2011 Volkswagen Routan car review — the VW minivan

2011 Volkswagen Routan SEL Premium

2011 Volkswagen Routan car review

 Sporty, connected minivan
Why we’d buy it: Convenient, quiet, peppy, efficient, connected, comfortable, well styled
Why we wouldn’t: No fold-in-floor seats; red backlighting
Mileage: 18 city, 25 highway

In 2008, Volkswagen launched its new full-sized minivans for North America, built in Canada. They have sold in ever-increasing numbers, but are still unusual on the street.

The Volkswagen styling is more attractive, and better suited to hiding the van’s bulk, than any other current minivan’s.

While Chrysler minivans can feel somewhat over-isolated, the Routan has a connected-to-the-road feel. Those looking for a luxury ride should stick to the domestics; but the Volkswagen version was, true to its brand image, sportier and more connected.

For 2011, the Routan gained a new state-of-the-art V6 engine, provided by Chrysler’s Trenton Engine facility.

Drive normally, and the engine will rarely ever rev past 2,000 rpm, except perhaps when merging onto a highway or getting up to speed on a rural road; shifts are barely perceptible. On a suburban road, cruise control on and running at 35 mph, the engine was barely ticking over at 1,400 rpm. Push your foot down, especially with the “Eco” button off, and the transmission will quickly downshift, putting you into the 3,500-and-higher power band. The six-speed automatic’s low first gear helps with quick launches.

By default, the transmission is in a “sport” mode; a convenient “Eco” button switches to gas-mileage mode. (Don’t be surprised if, when gas prices rise, econ becomes standard program and the sport mode becomes the option.) Once you press the button, the car remembers where you set it on future trips.

The engine has good torque at low rpm, allowing the transmission to stay in higher gears most of the time, and providing a “kick” when needed, even before the always-rapid downshift. Hit the gas at any speed, including highway speed, and the engine will quickly rev up, even if locked in gear; and, starting with 3,500 rpm, you can feel those 283 horsepower. It’s like having a sufficiently sized engine, with a turbocharger for extra kick. What’s more, when roused, it sounds like a sports car. There's a definite delay before you get the kick — not a long delay, and you get enough instant response so it doesn't feel “rubber bandy.” There are times when the engine feels less responsive than the outgoing 4-liter V6, which tended to give an instant kick, but overall the new 3.6 is the more potent choice.

minivan engine

Unlike the Chrysler minivans, the tires were up to the standards of the powertrain; avoiding squeals on quick launches was easier, despite the low first gear.

The ride is firm, handling potholes and rough roads with little fuss or noise; there’s a close-to-the-road feel. Poor road surfaces are well damped, and bumps are felt, not heard. Wind noise is somewhat high at 65 mph, but is not noticeable at lower speeds; it is not excessive.

Volkswagen Routan: inside the minivan

There was nothing cheap-feeling or cheap-looking: there were no sharp edges, and nearly every surface was “soft touch.” Volkswagen’s seats feel better than even the 2011 Dodge’s, and even the lowly SE has perforated “leatherette” (leather and leatherette used by Volkswagen has an “anti-soil” treatment). The up/down lumbar support was a good addition, as well. That said, the seats could still be better cushioned.

minivan dashboard

red backlightingThe dashboard was set up with dull metallic rings around the shifter, gauges, and climate control area, which were perhaps not as upscale as the Chrysler setup, but were also less likely to reflect glare from the Sun. Sunglare blocking also led to a dark dashboard cover and, unusually, dark door uppers despite the off-white color for the rest of the interior. The dark sections were all color-matched, including panel inserts.

For the instrument panel, Volkswagen used four separate gauges; the trip computer, PRNDL, and odometer are underneath the speedometer and tachometer, while warning lights are in subtle overhead areas. A “nut-burl trim” gauge panel brings up the overall tone on the SEL Premium — and only the SEL Premium.

At night, Volkswagen’s annoying signature red lighting illuminates all the controls. On the one hand, it is a welcome change to have backlighting with a minimal impact on night vision, and where all possible controls are lit. On the other, red is not the most welcome color; Volkswagen’s original night vision choice was amber, which, not being the color of warning lights, is a better choice, albeit one that has fallen out of fashion. Gauges were backlit by Chrysler’s Indiglo lighting, and were black-on-white both day and night.

