Don’t Try This at Home…or Abroad

Testing brand equity to destruction.

2008 VW Routan. Image: autonews.com

For almost half a century, Volkswagen has occupied a sweet spot in the global automotive market. It might be described as semi-premium, but that prosaic term hardly does justice to its achievement in developing and sustaining an image amongst the car buying public that places the marque consistently half a step higher than its mainstream competitors.

The brand equity, as marketing types would say, is of enormous value to the company. It has allowed Volkswagen to get away with producing some distinctly sub-standard products(1), ignore often middling scores in reliability and customer satisfaction surveys, and even recover relatively unscathed, in reputational if not financial terms, from the Dieselgate scandal that might have been an existential threat to other, less well regarded marques.

Occasionally, however, Volkswagen has pushed its luck too far and the market has pushed back hard. One such event was its attempt to enter the US minivan market, which had experienced exponential growth since the 1984 launch of the Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan. The brainchild of Lee Iacocca, CEO of Chrysler Corporation, these mundane vehicles saved the company from threatened bankruptcy and hugely enhanced Iacocca’s reputation.

The minivan was, in concept, extremely simple. It was a tall monobox vehicle with a space-saving transverse-engined, front-wheel-drive(2) mechanical layout that left a large and versatile space for passengers and their luggage. Previously, the staple mode of transportation for American families was the station wagon, but the minivan offered as much space in a much more flexible format and was far less cumbersome to drive.

Other US manufacturers scrambled to catch up with Chrysler as minivan sales took off. They reached a peak in 2000, when around 1.37 million minivans were sold. However, by that time a new category of family holdall, the Sports Utility Vehicle or SUV, was gaining in popularity. It offered similar versatility to the minivan but its more rugged styling held greater appeal, particularly for male drivers. SUVs conjured up images of exploring the great outdoors, while minivans were invariably associated with trips to the shopping mall.

Volkswagen’s competitor in the US Minivan market was a marginal one. It was called the Eurovan and was the passenger version of the T4 Transporter van, known elsewhere as the Caravelle or Multivan. Declining sales led to its withdrawal from the market in 2003. As minivan sales continued to contract, Ford exited the market by ending production of its Freestar(3) in late 2006. General Motors did likewise in late 2008 by ending production of the Chevrolet Uplander(4).

VW badge, Chrysler quality. Image: cars.usanews.com

Chrysler discontinued production of the short-wheelbase versions of its minivans in 2007 but continued its long-wheelbase versions and introduced a completely new model in 2008, based on the company’s RT platform. These were sold, in ascending order of price and equipment, as the Dodge Grand Caravan, Chrysler Grand Voyager and Chrysler Town & Country. There was even a luxury Lancia version, badged Voyager, which was sold in Europe from 2011 to 2016.

There was still solid if reduced demand for these large minivans in the US, so Volkswagen decided it wanted a slice of the action. It contracted with Chrysler to build a VW-badged version of the Grand Voyager, to be sold only in the US, Canada and Mexico. This was Volkswagen’s first tentative step to supply models that were more suited to the North American market than its traditional Euro-centric offerings.

Volkswagen might have considered offering its Sharan large MPV in North America but was prevented from doing so by an agreement with Ford, with which it had co-developed the first Sharan. Ford did not want the Sharan being sold in competition with its US-made MPVs. In any event, the Sharan was simply too small to compete. It was 243mm (9½”) shorter in wheelbase and 524mm (20½”) shorter overall than the Grand Voyager.

The Volkswagen version of the Grand Voyager was called the Routan(5). It was given new front and rear end designs that incorporated contemporary VW styling cues such as the large swept-back headlamps and a ‘bib’ style front grille that closely resembled the 2006 VW Eos. The smoothly linear centre section of the vehicle was already perfectly plausible as a Volkswagen design. The Routan was mechanically identical to its Chrysler siblings and was powered by a V6 engine in 3.6, 3.8 and 4.0-litre capacities, mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.

Glad to see the back of it. Image: autoevolution.com

The Routan was the brainchild of Volkswagen CEO Wolfgang Bernhard, who was formerly Chief Operating Officer of Chrysler. When the deal was announced, Bernhard promised that the Routan would be much more than just a Chrysler with a VW badge on it. It actually turned out to be rather less. Bernhard did not remain with Volkswagen long enough to see the Routan in production: he was ousted by Ferdinand Piëch, Chairman of the VW Group Supervisory Board, in January 2007 after less than two years at the helm.

