DEEP THOUGHTS ABOUT MINIVANS
AND DIM SUM FOR DUMMIES
By Your Faithful Automotive and Lifestyle Correspondent
Today’s question, class: Can Manolos survive the bailout? No, wait, that was yesterday’s question. Events are moving too fast for even the most alert Automotive and Lifestyle Correspondent.
Here’s today’s question: What is a minivan?
And its corollary: And when can one be considered “all new”?
As well as the far more entertaining consideration: Can comedic irony thicker than 20-40 motor oil sell the concept of the tired and soundly mocked quarter-century-old minivan to a jaded demographic more attuned to the BMW 3 Series?
It was in search for answers to these vexing questions (and another somewhat less commerce-oriented reason) that I boarded a United Airlines commuter jet at Burbank’s Bob Hope Airport and flew to San Francisco to drive the new Volkswagen Routan. I always try to fly out of Burbank, if it makes any sense at all, since my home in the Hollywood Hills is an easy 20-minute drive away, and avoiding dreaded LAX is always a fine idea. But I have always flown Burbank to Oakland instead of SFO because fog often backs up SFO and can turn a 45-minute flight into a two-hour ground hold in Burbank. Besides, I could hop San Francisco’s wonderful BART subway system and arrive hassle-free on Market Street downtown.
What convinced me this time is that I could arrive and depart in the afternoon, after the highest danger of fog had passed, and also because BART finally had been extended to SFO. I also checked and United (actually United Express www.united.com, which is really SkyWest) now uses the Canadair commuter jet instead of those miserable propjets on the route.
However, I flew up a day early to meet with an old friend and longtime City-dweller (San Francisans are worse than Manhattanites in referring to their beloved metropolis as if it were the one and only “city” on the planet) to commiserate over an impending divorce. I hopped off BART www.bart.gov/guide/airport and strolled to the Hotel Union Square www.hotelunionsquare.com just up Powell Street from the trolley turnaround at Market. This is one of those renovated older hotels for which San Francisco is justly famed, part of the Personality Hotels group that includes popular and well-priced places to stay like the Diva and Metropolis, most close to Union Square in the heart of the city. My room, on the sixth floor at the backside of the hotel, away from the street and trolley noise, cost me $129 plus tax. Beat that, Kimpton Hotels.
Frankly, for the location and price, the room blew me away. The hotel had recently gone through an extensive renovation that while it did not speed up the very slow pair of elevators (I used the stairs, even from the sixth floor) had made the rooms both stylish and comfortable. Bathrooms were new, furniture was modern, the bed was king and posh, and the flat-screen TV hung on the wall was as good as you’d find in the Four Seasons. There were even a couple of free bottles of water. My only complaint: The unnecessarily complex and balky room telephone, which I never did figure out how to work; perhaps it’s a regional pride thing, the phone being a Cisco product.
My friend and I arranged to hook up at 5 for drinks at Farallon, just off Union Square on Post. It was a short walk up Powell, with a stop at the gigantic DSW discount shoe store on the way. But when I got there just before 5 the restaurant has just opened and the bar was empty. In the past, I’d been there early when the bar was packed with City swells dressed in three-piece pinstripes bragging about their squash games and tickets for the upcoming Stanford-Cal game. This time, dead silence. Had the economy finally tamped down the city’s famous not-quite-after-work cocktail hour? When my glum pal showed up, we went across the street to the St. Francis, where the bar at least was reasonably lively, for a couple of pops while we figured out what to do.
I’ll spare the details of our long evening of remorse and commiseration, but the logistics included Café Andree at the Rex Hotel on Sutter www.jdvhotels.com/rex, my friend touted as a literary bar (it does have that vibe, as well as happy hour wine for two and a half bucks, astonishing for the area), and a barkeep who used to be a D-girl (that’s filmbiz lingo for development executive) in L.A. and was now appearing in a local revival of The Rocky Horror Show.