The temperature was marked in degrees, the fuel in fractions, as is normal on Volkswagens; the tachometer went up to 8,000 rpm though the redline remains at 6,500.

Volkswagen gauges

The dashboard shifter was copied from competitors (who, we’re told, got it from 1960s Dodge vans); it is less easy to use than the old fashioned column shifter, and does not have as good a feel as the column or console shifters, but it did let them add Electronic Range Select, which allows you to choose lower gears or higher ones (IE starting out in 2nd). Setting it to 1 keeps you in first, 2 gives you first and second and lets you start out in second, 3 keeps in you first through third, etc; the system can be used for higher engine braking.

In front, there are eight cupholders — but since the front center console slides back all the way to the rear seats, if needed, two can be said to belong to the middle row. Cupholders are molded into each door’s map pocket; four are in the sliding center console top (two in front and two in back); two more are in a sliding compartment in the center stack that also contains just two coin holders.

Routan interior

Between the cupholders on the sliding console cover is a nonskid black plastic surface, removable for cleaning. Covered by the sliding top is a massive empty storage area, including a power outlet. In addition, unique two-part seatback map pockets combine a hard storage area with a net. All the storage areas have rattle-damping measures.

The climate control is simple enough and easy to use, for a three-way system; you can set the front driver and passenger temperatures separately (thermostatic control was standard on our test car), and choose the vent system, with a separate control for turning on the a/c compressor, which is automatically activated on defrost regardless. Another button lets you lock in rear temperature and fan settings. All buttons are large enough for control with gloves, logically placed, well labelled, and backlit at night, to minimize distraction. The fan is very loud on its top setting but is more reasonable at other settings; unfortunately, there's no “automatic-medium” setting, and pushing the Auto button puts the rear climate control onto auto, along with the front.

Overhead, our test car had the optional rear-seat video (separate monitors for both second and third rows, capable of simultaneously showing different videos), standard second-row climate controls, and snazzy white LED lighting.

Doors and hatchback

sliding doors

One of the original design goals for the minivan was to have sliding doors on each side, for the ultimate in convenience (one door was used in the first generation for various reasons, but two had been planned). Customers shown both designs clearly opted for the sliders, and Honda's first minivan failed in the market largely because it used conventional doors. Times change, and today many see sliding doors as an admission that they have a family, which they apparently consider to be bad, because they run to anything without a sliding door. But nothing else can give the huge opening and convenience of the sliders (which require only a few inches to open in a parking lot), so minivans still have them. In back, since there's no place for a door to slide into, a top-hinged hatch is used; big-SUV-style dual opening doors and accordians were never adopted by any minivan maker, for whatever reasons.

overhead consoleOver a decade ago, minivans gained power sliding doors; powered hatches followed. Neither is essential, and opening and closing minivan doors is by no means hard, though it's not as easy to do from the inside as it is from the outside. But they are a convenience, especially if you can open and close the doors manually when needed. Fortunately, Volkswagen allows this; the rear hatch can always be operated manually, while the sliding doors can be muscled closed if the rear door/window lock is on, or if the person pulls twice on the door handle. The latter is pretty tricky, so after a brief time we shut off the rear controls, which has a second advantage of avoiding kids playing with the doors. (The doors can still be opened from the key fob or from the front-overhead buttons; these are clearly marked and conveniently located).

Stereo and video

Our test car had the hard-drive stereo; adding music from CDs, DVDs, and thumb drives was very easy, as long as they were MP3, not AAC. The satellite radio system was well integrated into the stereo, as was the optional video player, with good sound.

