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Minivan sales in North America have been shrinking in recent years, but that didn't deter Volkswagen from entering the market with a brand new model for 2009 - the seven-passenger Routan.

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Minivan sales in North America have been shrinking in recent years, but that didn’t deter Volkswagen from entering the market with a brand new model for 2009 – the seven-passenger Routan.

With sales falling it may seem like an odd time to jump into the minivan market, but the folks at Volkswagen see it as an opportunity to keep current owners in the brand. Without a minivan in the fleet, as many as 15 per cent of VW’s customers were jumping ship when a family came along and they found themselves in need of an honest-to-goodness people-hauler.

So with the iconic Eurovan long gone from the lineup and the price of building a new minivan too costly, Volkswagen turned to Chrysler to build the seven-passenger Routan for them at their plant in Windsor, Ont., where the Grand Caravan and Town & Country are turned out.

While the Routan has many similarities with the Chrysler models, it is much more than simply a Chrysler minivan under a different badge. Most of the exterior body panels are different, while inside there are many features unique to the Volkswagen.

In Canada, the Routan is offered with one engine choice only, a 4.0-litre 24-valve SOHC six-cylinder engine, mated with a six-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic.

Four trim levels are available, starting with the Trendline at $27,975. My tester was the Execline, sitting at the top of the ladder with a starting price of $49,975.

For me, the Routan proved to be the ideal vehicle for a three-day journey to eastern Ontario earlier in the winter to play hockey in the Ontario Seniors Games Winterfest. With the third-row seats folded down into the floor, there was more than enough cargo space for hockey bags, suitcases and the like. In fact, we could easily have accommodated two more passengers and their baggage considering the amount of room remaining in the cargo area.

Carrying luggage though is only half the story when it comes to long-distance travel on the road. The vehicle also must be comfortable, quiet, fuel-efficient and have decent road manners.

The Routan gets more than a passing grade on all these fronts.

Inside the cabin, the overall fit and finish was good. The shift lever is mounted on the dash like the Chrysler models, but there the similarity ends. Seating is comfortable and the sight-lines good from all angles. Thinking back to my recent times in the Grand Caravan and Town & Country, I felt the Routan’s ride was a bit firmer and handling a touch better thanks to changes VW made to the front and rear suspension. Steering also seemed a bit more precise in the Routan compared with its factory cousins. The front seats appeared to be an upgrade over the Chrysler variety and were firm and supportive, even after three hours of driving.

The 4.0-litre six-cylinder engine is adequate and fairly quiet with fuel economy rated at 12.2L/100 km (23 mpg) city and 7.9L/100 km (36 mpg) highway. Not in small car territory, but not bad for a 2,096 kg (4,621 lb) vehicle. If you pull a trailer, the Routan has a towing capacity of 907 kg (1,995 lb) and 1633 kg (3,592 lb) with the optional towing package.

Volkswagen lists a 0-100 km/h time of nine seconds and that seems about right.

On the entry-level Trendline, cruise control and Electronic Stabilization Program (ESP) are among the standard features along with 16-inch steel wheels, manual three-zone climate control, cloth seating surfaces and dual front cupholders integrated into the centre console and door pockets.

Move up to the Comfortline at $33,975 and you add dual power sliding side doors and tailgate, an in-dash six-disc DVD changer with six speakers and auxiliary output and 16-inch alloy wheels.

The Highline, starting at $39,975, adds a power sunroof, automatic three-zone climate control and leather seating surfaces.

The Execline features a satellite navigation system with touch screen and 30 GB hard drive, rearview camera, 17-inch alloy wheels, chrome trim and Xenon headlights among other extras.

Unlike the Grand Caravan, Stow ‘n Go and Swivel ‘n Go seating is not available on the Routan, however there is the same under-floor storage in the second row as in the Chrysler models.

All in all, the Routan proves to be a solid new contender in the minivan segment, although all-wheel drive and a telescopic steering column are two items I’d like to see on this model in the future.

Volkswagen is hoping to sell about 5,000 of them in Canada this year and we’ll have to wait and see if they can meet that target.

But at the very least, the Routan helps Volkswagen fill in a gap in their product lineup and stem the flow of VW customers out of the brand when their family needs grow and something larger than a sedan is required. Despite changes in consumer demand, there’s nothing better than a minivan for carrying the youngsters and their teammates to a sports tournament or dance competition– even if the youngsters are like me and my friends and have graying or no hair at all!

AT A GLANCE

2009 VOLKSWAGEN

ROUTAN

BODY STYLE:

five-door minivan.

DRIVE METHOD:

front engine,

front-wheel drive.

ENGINE:

4.0-litre 24-valve SOHC

6-cylinder (253 hp, 262 lb/ft) with six-speed

automatic transmission with Tiptronic

FUEL CONSUMPTION: 12.2L/100 km (23 mpg)

city and 7.9L/100 km

(36 mpg) highway.

PRICE: $27,975 to $49,975,

as tested $49,975.

www.vw.ca

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