Special Coverage

NADA Convention & Exposition

SAN FRANCISCO – Although Volkswagen AG’s new minivan will be built by Chrysler LLC and looks nothing like the concept vehicle shown to enthused dealers six years ago, many VW retailers are welcoming it to the lineup.

“I think there’s a market for it,” Houston-based VW dealer Carl Barnett says here at the National Automobile Dealers Assn. convention. “The more vehicles we have, the more opportunities we have to sell.”

The VW Routan minivan debuted at the Chicago Auto Show earlier this month. It will start at about $25,000, go on sale in September as an ’09 model and be sold only in North America.

It will be built at the same Windsor, ON, Canada, plant that makes the Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country minivans.

“Even though Chrysler is building it, I’m glad it looks like a Volkswagen,” says Michael Sullivan, a VW dealer in Santa Monica, CA.

In some respects, VW created the U.S. minivan segment in the 1950s with its Transporter “microbus,” a boxy vehicle that became a counterculture symbol in the hippie era of the 1960s and left the U.S. market in the 1970s.

In 2001, an updated Microbus concept was unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, with several U.S. dealers expressing a strong interest in it. But plans to produce the vehicle ultimately were scrapped.

In retrospect, that wasn’t a bad decision, Barnett says. “The microbus was fine for its day, but not now.”

Bob Grace, a VW dealer in Baton Rouge, LA, agrees.

“Dealers were shown the Microbus concept years ago and liked it, but the Routan is one that fulfills a lot of modern needs.”

Barnett expects the Routan and its VW nameplate will attract professionals who might need a minivan but aren’t particularly interested in the current brand offerings.

VW says it hopes to woo buyers away from two popular Asian-brand minivans, the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna.

Sullivan says he is anxious to sell the Routan, but it will take some work.

“It is always tricky when you leave the market and then come back,” he says. “So it will take some great marketing.”

VW is introducing the Routan at a time when the minivan segment has been softening. Segment-leader Chrysler’s sales have been down. Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. never seemed to figure out how to sell minivans and have withdrawn their entries. Hyundai is hinting it may drop its Entourage minivan.

“It’s a shrinking market. But with Ford and GM out, it makes it that much better for those who are in it,” Grace says. “It once was a crowded field.

“It’s a segment we haven’t been in for a long time, and I’m glad were getting back in.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com