The Routan was built alongside its siblings at Chrysler’s Windsor, Ontario plant. While it was similarly equipped to the Grand Voyager, it did not feature Chrysler’s innovative Stow ‘n Go or Swivel ‘n Go seating options. With the former, the second and third-row seats folded completely flat into the floor. With the latter, the second-row seats rotated through 180° to face those in the third row. These options were an attractive feature of the Grand Voyager and the Routan was significantly handicapped without them. Moreover, Volkswagen was demanding a considerable premium for its badge: the Routan’s entry price was US $27,840 compared with the Grand Caravan’s US $20,990.

The Routan bombed in the US market. Volkswagen had forecast annual sales of 35,000, representing a 5% market share. Actual US sales(6) were as follows:

Year Sales
2008 3,387
2009 14,681
2010 15,961
2011 12,473
2012 10,484
2013 2,109
2014 1,103
Total 60,198

By way of comparison, total US sales of the Chrysler and Dodge versions over the same period were 1,610,027 units. So poorly did the Routan sell that production was paused in 2009 and terminated permanently in July 2012, despite there still being two years to run on the contract between Chrysler and Volkswagen. Subsequent sales of the Routan came from the stockpile of unsold inventory and almost all went to fleet buyers, including car rental companies and even Chrysler Corporation itself.

The Routan was, in short, a huge embarrassment to Volkswagen and a salutary lesson in not pushing your brand equity too far. Volkswagen’s subsequent efforts to produce models more attuned to the US market have been rather more thoroughly researched and competently executed, although they have still enjoyed mixed results. The 2011 Passat NMS(7) started strongly with sales in 2012 of 117,023 but declined thereafter and were just 24,396 in 2021. The Atlas large SUV, introduced in 2017, achieved sales of 72,384 in 2021. Volkswagen’s US market share in 2021 was 2.45%(8), pretty much where it was a decade ago(9).

(1) The Golf Mk3 comes immediately to mind in this context.

(2) Ford and General Motor’s first minivan competitors were rear-wheel-drive, but would later switch to FWD.

(3) And its Mercury Monterey sibling.

(4) The Uplander was a 2005 update of the Chevrolet Venture minivan, given a new, taller nose and flatter bonnet. The facelift fooled almost nobody into thinking it was a proper SUV.

(5) Which, strangely, is an anagram of Touran, Volkswagen’s European mid-sized MPV, not sold in the US.

(6) All sales data from www.carsalesbase.com.

(7) New Midsize Sedan, Volkswagen’s name for its US-market offering in this class.

(8) US market share data from www.goodcarbadcar.net.

(9) Volkswagen’s US market share in 2012 jumped 3.04%, thanks to the initial success of the Passat NMS, before falling back to 2.63% the following year.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

29 thoughts on “Don’t Try This at Home…or Abroad”

  1. Good morning, Daniel. Look at what you brought us today. Chrysler quality selling at a premium price, what could possibly go wrong? I don’t think I’ve seen one in the States during my stays there, nor was I aware of its existence.

  2. Daniel, thanks for reminding us of this oddity. The production numbers compared with the overall sector put its failure into grim perspective

    A cynical product, and the take-up suggests, once again, that the buying public are far smarter than the manufacturers imagine when offered something which isn’t what it pretends to be. On which matter, I had a look at the numbers for the Lancia (re-badged Chrysler) Voyager sold in Europe from 2011-2015.

    The total was 15,226*, by far the most successful of the Lancia re-badges. Not at all bad compared with just over 60K Routans. Unlike the USA, Europe’s large “minivan” market was relatively small, and most went to premium taxi operators.

    Going by the pictures VW seem to have gone to town on giving the Routan its veneer of Volkswagen-ness, whereas the Lancia re-branding changes were minimal, likewise capital outlay.

    *In the same period 4957 Chrysler Voyagers were sold in Europe.

    1. I remember several articles after the Piech/Wiko management takeover quoting ‘anonymous sources’ that the Pischetsrieder/Bernhard cars would’ve ‘ruined the VW brand’.

      It’d be interesting to see what those models would’ve been like. The only one the public got a glimpse of was the aborted Phaeton facelift, which was dreadful indeed.

