- Exterior styling
- Optional 4.0-liter V-6
- Six-speed automatic transmission (V-6 models)
- Commendable handling
- Cargo capacity
- Base engine crude and thirsty
- Second-row seats not as cargo-friendly as rivals
- Some interior plastics not up to VW standards
- Transmission behavior with base engine
The 2009 Volkswagen Routan has the bonuses of Chrysler’s segment-defining minivans with a touch of German flair, but a modern-day VW Bus it’s not.
The 2009 Volkswagen Routan is Volkswagen’s chance to get a piece of the minivan pie. Essentially a reworked and rebadged Dodge Grand Caravan, the Routan comes well equipped for a reasonable base price and is offered with niceties such as an ingenious power-folding third-row seat, 144 cubic feet of storage with the seats stowed and removed, and sliding doors both left and right with windows that roll down.
VW claims this is the “Volkswagen of Minivans,” and judging by the exterior, we can’t disagree. A handsome new snout capped off by a big VW logo and monochrome bumpers give this van far more presence than its Dodge and Chrysler relatives, while fitting right in with the rest of Volkswagen’s lineup. An inviting interior with redesigned textures and VW touches impresses, at least until the details are scrutinized. The instrument panel design is particularly effective, with chunky styling, a simple layout, and a distinctive two-tone theme.
The pushrod 3.8-liter V-6 that’s standard on S and SE trims, developing 197 horsepower, struggles to move the 4,500-pound van with anything approaching authority. What’s more, the six-speed automatic seems to pause interminably between gears in an attempt to give smooth handoffs to the next ratio. The uplevel 251-horsepower, 4.0-liter V-6 engine that’s standard on the SEL is of a completely different, modern overhead-cam design; it makes a much happier combination with the same six-speed automatic and transforms the Routan into a refined, responsive, and more efficient machine that’s in keeping with the Volkswagen driving ethos. The 4.0-liter gets the better EPA fuel economy ratings of the two, at 17 mpg city, 25 mpg highway.
All levels feature a suspension that’s been tuned for greater handling response compared to the Chrysler minivans with which it’s closely related. The Routan feels planted and secure in a wide variety of driving situations. Despite that “German-Tuned” suspension, the Routan retains all of the Grand Caravan/Town & Country’s comfort while adding an extra dose of composure and a nice dollop of driving enjoyment. Seats struck just the right balance between supportive and comfortable, minimizing fatigue over long distances while keeping the driver in place even at a fast clip.
A closer look inside, however, reveals switches, details, and controls not up to par with those of competitors like the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna. Domestic manufacturers are increasingly able to get everything right but the subtle details, and it is here where the Routan appears decidedly non-German. The control panel for the HVAC controls comprises a sea of black plastic with hard-to-read buttons, and as such, it pulled the driver’s eyes off the road in order to adjust.
Many of the same benefits of the segment-defining Chrysler minivans find their way into the Routan, but the trick fold-flat second-row captain's chairs of the Chrysler/Dodge vans, along with the, Swivel N’ Go seating option, are not available at all on the VW. Standard in the S is a second-row folding bench seat, while the other models get fold-forward/removable captain's chairs that aren't as handy but offer superior passenger comfort. All Routans have the convenient third-row folding bench that either disappears right into the floor or reclines into a “tailgating” mode that allows passengers to lounge while facing out the rear of an open tailgate. With the second row removed and the third row folded, all vans feature 144 cubic feet of storage. Thoughtful touches like the flip-down conversation mirror, power windows in both side sliding doors, and a bevy of optional in-cabin entertainment and touch-screen navigation should keep drivers and passengers coddled and quiet.
The Routan gets top marks in crash protection, with five stars in NHTSA frontal and side crash tests. The IIHS has not yet tested a 2009 Volkswagen Routan, but given the basically identical 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan’s solid “good” (the highest rating given by IIHS) ratings across the board, we expect the Routan to perform similarly. Standard safety equipment on the Routan includes driver and passenger airbags, as well as side curtain airbags throughout. Additionally, electronic stability control (termed ESP here) and anti-lock brakes are standard on all 2009 Routans.
The base S model comes in at a very attractive price, starting at around $25,000, but uplevel options and trims drive the Routan’s cost skyward, even into the price range of the Touareg luxury SUV. The mid-level SE brings larger wheels and tires than the base S, along with power sliding doors, a garage door opener, and power heated mirrors, though at a significant price premium. Opting for the top-of-the-line SEL brings more power, better economy, and greater refinement, along with highly desired features such as a rear entertainment system and 506-watt premium sound system, but it costs thousands more. Volkswagen’s touch-screen navigation system, which comes with one of the better displays, is optional, as is a hard-drive music-storage system.