CORNWALL, N.Y. - It is the only Chrysler minivan in North America with a Volkswagen badge - the 2009 Volkswagen Routan.
Other than that, it is difficult to understand why anyone would choose the Routan over the minivans from which it is derived - the Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country, produced in Windsor, Ontario.
Volkswagen is betting that Routan buyers will swoon over the supposed superiority of German engineering, which is why it is marketing the Routan in the United States with the slogans, "the only minivan in America with German engineering" and a "suspension engineered for the autobahn."
There are two big problems with those pitches. The first is that there are few highways in the United States that come close to the uniformly smooth, well-maintained surfaces of Germany's autobahn. The second is that what little "German engineering" exists in the Routan is practically invisible - hard to decipher by sight, vehicle performance or feel.
After nearly 800 miles behind the wheel of the VW Routan SE, I and my vehicle evaluation crew - my wife, Mary Anne; and my Washington Post associate for vehicle evaluations, Ria Manglapus - concluded that the Routan drives, handles and feels like, well, the Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country minivan.
That is not a bad thing. But it is nowhere near good enough to cause consumers to choose one over the other. That means it leaves the Routan vulnerable to the same robust competition from the Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna and Hyundai Entourage minivans that has been making life miserable for the Chrysler models.
In the minivan segment, the Odyssey has the best ride and handling. The Sienna ties with the Chrysler models for best utility, with the Chrysler duo arguably having an edge in the utility department with its clever Stow 'n Go and Swivel 'n Go seating options. And the Hyundai Entourage, considering its top safety ratings, excellent build quality and generous offering of standard equipment at an attractive price, has the best value.
We all found it odd that Volkswagen, the company that once gave us the charming, picnic-able Eurovan with middle and rear seats that allowed face-to-face communion between passengers over a dining table, would adopt the Chrysler minivan platform without the Swivel 'n Go option. It was more than odd. It was downright disappointing.
Swivel 'n Go, introduced on the 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town and Country, allows middle-row passengers to turn their seats 180 degrees to face passengers in the rear. An optional table can be set up between front and rear passengers for dining or playing games.
It is a more enriching way of traveling with family and friends. It adds fun to the trip. It mostly is why so many of us loved the Eurovan. In fact, since Volkswagen has decided to reenter the family van market in North America, we would've preferred that it had done so with the Eurovan, which has a distinct personality in terms of ride, feel and utility.
But, alas, Volkswagen's rush to increase its sales volume stateside, and to do so at a cost that wouldn't anger its money managers, nixed the reintroduction of the Eurovan.
Required changes for tougher U.S. vehicle safety rules - for example, placement and anchoring of that travel table, a problem solved by Chrysler's engineers - was too expensive. Unfavorable currency exchange rates aggravated vehicle pricing. And, hey, Chrysler's plant in Windsor, Ontario, had lots of excess production capacity available at a bargain price.
Turning excess capacity into a buck earned was good for Chrysler. It was seemingly good for VW. But the reality on the ground is that it does little for the consumer. And that goofy name, Routan, a combination of "route" and the "an" suffix Volkswagen routinely attaches to van names, doesn't help.
Mark this one as a rare Volkswagen mistake, one we're betting will have a mercifully short life in the marketplace.
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