp out of VVT 3.6L sounds way better than all those anemic ratings of those large aero challenged things!
     
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  12. Hmmmm....
    The VW van my neighbour here in Ireland has is called a Caravelle - not a Caravellean.
     
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  13. If the US arm of Honda actually took on the version of the Odyssey that is available in Oz & Japan then I don't think too many people would complain about 'not cool'. Our version makes the US version look like a badly made jelly bean. You should also check out Honda's new Japanese market Stepwgn

    As for VW.......the US is simply not a significant part of their market. But I fail to see how the Routan is going to fix that.
     
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  14. Many are disappointed that the microbus concept wasn't produced. This minivan doesn't look any different, and it doesn't stand out. If I were to market this van I'd add some retro VW microbus styling. A row of small square windows behind the B pillar would look cute, . The same headlights seen on the new bug would be a nice touch, along with a huge VW emblem that doubles as a radiator grill. Instead of those ugly tail lights , why not simple oval tailights seen on the old microbuses ? Add a seat that folds into a bed. It's retro styling that people like. Just look at the New VW bug and Ford Mustang. If VW wants this van to sell, it's got to be totally different.
     
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  15. When I'm driving my Dodge Caravan, I don't care what impression it makes on the shallow fools here in LA. I certainly am not envious of those driving Acadias or other crossovers...
     
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  16. Another thought. Because the Routan is coming out, does this mean that VW will stop bringing the Passat wagon stateside? I hope not, because once my Jetta wagon is done or I want something larger,I want another VW option. Although I can't see the Routan taking off, I can see it cannibalizing sales from the Passat wagon.
     
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