    2. What had been the salesnumbers of Lancia Flavia and Lancia Thema, please?

    3. Hi Thomas. Assuming you mean the rebadged Chrysler models, 5,103 Themas were sold over six years from 2011 and just 1,129 Flavias over four years from 2012. It was hardly worth printing the brochures for such numbers.

    4. There was also a Ram, if i remember well, branded as Fiat. I forgot completely the flavia.

    5. Marco – the Freemont was almost the exception which proved the rule. 95,521 sales in Europe between 2011 and 2016, plus sales in Brazil, Australia, and China. And this despite not getting a sniff at ukandireland. For some inexplicable reason, the Journey seemed to ‘work’ as a Fiat, sitting comfortably with the Professional family.

    6. Marco – regarding the Freemont being ‘relatively cheap’ in Italy was this also true of the Flavia and Thema?

      I was impressed at the number of Freemonts I saw in the south of France, so they were possibly good value too. It was nice to see the Fiat badge on a large purpose-designed passenger vehicle, rather than a van-derived MPV, worthy though these things are.

      My recollection is that the UK pricing of the Chrysler branded Ypsilon and Delta was not over-ambitious, but for the consumer they were just too much of a leap in the dark when better-established rivals were available.

    7. Thema, even if it was cheaper than the equivalent cars it was just old before being on the market. A rebranded 300c and the mercedes was already the next probably. A really bad marketing operation. At that level you want something cool. Freemont had a good price per kg metal.

  3. I’m pleased to see “cynical” used to describe VW’s attitude to customers. However, one can only be impressed by a brand’s ability to survive the litany of major failures – engine, transmission, abs, air conditioning, water leaks – that VAG has served up. My efforts to de-bunk the myth of “German reliability” frequently fall on stoney ground, VW being cited as an exemplar.

  4. Good morning, Daniel. Thank you for a brief history of a model I’m guessing most VW executives would like to forget ever existed. At least they can claim (cleanly) that Volkswagen never actually manufactured it.

    I do see a few of these on our local streets and my mind always wanders to wondering about what emotional needs a person must have had to want to pay the Routan upcharge for a Chrysler minivan even though they got much, much less than they would have at the Chrysler dealer. Given how few other Americans trip over themselves to buy Volkswagens, that might make an interesting Master’s thesis.

    1. Hi Steve. The Routan was definitely aimed at the gullible. Whatever about paying a premium for supposed German quality (whether real or imagined) paying a premium for nothing other than the badge is very foolish indeed.

  5. Well, the Volkswagen Group must be doing something right, given their sales figures.

    The Routan was a bit of a half-hearted effort and I’m glad that Piëch stepped in. I’ll be very interested to see how the Buzz sells, especially in the USA. It’s nice to see them doing something that is cheerful and which is made of high-quality materials, again.

  6. The Routan wasn’t “Volkswagen’s first tentative step to supply models that were more suited to the North American market.” The first was when they had their short-lived Golf Mk1 (“Rabbit”) plant in the US, and decided that Americans absolutely needed colour-keyed velour, with matching plastics and vinyl. This misstep lost them their traditional customers (who wanted a European car), and didn’t gain them any Oldsmobuick customers. The US plant was closed at the end of Mk1 production, and shipped-of to South Africa where the Mk1 stayed in production for another 20 years. Without the garish interior.

    To this day, VW offers Americans and Canadians second-tier products that are a generation behind their European cousins. I suspect that this strategy effectively redirects anyone with a decent credit score to their local Audi franchise, so maybe it works-out for everybody.

    1. Hi bernard2002. I wouldn’t regard a chintzed-up Golf as a serious attempt to meet the differing needs of the US market. At least the Routan was, as a Chrysler, designed specifically for that market. If VW had been able to offer Chrysler’s flexible seating options and hadn’t tried to gouge US customers with its pricing, the Routan might not have been such a flop.

      As regards current US (and China)-specific models, the Passat NMS is now well past its sell-by date, but the Atlas seems to be doing OK, even if it’s fundamentally just a bigger but less sophisticated version of the Touareg.

    2. It’s a very interesting question. On the one hand, Volkswagen could try to sell what they sell in Europe, in the US, but it’s probably not suitable, in many cases – too small and too expensive.

      They can try to adapt to local market conditions, but risk missing the mark. Trying to appeal to a wider market often ends up with blander products – it’s tricky. I recall an article in Car magazine in the early ‘80s which looked at the US FWD Ford Escort; it had undergone a significant transformation for the US market compared with the European version. I think it sold well as an alternative to the Chevy Chevette, though.

