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Chicago Auto Show

Volkswagen AG is counting on its new minivan to be a uniquely American vehicle that better meets U.S. market demands than its vans of the past but still boasts a bit of the German brand’s flavor.

Unveiled today at the Chicago auto show, the new Routan represents a collaboration between VW and Chrysler LLC. It will go on sale in the U.S. later this year, offering high-end features but still carrying a base price below $25,000, VW says.

Built on the same platform as the redesigned ’08 Dodge Grand Caravan/Chrysler Town & Country, the Routan incorporates similar features, including Chrysler’s 3.8L and 4.0L V-6 engines. But VW promises its famous interior craftsmanship will be evident.

“The interior enhancements create an environment that is visually pleasing, modern and meticulously detailed,” the auto maker says in a release. “The high-quality materials, beautiful textures and rich luxurious colors are combined with exacting tolerances and superb fit and finish.”

Power outputs are the same as in the Chrysler entries, with the 3.8L generating 197 hp and 230 lb.-ft. (312 Nm) of torque and the 4.0L delivering 251 hp and 259 lb.-ft. (351 Nm) of torque.

Also like the Grand Caravan and Town & Country, a 6-speed automatic will be mated to the 3.8L V-6 as standard. VW doesn’t specify the transmission for the 4.0L Routan, although a 6-speed automatic also is standard with that engine in the Chrysler models.

All-season traction control and stability control will be standard on the Routan, while the suspension and steering have been “optimized for handling and improved driving dynamics,” VW says.

The Routan gets second-row captain’s chairs but, as Ward’s first reported, will not offer either Chrysler’s Swivel ‘n’ Go or Stow ‘n’ Go seating systems.

A third-row seat, fronting 32.7 cu.-ft. (0.9 cu.-m) of storage space, is standard.

Other features include dual power-sliding doors with power windows; power liftgate; and a 2-screen rear-seat entertainment system with wireless headsets. All are standard on the mid-grade SE and high-end SEL trims. A single-screen rear-seat system is standard on the Routan’s base S trim.

A touch-screen navigation system with a 20 MB hard drive is standard only on the SEL grade, a VW spokesman says, adding some of the equipment for the minivan still is being finalized.

For the thirsty family on the go, 13 cupholders are standard in the Routan, VW says.

While many industry watchers feared a typical badge-engineering job, the Routan has unique sheetmetal, most notably in the rear, with a more rounded roofline vs. the squared-off tops of the Chrysler and Dodge.

VW’s signature large chrome grille also is in place.

The German auto maker had considered reviving its famous Bus model, showing a Microbus concept at the Detroit auto show four years ago. But the concept was judged to have no appeal outside the U.S., and the move was made to hold down development costs by sharing platforms and production with Chrysler.

Former Volkswagen of America Inc. CEO Len Hunt, now CEO of Kia Motors America, told Ward’s shortly after his fall 2005 departure that he expected the Routan, which he saw in an early stage, to be a struggle between VW’s premium-focused engineers and Chrysler more cost-conscious ones.

“(Volkswagen is) going to be going in there (saying), ‘I want the blue lights. I want the seats. I want the soft-touch paint. I want the shimmering gyroscopically-controlled steering,’” Hunt said.

“And all the Chrysler guys are going to be going, ‘No, no, it costs money.’ Volkswagen guys will never allow a Volkswagen badge on something that doesn’t handle like a Volkswagen (and) have an interior like a Volkswagen,” Hunt surmised.

The Routan will be assembled at Chrysler’s Windsor, ON, Canada, plant, which also builds the Dodge and Chrysler minivans.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com