Then we stumbled down Sutter to the E&O Trading Co. www.eotrading.com, for more drinks and then, finally, dinner at the bar. The joint looked vaguely familiar, hung with nets and South Seas movie-set décor, which made no sense to me until my friend mentioned that Chris Hemmeter was responsible for the place. Ah, I nodded, the auteur of those fabulous themed Hawaii hotels in the 1990s. I remember when I drove with Hemmeter to a place above the site where the Big Island Hilton would be built and he sketched for me what the massive place would look like, including the winding lagoons, the waterfall and the dolphin pool. He could see things others couldn’t, but he never saw the Japanese recession coming that would sharply curtail visitors to Hawaii and cut occupancy at the theme park-like hotels in which he specialized.
But I digress. Actually, I often digress, but I hope you’ll get used to it. The next morning, after the Alka-Selzer, I went down to the lobby for the free (very good) coffee and walked to a 7-Eleven for a banana. When I got back, I called my not-really-as-morose pal. We arranged to meet for an early 11:30 lunch at Yank Sing, in order to beat the lunch crowd at this super-popular dim sum palace. Trouble is, we didn’t specify which one. I assumed the tiny one on Stevenson, closer to the hotel, but when I got there and called my buddy he was sitting at a table at the much larger Rincon Center version just off the Embarcadero. It was easier for me to walk up Market to where he was than for him to re-park down here, so 15 minutes later I was seated with him.
Yank Sing www.yanksing.com is a wonderful restaurant, genuine Chinatown dim sum served from rolling carts but in a modern space with people who speak at least some English, but only open for lunch and brunch. It’s dim sum for dummies and well worth prices higher than a dingy Chinatown dive. After we split the hundred-buck tab, which included two glasses of a non-oaky chard, we walked to the garage where his Lexus RX300, nearly identical to mine, was parked. He paid $24 for the two hours (welcome to parking-scarce San Francisco) and then drove me back to the Union Square to get my bag, the plan being to drop me off at the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero for a voyage to Sausalito, where Volkswagen had promised to pick me up and take me to the hotel where the company was putting up journalists for the Routan drive. At the Union Square, I told the clerk to please prepare my bill for checkout while I scooted upstairs to grab my bad. But when I stuck my key card in the lock, it didn’t work. Downstairs I hurried. Sorry, said the clerk, the system automatically locks out the rooms at 1 p.m. But, I said, I have a 2 p.m. checkout and, besides, you could have told me I’d need the card re-zapped before I went upstairs. He looked sheepish and said he was sorry. It’s my only other ding for the hotel.
Finally downstairs and out the door, find friend parked across the street, he drops me curbside at the Ferry Terminal building and roars off to his shrink appointment. I’m traveling light so it’s no problem schlepping to the Golden Gate Ferry www.goldengate.org ticket booth in back, where I plunk down my $7.50 for the ride across the bay; there’s still enough time before the 2:35 p.m. departure, so I still have time to stroll through Ferry Building Marketplace, a fabulous collection of food and wine shops, some fine restaurants (including the much-lauded Slanted Door) www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com.
Soon I am on the ferry San Francisco, having nabbed a seat up front in the bow where there will be plenty of chill wind but an unobstructed view during the least costly terrific sightseeing trip anywhere. The day is clear and not too windy and the panorama of the city, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and other top sights passes too quickly in the half-hour transit to Sausalito, the village just past the northern terminus of the bridge.
Just before getting to the slip in the middle of the much-too-touristy Sausalito, we pass a remarkable sailing vessel moored just offshore. It’s a modern square-rigger, I marvel, three masts towering far over the sleek modern cabin. I estimate to myself that this amazing sailing vessel must have cost $40 million. Later I do some research and find out I am way low. The Maltese Falcon was built in 2006 by venture-capital king Tom Perkins, the co-founder of legendary Kleiner & Perkins. At 289 feet and with a reported cost that reaches to $150 million, it is the largest and most expensive private sailing yacht ever built, a sort of fantasy reworking off the square-rigged clipper ship. Its electronics and automated features (including the sails) enable one person to sail it alone around the world, and it is for sale by the now-bored owner. Check it out at www.wikipedia.org. by searching for The Maltese Falcon (yacht).
