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Volkswagen Routan – Chrysler Minivan Roots Mean Function, Not Fun

VW Wants to Hit the Big Time in the US Market
Like so many other second tier brands today, Volkswagen is talking publicly about big goals in the US. True, Volkswagen is a huge player in many world markets, particularly Europe, China, and Latin America. Here in America, however, Volkswagen is definitely something of a niche player, despite its enviable brand image. Apparently, Volkswagen wants to become a mainstream player in the US as it is in the rest of the world, rather than a marque that appeals primarily to fashionable hipsters as it does now. By about the middle of the next decade, Volkswagen wants to be selling 800,000 vehicles in the US, up from about 230,000 last year.
With that in mind, what could possibly be more mainstream than a Chrysler minivan? It’s the ultimate symbol of traditional family values, a paragon of responsible and sensible thinking. And, despite the fact that minivan popularity is declining, the segment still represented over 800,000 sales in 2007. So, Volkswagen has partnered with Chrysler to create a German remix of the Town & Country minivan, dubbed Routan. It will be built in the US by Chrysler alongside the Town & Country and Caravan.


Fortunately, Chrysler-based Routan Doesn’t Scream “Town & Country”
Prior to yesterday’s unveiling of Routan at the Chicago Auto Show, we were honestly pretty skeptical about how its final execution would turn out. After all, the Town & Country is a good minivan, but it is completely devoid of any style and has an interior that doesn’t even come close to Volkswagen’s unusually high standards for style, fit and finish, and quality. So, we were pleasantly surprised to find that while some Chrysler minivan DNA is still visible if you squint, Routan does look pretty different from its donor. Its unmistakably VW face, unique side window graphic, and more raked D-pillar ensure that it has a look that is mostly its own. It does, however, in some ways evoke the previous generation Honda Odyssey in profile.


The unique instrument panel is nicely executed too, with a distinct VW look and feel, right down to the high quality materials and attractive finish. We heard a rumor on the show floor that the instrument panel is actually built in Germany and shipped to Chrysler’s minivan plant. If this is true, at least the part of the vehicle that the driver sees the most is really German!
Embracing Mainstream Values Too Literally May Make Standing Out Difficult
Volkswagen says that Routan will start at under $25,000 – not at all premium priced like most other Volkswagen products in the US. However, Volkswagen does need to exercise caution as it vies for mainstream appeal. People buy Volkswagens specifically because they are a “cool” alternative to the mainstream. There are already plenty of mainstream choices in the marketplace that people trust and are accustomed to – and are therefore very difficult to pry customers away from. As it increases its mainstream appeal in order to attract a wider audience, Volkswagen must make sure it maintains a clear and differentiated brand message, along with differentiated products to back up that message. Otherwise, Volkswagen will simply get lost in all the clutter.

In light of this, we’re not so sure that Routan is the right product for Volkswagen. The sort of younger, fashion-forward buyers that Volkswagen must continue appealing to have long abandoned minivans in favor of much cooler (and nearly as functional) large CUVs. And even though VW has done a reasonably good job in transforming the dowdy Chrysler minivan into the more contemporary Routan, it is far from being the sort of aspirational product that many other VW products are. That’s not necessarily a failing of Routan as a product, but rather a function of the simple fact that it is a minivan, the least sexy vehicle type on the market. We have no doubt that there is room for Volkswagen to grow in the US market, but it’s going to take more than derivative, me-too products to get there.

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