SAN FRANCISCO – Encircled in blue, the overlapping ‘V’ and W’ that constitute Volkswagen’s brand logo is one of the world’s most recognizable symbols.

It suggests high-quality craftsmanship, sportiness and – above all – value.

So the buying public can be forgiven for expecting such attributes from vehicles adorned with the time-honored insignia. Even a minivan.

But VW nails just one of these three targets with the Routan, the storied auto maker’s interpretation of a modern people mover. More accurately, it is VW’s interpretation of Chrysler LLC’s interpretation of a modern people-mover.

Build quality, material choice and styling are exemplary. However, the Routan, which is based on a Chrysler platform and assembled for VW by Chrysler, lacks even a hint of the athleticism for which the iconic brand is famous.

And the value proposition vanishes with a quick sticker comparison.

To be fair, the Routan is unapologetic as a 4,507-lb. (2,044 kg), 7-passenger, front-wheel-drive light truck. It is designed not only to meet head-on the rigors of everyday family life, but enhance such travails as racing from home to work and back, with stops at hockey practice and the supermarket in between.

For these duties, the Routan is more than capable, with the additional promise of being the most elegant-looking family hauler north, south, east or west of any arena parking lot or grocery-cart corral on the continent.

The prominent taillamps are uniquely shaped with graceful curves and lend an engaging look to the Routan’s handy tailgate. And VW benefits from the clever way Chrysler has hidden the sliding door track beneath the third-row window.

(Segment-darling Honda Odyssey still suffers from an unsightly gash in its sheet metal to achieve the same functionality.)

Around front, the quad halogen headlamps, which are high-intensity discharge on the top-level SEL trim, wrap around the front corners and sweep upward. The effect denotes a slippery maneuverability that belies the Routan’s actual handling. But I digress.

Its 2-tiered face retains a strong family resemblance to VW stablemates, such as the Passat and Jetta. The chrome-trimmed trapezoidal grille frames a shiny, saucer-sized badge that boldly declares the van’s aspirations.

Too much has been made of VW’s decision to re-enter the minivan market with a version of Chrysler’s RT platform. Such technology sharing is neither new, nor unwise – especially in the current economic climate.

But do the Routan’s differences merely distinguish it from the Chrysler Town & Country or Dodge Grand Caravan, or do they inject enough Teutonic DNA to make it a Volkswagen?

The Windsor Star’s Chris Vander Doelen, a fellow scribe who toils in the shadow of the Canadian plant that produces the Routan, reminds “the original Veedub buses didn’t exactly perform with Germanic alacrity, either.”

And VW of America product-development guru Bret Scott tells a Ward’s colleague “the biggest challenge for the Routan was not to turn it into a GTI.”

But Mazda didn’t shy away from its sporty heritage when launching its redesigned-for-’02 MPV minivan. Mazda’s tagline: “Body of a minivan; Soul of a sports car.”

’09 Volkswagen Routan (SEL)
Vehicle type front-wheel-drive minivan
Engine 4.0L 24-valve V-6; cast-iron block, aluminum head
Power (SAE net) 253 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 262 lb.-ft. (355 Nm) @ 4,100 &nbsprpm
Compression ratio 10.2:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 121.2 ins. (308 cm)
Overall length 202.5 ins. (514 cm)
Overall width 76.9 ins. (195 cm)
Overall height 68.9 ins. (175 cm)
Curb weight 4,507 lbs. (2,044 kg)
Base price $25,700 (SE model) – $33,600 (SEL)
Fuel economy (city-highway; mpg) 17-25 (13.3-9.4 L/100 km)
Competition Honda Odyssey, Chrysler Town & Country, Toyota Sienna
Pros Cons
Distinctive exterior Generic handling
Clean I.P. No Stow ’n Go
Smooth tranny Pricey

The MPV, since discontinued, featured a taut-ish suspension setup and game throttle – attributes readily translated through its admittedly trimmer dimensions.

The Routan exhibits a moderately stiffer ride than Chrysler’s T&C. Coupled with finely tuned steering, it accommodates aggressive driving along mountain roads outside San Francisco – capability most soccer moms and dads will never use.

But it still lumbers, failing to inspire the confidence normally associated with the VW label.

Its 6-speed automatic transmission is honey-smooth, but throttle response from the top-of-the-line 4.0L V-6 falls short of the jump demonstrated by the smaller, less-powerful 3.5L V-6 in the benchmark Odyssey.

However, the Routan trumps the Odyssey’s gloomy interior. The latter’s convex instrument panel is in stark contrast to the clean, organized refinement of the VW.

Despite being packed with the same toys such as a 30-gigabyte hard drive to store digital music and photos, the Routan’s well-appointed center stack outclasses its platform-mates for stylishness. Where the T&C’s vents are clumsy and conspicuous, the Routan’s are easily manipulated and unobtrusive.

(Note to VW: Suggest you tweak that hard drive to recognize digital music downloaded via the Apple OS. Something tells me VW’s brand image resonates more readily with trendy Mac users than with PC types.)

Too bad VW lost the tug-of-war with Chrysler over incorporating the pentastar company’s fold-into-the-floor Stow 'n Go seating system. While the Routan seating is plenty comfortable, the minivan suffers by comparison when it comes to functionality.

That said, if the T&C starts $27,250 and features Stow 'n Go as standard equipment, why does the Routan SEL sell for $6,350 more? Is that the cost of the VW badge?

VW is tired of hearing this, but its homegrown Microbus concept from the 2001 North American International Auto Show embodied the brand’s attitude of confident, independent-mindedness.

The auto maker killed the production program because it was too costly. But if VW revives the Microbus in some form, nobody will question that vehicle’s pedigree.

emayne@wardsauto.com