I spy a guy holding a VW logo and identify myself, the only press trip participant to arrive by water, and in a few minutes we pull up the circular drive to the Cavallo Point, subtitled the Lodge at the Golden Gate www.cavallopoint.com. Here is another reason this trip sounded so fascinating to me. The hotel, which opened only in June after years of planning and building, occupies a small part of the former Fort Baker in what is now Golden Gate National Recreational Area www.nps.gov/goga/marin-headlands.htm and consists of renovated former officer’s quarters and some new rooms facing the grassy parade ground with a priceless view of the upper portions of the bridge and the city across the bay. What’s more, the hotel is run and partly owned by the same company that has the incomparable Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, Hana Maui in Hawaii, and the Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort in Fiji. Nice credentials indeed.
There was yet another fillip. During my Army Reserve days, I spent two weeks for several summers at Fort Cronkhite, which happens to be adjacent to Fort Baker on the other side of the Golden Gate entrance highway. This “fort” was a doleful collection of barracks above a deserted beach on the wild side of the Golden Gate facing the open Pacific. There were the barracks, and virtually nothing else besides empty hillsides, abandoned bunkers left over from World War II, similarly disused Nike missile batteries, a nearly constant wind and some of the most beautiful views on West Coast. Yes, folks, that’s where I spent my summer vacations, with an Army computer unit that had no access to computers and little to do but appreciate the sights, race cars on the empty sports-car perfect roads, and get away to Sausalito (Zack’s for the turtle races) and San Francisco. Once during this annual summer idyll, I stayed at the original Union Square Hotel, which actually was directly on Union Square; I calculated that its space is now Tiffany’s.
My introduction to the Routan was the following day, so with downtime and plenty of afternoon left I borrowed a diesel TDI from the VW people and after recruiting for shotgun a friend I ran into while waiting for the car to show up we were through the one-way tunnel (5 minutes in each direction, governed by a signal system) and off into what is now called the Marin Headlands. We found that lonely clutch of barracks above that lovely beach, the barracks now re-purposed but just as unlikely as I remembered. Though the next day’s drive would traverse some of Marin and Sonoma County’s most bewitching back roads, we had gone on the best drive of all and were back in plenty of time for a shower and cocktails at 7.
I had hoped for us to meet in La Mariposa Borracho, a meeting room on the second floor of one of the old base buildings. For anyone who understands barroom Spanish and knows the name means “Drunken Butterfly,” it would have been ideal. But no, drinks were on a balcony of another room with a stupefying view of the upper supports of the bridge bathed in sunset orange and San Francisco’s lights across the bay. Dinner was in the Murray Circle restaurant below, a multi-course affair lubricated by Miner chardonnay www.minerwines.com and Long Meadow Ranch cabernet www.longmeadow.ranch.com. The hotel attempts to be an green as possible without sacrificing the luxuries that room rates beginning at $250 demand, and the server talked our table into the tap water instead of bottled water by revealing that it was filtered seven times. Most good restaurants now filter tap water as a matter of course, but seven times must be some kind of record.
There are no bottles of water in rooms either, but a Brita pitcher of filtered water resides in every room’s refrigerator. The flat-screen on the wall, I’m sure, is LCD instead of plasma, which uses far more electricity.
My room was one of the old officer’s quarters, and looked it, up a steep flight of stairs on the top second floor. Most of the old woodwork and windows remained, and the small bathroom required that the sink be placed in the main part of the bedroom. The furniture and bedding was top notch, and a container for items to be recycled was secreted in the closet.
After breakfast in Murray Circle, we 20 or so journalists and bloggers gathered in a high-ceilinged meeting room to be briefed on the Routan www.vw.com/routan. We learned first that Volkswagen now was the third largest automobile manufacturer in the world, having displaced Ford. (Oddly, nobody mentioned that little Porsche was in the process of gaining control of mighty Volkswagen.) Then came the rationale for VW plunging into the minivan category, one with cachet the equivalent of Jello. The name, another VW head-scratcher like Toureg, wouldn’t seem to help. Routan, it seems, is a combination of “route” and a meaningless suffix, similar to the “tour” and “eg” in Toureg. Yeah, guys.
