Up Close: 2009 Volkswagen Routan

I didn't understand this car when I first heard about it, and now that I've seen it I still don't understand it. Espousing the brand's newfound access to a "high-volume market segment" — perhaps the horde of minivan buyers heading for the exits? — Volkswagen CEO Stefan Jacoby introduced the Routan (ROO-tan) to journalists. It's no secret that this is a rebadged version of the Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan, so I set out to find exactly how the Routan bucks those routines.

First were a few disappointments: For its second-row captain's chairs — no bench seat is offered — the Routan offers neither Stow 'n Go nor Swivel 'n Go, two of Chrysler's signature features. The seats fold flat but not into the floor, though the floor compartments are still there for storage. Spokesman Chrstian Buhlmann said VW passed on the feature because it wanted maximum comfort in the second row. I'll buy that answer in regard to Stow 'n Go, which requires narrow, rigid seats to fold into the floor. But the Swivel 'n Go seats are much more accommodating. Sure enough, I checked out a Town & Country across the convention hall, and I'm not exactly sure what the Routan's fixed seats bring to the ballgame.

The Routan offers most of the Town & Country's other family features, like a Stow 'n Go third row, Sirius Backseat TV and the MyGIG infotainment system. Spokesman Steve Keyes said Volkswagen will market these features with VW-specific names. Buhlmann said the suspension and steering will also be tuned for a more European feel, and I hope that signals an improvement over the Town & Country's creaky ride.

Up front, the cabin shares the same styling as Chrysler's minivans, though the gauges are new and the center controls have different markings. The upper dash uses softer materials than the Town & Country's rock-hard plastics, and the doors now have leather wrappings — probably the single nicest improvement over Chrysler's roughshod surfaces. Truth be told, though, I'm not sure these improvements are enough to outweigh the second-row seating issue.

More Routan info and photos

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