      Coming back to Volkswagen, the Tiguan and Atlas are their best sellers, although the Jetta doesn’t do too badly. I wonder if their new pick-up will make it to the States – it would make sense for it to be sold there, I guess.

    3. Daniel, chintzed-up is putting it mildly. They went full-on American with every element of the interior sharing a single shade. They also loosened-up the suspension. Contemporary reviews were scathing (I was too young to drive, but I read any and all car reviews I could get my hands on).
      VW hadn’t realised that Americans bought the Rabbit because it was European/German, not in spite of the fact. Sales tanked until the Mk1 GTI came-out, and then the Mk2 Golf/Jetta did a full course correction with high-quality interiors that were similar to European models.
      I would argue that the Routan is a symptom of the same disease at VWofA: some new VP suggests that they could “move more metal” if their cars were more American, and this inevitably ends-up a failure. The VP quietly exits, VW goes back to being German for a few years, and then a new VP suggests the same idea, with the same outcome.

      I don’t think that this constant re-branding made any waves in Europe, but it’s an irritation to US and Canadian VW enthusiasts. We only occasionally get any product that’s as good as what a European consumer would consider “adequate.” When we do, it gets replaced by an Americanized version that’s softer, slower, tackier, de-contented, etc.

    4. You make a good point, Bernard. If one wants an American car, there are plenty to choose from, so why not buy an authentic one? When in the US, I always choose to rent an American car over a foreign make (even if US-built), firstly because I enjoy the novelty and, secondly, because I’ve always found them exceptionally well suited to US driving conditions.

  7. To be fair regarding the price difference, a base Routan was only a couple grand more than a *comparably equipped* Grand Caravan, but the GC’s trim levels reached quite a bit lower. The base Dodge was really basic.
    That being said, the one and only Routan I saw on a regular basis was the local VW dealership’s service customer shuttle.

    To be fair to the Westmoreland Rabbits, the trim wasn’t that much worse from what was done to the Euro-spec Golf in its’ midcycle facelift; the square headlights were what Giugiaro had wanted in the first place, the taillights were extended inward rather than down because the smaller license plate allowed it (and it meant the rear panel stamping didn’t need to be modified), the only real sour note is the fake stitching on the 1981-up revised dash. I’m told by those who drove them back-to-back new that the handling was significantly worsened to soften the ride though.

  8. To be fair, I remember peering into the window of one of these about a year ago and being gobsmacked that they’d care to redesign the center console to such a degree. In VW’s defense, they did do quite a bit there and fixed the ‘desktop PC’ look of the console in the ChryCo vans. That was luckily fixed in their own refresh in 2011 before the Lancia Voyager was conceived.



    We’ve rented quite a few of the latter vans on vacations throughout America and they’re perfectly cromulent family transport, if a bit budget-feeling inside. The Stow ‘N Go seats have the caveat of being some of the worst-feeling seats I’ve ever had the displeasure of sitting in, and the transmission seems jerky and overeager to downshift two gears at once, suddenly sending loud revs into the cabin. For what it’s worth, my father’s always complained about the way they drive and much prefers the nimbler feel of our ’05 Odyssey. Shame they don’t make minivans like that anymore.

    1. Good morning Alexander and thanks for the comparative photos. The VW’s dashboard is indeed quite different from the Dodge’s but I rather like the latter in its original iteration. The VW and revised Dodge have the advantage of the sat-nav screen being angled towards the driver. I am, however, irrationally irritated by the cream-coloured central air vents in the VW, which look a bit cheap to my eyes.

      Thanks also for a new word for my vocabulary; ‘cromulent’ meaning acceptable or adequate. I’ll be sure to make use of that! 😁

    2. I think it’s the angle of the photo, I don’t believe the sat-nav central screen is intentionally angled towards the driver in any iteration of these vans. My main issue with the original (pre-facelift) interiors is just how cheap they feel in terms of quality; the refreshed interiors, while not terribly attractive, are much sturdier and feel better to interact with. I do wonder if the Routan felt any better quality inside than the pre-refresh ChryCo vans or if it was all cosmetic.

    3. Hi Alexander. Yes, my mistake, it is just the angle of the photo. All the central screens are square-on.

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