Confession time: I have never, ever been behind the wheel of an air-cooled Volkswagen Beetle
. Not even once
Here's the funny thing, though: I may not have driven an original Bug, but after a stint in the Volkswagen Routan, I'm beginning to think that more than a few key people at VW haven't, either. The Routan is a reclothed and mildly retuned Chrysler Town & Country, and it has almost nothing in common with Ferdinand Porsche's world-changing small car. And yet one of the phrases tossed around by VW employees during the Routan's North American launch was-steel yourselves, Vee Dub loyalists-"the Beetle of minivans." Huh?
At first glance, the very idea of a Chryswagen (Volksler?) seems a little odd, but if you examine the people involved, it starts to add up. The Routan concept was largely the brainchild of cost-cutting former VW chairman Wolfgang Bernhard, and it's no coincidence that Bernhard served time as Chrysler's chief operating officer from 2000 to 2004 before jumping ship to Volkswagen. During his stint at VW, Bernhard and his old boss, DaimlerChrysler CEO Dieter Zetsche, masterminded the Routan program as a way to generate easy sales and keep Chrysler's minivan factory humming.
Why the apparent desperation? Simple: Volkswagen of America has some remarkably ambitious goals-CEO Stefan Jacoby has said that the company aims to sell 800,000 cars annually by 2018, up from the current 230,000-and the Routan offered both a low development cost and a relatively quick time to market. And, admittedly, if you're trying to drastically increase a car company's sales, sticking a toe into the 700,000-vehicle U.S. minivan market makes sense.
The changes compared with a Town & Country are relatively straightforward. From the A-pillar forward and the C-pillar back, the Routan sports unique bodywork, and the exterior bits in between have all been lightly massaged. The interior offers new seats (unfortunately without Chrysler's popular Stow 'n Go or Swivel 'n Go features), a new dash, new door panels, and Volkswagen-specific trim and textures. Mechanical changes are few: springs and dampers have been stiffened, the steering ratio has been quickened, and the Town & Country's base 175-hp V-6 isn't offered. Otherwise, that's it. You're essentially buying a slightly more expensive, VW-badged Chrysler, albeit one with a nicer interior.
On the road, the Routan feels similar to its American cousin, although body control, high-speed stability, and steering feel have all been mildly improved. The seats are typically VW supportive, and most of the interior textures resemble those found in a Passat, not a Pacifica. Certain embarrassing features, such as the T&C's wobbly front-row console and flimsy shift lever, carry over, but those touches are thankfully few and far between.
Philosophically, though, the Chryswagen is kind of on thin ice. While it won't be sold outside of North America, the justification for its existence is awfully meager. VW's stock-in-trade has typically been enthusiasm and innovation, and badge-engineering a less-than-perfect Detroit product for quick and dirty sales numbers doesn't fall under either of those headings. When all is said and done, the Routan might look and feel like a Volkswagen, but that doesn't mean that it is one.
On sale: Now
Engines: 3.8L V-6, 197 hp, 230 lb-ft; 4.0L V-6, 253 hp, 262 lb-f