The 30 gigabyte hard drive holds a lot of music; and you could sit and watch movies on the screen, as long as you were in Park. The lack of a station-changing knob was awkward with the satellite radio, which has over a hundred channels; it takes a while to go through with your finger on a button. Changing bass, treble, or midrange took a press to the physical Audio button, then the virtual Equalizer button, then multiple presses on a virtual equalizer (though you could “click and drag” directly on the image of the equalizer knobs).

video system with AutoNet

Switching modes required pressing both hard and soft buttons (or using the wheel-mounted mode button): press once on Radio or Media, and you get touch-screen choices of AM/FM/Satellite, or Disk/DVD/AUX/VESA. For radio, it shows a list of presets, four per screen, with the names of the stations. The hard drive/disc has hard drive, disc, auxiliary (the little jack on front of the screen), VES (video DVD), and USB control, so that you can use your built in controls to navigate the contents of your high-quality music device. You can't put iPod files onto the hard drive, but you can copy from thumb drives, and it also records from DVDs - fairly quickly.

The overhead video screen had a high quality picture, and the supplied headphones let kids could listen to their movies (or TV shows) without bothering the driver. Perhaps more important, the screen, which pulled down from the roof, didn't interfere much with the rear-view mirror, as some other video systems do, and was out of the way of kids’ feet.

Gizmos and gadgets and mobile Internet

Optional safety features include blind spot monitoring, rain-sensitive wipers, mobile Internet, and rear cross path systems. The backup camera provides a fairly clear color picture of where you're going, with a guide line and red-yellow-green distance indicator.

backup camera

Another “accident avoidance” safety feature was the individual-wheel tire pressure alert underneath the speedometer. That area can also be used to show distance to empty, average mileage, or temperature and compass heading.

Minivan seats and storage

Getting in and out was easy, thanks to a nicely engineered floor height; unlike comparable SUVs, the Routan minivan required no climbs to get in. Grab handles are still supplied at all the doors just to make sure, but they probably won’t be needed; and if you have wheelchair-bound relatives, you can get set up with an aftermarket wheelchair loader installer.

umbrella rack

Both front seats and both middle seats had attached, soft flip-up armrests, which work better than the Toyota models that have a ratchet mechanism. The middle seats are not quite as good as the fronts, but they are still far better than the middle row on the outgoing models, and comfortable enough for long trips. The rear row is comfortable and there is plenty of legroom as well.

There is no Stow ’n’ Go system with the Routan; the seats flip up, but don’t fold into the floor. The underfloor bins are still provided, but they can only be used for cargo, which in fairness is all they’re likely to be needed for with most customers.

folding rear seats

The rear seats are easy to stow, creating a flat cargo floor; an electric stowing system is available and thoroughly unnecessary except for showing off.

cargo areaAbove the van, the roofrack was unusual: the crossbars were folded into the side supports, increasing the aerodynamic efficiency of the Routan and minimizing the cosmetic intrusion of the rack.

The middle seats had individual cupholders in the doors, and rear seats had the old-style molded-in-sides cupholders carried over, it seems, from 1984.

As in the past, the interior is cavernous, and folding down various combinations of seats allows for a great deal of storage capacity. Traditionally minivan interiors have been surprisingly tough and capable of withstanding a lot of abuse.

Volkswagen Routan Controls

Controls were generally sensible and well labelled. The left hand stalk had controls for both front and rear washer/wipers, while the cruise was moved from a ministalk back to the wheel, where it accompanied the audio controls and trip computer buttons.

Door controls were at each door, on the key fob, and in an overhead row of buttons, in logical order; the buttons were large and clearly marked. The touch-screen stereo on our test car was harder to deal with than a conventional unit, especially for audio modifications (which required two touches to the screen, diverting attention from the road); there are audio controls on the wheel, but they don't cover balance/fade or bass/treble.

The key goes into the dashboard, a nice feature that's becoming more common since Chevrolet revived it a decade ago; headlights have a knob and rheostat. High intensity discharge headlamps were very well focused and very bright; the cutoff was sharp and clear to avoid blinding oncoming traffic, a feature shared mostly with BMW. Visibility was generally very good, aided by large sun visors, a huge, low-to-high windshield, massive amounts of door and rear glass, and narrow front and B-pillars, but was hampered by the middle-row seat headrests, large rear pillars, and large video screen folding down from the roof (when so equipped).

minivan cabin

The parking brake is a traditional but awkward push-to-release pedal; a foot brake makes sense in a vehicle sold only as an automatic, but a release lever would be preferable.