Anyway, said the toothy marketing guy, the minivan had been fast-tracked by Volkswagen in just 2006 after the company perceived a niche it could fill—a minivan that didn’t look exactly like one and handled with “European” characteristics. I took that to mean a minivan that would take a curve at a speed in excess of 20 mph and not feel like it was going to flop over on its side. Various VW execs, none of them German, got one thing off their chests right away, mostly because everybody knew anyway: Though Volkswagen spent “hundreds of millions of dollars” and vowed that its new minivan has “a distinctive German touch,” the Routan was produced as a joint venture
What that means is that the company was able to come up with a minivan in such a short time by using as its basis an existing Chrysler chassis and drive train. That means most of it, including the motor and transmission. The bodywork may different and the interior tweaked and the suspension “tuned” differently, but the Routan is a Dodge Grand Caravan in mufti. In fact, apparently very few essential parts differ between Routan and Grand Caravan, and both are made in the same factory in Windsor, Canada. Yet VW touts the Routan as “all new.” Well, maybe new for Volkswagen. Sometimes it’s hard to get the brain around marketing hyperbole.
That marketing is crucial to the Routan is impressively evident when it’s touted as “a stylish alternative to the minivan,” when it is in fact a minivan. And the slick paw of marketing was similarly evident in the Brooke Shields-starring commercials we were told about and then shown. We’ve all seen them on TV by now, the actress badgering, annoying and ignoring parents-to-be shopping for a car while accusing them of getting pregnant only for the joy of driving a Routan. “Have a baby for love, not for German engineering,” Shields scolds in one commercial. Maybe it’s funnier in German.
The essential selling proposition, apparently, is to convince young parents that a Routan is a hot and happening way to haul their kids around without giving up the styling and driving appeal of the Jettas and Audi A4s they had as carefree young adults. If you consider the research that shows that people who were kids in minivans can’t stand the idea of them today, it’s a pretty thin demographic slice we’re talking about here. Let’s see. If the minivan is 25 years old, that means the target demo is young parents at least 26 years old. Call the demo 26-35. But don’t call Routan a minivan. The price: $24,700 to $33,200.
I did get to drive the core of the Routan line, the $29,600 SE with a 3.8 liter, 197 horsepower V6. Jaime and I fired up the 101 and exited 20 miles upstream before heaving off toward the coast and Tomales, Bodega Bay, Jenner, the Russian River Valley, and Sebastopol before heading back to Cavallo Point. We drove freeway fast and coastal Route 1 slow. The Routan behaved. It took corners like a man, responded when punched, stopped by bidden to do so, didn’t bounce excessively over bumps, didn’t feel like it was going to take a dive in the first round. The sleek silhouette reminded no one of its parentage. The cupholders were fine.
Jaime and I discussed it over lunch in Forestville at a find of a roadside restaurant called Mosaic www.mosaiceats.com. Given the difficulty of orchestrating a group lunch, it was a buffet. But what a buffet. American Kobe beef, medium rare with wild mushrooms, homemade canniloni stuffed with white shrimp, wonderful French lentils, Yukon gold mashed potatoes, haricots vert to die for, a silky vanilla bean panna cotta. Chef-owner Tai Olesky hovered in back of the buffet looking like he wasn’t paying attention but eager for feedback. I told him that it was wonderful. He said I seemed to know about food. I said I used to work for Bon Appetit until we had creative differences. He smiled, I think a comment about his familiarity with creative differences. I suggest finding the three-year-old restaurant and going, hopefully in fine weather on the back patio.
Jaime and I ended up concurring about the Routan. This big hunk of iron did pretty much what the marketing slicks said it would do. It went good and steered good. It didn’t feel that much like a you-know-what.