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German Engineers Fail the Paternity Test

600-routan-span.jpg
600-routan-span


IN the ad campaign that introduced the Volkswagen Routan, the actress Brooke Shields worries that women are getting pregnant just so they can experience German engineering in the form of a minivan. Putting aside the mild hilarity of that premise — akin, perhaps, to saying that people are committing seppuku so they can buy those cool Japanese ceramic knives — it isn’t even true

The 2009 Routan isn’t engineered by Germans, unless you count the ones who used to work for DaimlerChrysler. It is merely a rebadged, slightly rebodied, mildly retuned Chrysler minivan.

Volkswagen changed only the exterior lights, rear glass, front grille, select parts of the interior and some settings for the suspension and steering. And yet, as if to obscure further the Routan’s provenance, VW exhorts Web users to “have a virtual baby for German engineering” at a dedicated minisite: vw.com/vwhype/babymaker/en/us/.

Yikes!

Tone-deafness is the Routan’s defining characteristic, and only the accounting department seems not to care: Volkswagen of America wanted its own version of the best-selling Chrysler van to protect itself from currency fluctuations — the Routan rolls out of Chrysler’s minivan plant in Windsor, Ontario — and to have a three-row vehicle to offer its aging, child-bearing constituency. If VW is to have any hope of reaching its goal of 800,000 American sales a year by 2018, it needs a big family hauler. The Routan, the thinking goes, gives VW the benefits without the sacrifice.

In a cosmic sense, though, plenty is being sacrificed: VW’s credibility, for instance. Selling an American mom-mobile, and then getting all truthy about it in ads, can’t be reassuring to the diehard VW enthusiasts who have supported the brand through its many ups and downs in the United States market.

Something must be getting lost in the trans-Atlantic e-mail. In its native land, VW is the No. 1 brand — it is the Chevy, or Toyota, of Germany. A conventional minivan fits snugly into that home-market conception of VW. Here, the brand represents a nearly opposite ideal. As the first high-volume car imported to the United States, the VW Beetle was a tart rejoinder to the overfed American sleds of the postwar years. Ever since, VW has been the preferred ride of antiestablishment Everymen, from college professors to the Trustafundians who sleep through their lectures.

Brand loyalists love VW, at least in part, because of this authenticity. And here comes a minivan — a minivan! — draped in the mantle of deceit. It’s enough to make you laser off your VW ankle tattoo.

Could there be any shred of Fahrvergnügen in this thing? To find out, I spent a week in a Routan, helping my parents rearrange their house for my brother’s engagement party. Over five days, I moved 4 couches, 10 tables, 70 chairs and several spinal discs.

For comparison’s sake I tested, concurrent with the Routan, a Chrysler Town & Country. While the vehicles were parked side-by-side in our driveway, my wife asked: “Wait. So VW makes its own minivan now?”

This woman, so ruthlessly perceptive in matters of her husband’s personal hygiene, had missed the similarity.

Well done, VW exterior styling department. But then she got in and was reminded that in minivan-land, the exterior is just the box the interior comes in. And VW wasn’t about to mess with the most successful people carrier of all time.

The only visible interior changes are the new second-row seats, the instrument panel and the door skins. Everything else, according to my bride, is “exactly the bleepin’ same!”

VW offers three trim levels for the Routan: S, SE and SEL. The lesser two have Chrysler’s 3.8-liter, 197-horsepower V-6; the SEL gets a surprisingly peppy 4-liter, 251-horse Chrysler V-6 that’s also more fuel efficient that the smaller engine (rated 17 city/25 highway, compared with 16/23).

I drove an SEL with the rear-seat entertainment package, which gives both second- and third-row passengers their own nine-inch screens on which to watch movies (but not Sirius Satellite TV — only Chrysler customers can get that).

The entertainment system raised the SEL’s price to $36,990 (from a base of $33,890). Add in the $2,475 navigation unit and the $2,325 trim package with the power-folding third seat, and my Routan’s sticker totaled $41,790. Routans tend to run $1,000 more than the equivalent Chryslers (which carry a lifetime powertrain warranty, compared with VW’s five years or 60,000 miles).

Why, then, did my fully equipped Chrysler have a sticker of $43,917? Because it had Chrysler’s new Swivel ’n Go seats, which can spin to face the third row. VW does not offer them. Swivel ’n Go is nice if you want to sit in the back and play cards while facing fellow passengers around the pop-in-place table.

Nor does VW offer Chrysler’s Stow ’n Go system, with its fold-into-the-floor second-row seats.

VW chose instead to fill its second row with captain’s chairs, a comfort-based initiative that I support. The VW’s third row still folds flat into the floor, giving you an unencumbered 83.010 cubic feet for glorious wedding flotsam.



Seating aside, the largest distinction between the vans may be psychological. At the wheel of the Chrysler, I felt as though I were in one of those hastily constructed luxury big-foot homes. It has all the modern conveniences you could want — multiple flat-screen TVs, automatic tailgate, surgical-quality spot lights in the ceiling — but you get the feeling that if you were trapped inside, you could punch your way out.

The VW is made of almost exactly the same stuff, at the same plant, but it seems somehow more solid. This is mainly because the dashboard and leather are nicer. As I kept comparing the weight of both vehicles’ doors to make sure the VW’s weren’t really heftier, I realized I was in the spell of a Jedi mind trick.

The revised steering and suspension do help comportment, but these changes are perceptible only in the part of the brain that tells itself VWs are better to drive than Chryslers. They confirm prejudices like, “Chrysler vans ride coarsely” and “their handling is looser than WaMu’s lending standards.” The truth is, the VW isn’t a Ferrari either.

Talk of vehicle dynamics, however, is not exactly germane to minivans. These things are built for getting little Jayden to his Ultimate Fighting lessons while not spilling your Acai berry master-cleanser into your 3G phone. With its stable ride, ample power and 13 cup holders, the Routan does all this commendably.

But the second coming of the Microbus it’s not, and this is perhaps the essence of its affront. This could have been the Volkswagen of minivans; instead it’s the Chrysler of VWs. And who’s going to get pregnant for that?


LINK: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/autom ... utomobiles