The Routan didn’t need to grow on us; it was immediately likeable, with its nimble, connected feel and easy-power powertrain. There were also useful features that prospective car buyers don't usually experience until afte taking the plunge, which go far beyond the ability to change preferences using the easy trip-computer interface. The multitude of door controls provides a lot of flexibility, while the lockouts keep you safe - as do the door safety mechanisms. The various dome and map lights did a surprisingly good job of lighting up the entire minivan at night; while the LED-plus-neon interior on our car is cool and lets people have personal lights without much driver distraction. And, of course, there's the ability to carry your whole personal music collection in the dashboard, if you get the hard-drive stereo.

volkswagen routan minivan review

We appreciated having the hazard flashers go on whenever the side doors were opened and the key was in the ignition (this is a feature that has to be manually turned on from the trip computer). We also appreciated the dual LED taillights, a major safety upgrade when one considers just how many cars out there are running without one or two of their brake lights (perhaps this is a local phenomenon).

Minivan manufacturing and pricing

The Volkswagen Routan, “the minivan with seating for seven and the soul of a VW,” starts at $28,570, more than the Dodge, less than the Chrysler, and highly competitive with similarly equipped Toyota and Honda vans. Stepping up to the SE brings the price to $33,410, and moving to the SEL Premium we had jacks it up to $44,060 (all prices include $820 destination).

That’s a lot for a minivan, but the Volkswagen Routan SEL Premium comes with a lot, being the top of the line. Keeping the 283 horsepower V6 in check are electronic stability control and four-wheel antilock disc brakes; there are front airbags, driver’s-knee airbag, side airbags up front, side curtain airbags for all three rows, individual tire monitors, and an alarm, as well as a rear video monitor and obstacle detector for backing up safely.

Volkswagen Routan minivan

Entertainment features include a touch-screen navigation system with satellite radio, DVD player, hard drive, wireless phone connector, USB connector, and 500-watt amplifier pushing nine speakers. The rear seat video system described earlier is standard — complete with dual screens that can show different movies, two sets of wireless headphones, and two sets of auxiliary input jacks for the twin video systems.

Luxury seating on SEL Premium includes Vienna leather with contrasting stitching, nut-burl trim, power-folding rear seats, and two rows of captain’s chairs (the middle row is removeable and can fold flat), both of which are heated. A large power glass sunroof that slides open; the rearview mirrors are heated, have driver memory, and incorporate turn signals.

The usual items are also included - power locks, power doors, power hatch, cruise control, fog lamps, rear washer/wiper and defroster, height-adjustable steering column, floor mats in front and rear, trip computer, dual glove boxes, leather-wrapped wheel, adjustable pedals, power rear quarter vent windows, memory seats (driver and passenger), automatic air conditioning (for three zones), pinch protection on all windows, intermittent wipers, chrome exterior mirrors and door handles, and AC outlet.

Finally, the Routan SEL Premium includes remote start (with or without convenience features like automatic a/c and heated seat activation — you choose in the trip computer), a load-leveling suspension, and bright high intensity discharge headlights. Any mysteries about the pricing of the Volkswagen Routan SEL Premium should be dispelled by this point.

In every case, you get a three year or 36,000 mile basic warranty with towing assistance plus a 5/60 powertrain warranty; and Volkswagen provides free scheduled maintenance during the basic warranty period. The Windsor plant’s new quality systems and standards are promising; the goal is “much better than average,” and many measures are being taken to achieve that. Some are old ones, such as being able to stop the line when a problem is found, or sending advisors to suppliers, or tracking problems more closely, or empowering workers, or doing more preventive maintenance. Customers will, regardless, most likely find that their minivans are better backed and better made than they have been.

The Volkswagen Routan’s unique styling is more successful than any of its competitors, particularly in reducing the apparent size of the van and making it look a bit more sporty.

All things considered, the Volkswagen Routan is one of the best minivans you can buy — a good solid choice, a fine alternative to traditional SUVs or large crossovers, a people-and-cargo carrier par excellence. Fortunately, you don’t have to pay $44,000 to get one.

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