New VW as American as, well, America
CHATANOOGA, TENN. — Don’t let its German badge fool you. The new Volkswagen Passat is as American as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and the right to bear arms.
Specifically designed for corn-fed American buyers, the 2012 Passat is a whole size bigger than the last model, sold here between 2005 and 2010, now competing with the likes of full-size sedans as big as the Chrysler 300 and Ford Taurus.
But much more than its super-sized proportions, the new front-wheel-drive five-passenger Passat is a big deal for the VW brand in the U.S., and the parent Volkswagen Group’s global ambitions to become the largest automaker in the world.
As part of the German automaker’s desire to almost quadruple its U.S. sales to over 800,000 per year by 2018, the new Passat follows last year’s new Jetta sedan strategy by that old American adage of offering more for less. While the Jetta is made in Mexico, to avoid high European union labour and parts costs, the new Passat is assembled in a brand-new, non-unionized U.S. VW plant, right here in the former Confederate state of Tennessee (home of such American historical icons as Davy Crockett, Andrew Jackson, and Sam Houston), where VW says the Passat is made with 93 per cent of its parts sourced from North American suppliers.
And just as the big-for-its-class compact Jetta is stealing sales away from Canadian chart toppers like the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, VW has aimed the Passat into the heart of one of the largest U.S. car segments, targeting import brand family sedans like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
Aggressive pricing is a big part of the new Passat sales plan.
With starting prices in Canada from $23,975 — about $4,000 less than the outgoing model — when the 2012 Passat goes on sale this fall, we’ll get three, familiar engine choices.
The base Passat 2.5L comes with the Golf and Jetta’s five-cylinder engine. The segment-exclusive 2.0-litre turbo-diesel TDI version starts at $27,475. While the top-line V6 Passat begins at $33,575.
The 2.5L comes standard with a five-speed manual or optional six-speed automatic. The TDI models get a manual gearbox with one more gear, or an optional duel-clutch six-speed automatic that’s mandatory in the Passat V6.
Anyone who remembers VW’s last attempt to make cars south of the border has legitimate concerns about the automaker’s latest Made in America product.
VW’s former Pennsylvania plant built “Americanized” Rabbits between 1978 and 1988 that suffered from softer suspensions and cheapened interiors compared to previously German-made Golfs.
Working at half the plant’s capacity, sales of VW’s U.S.-built cars dropped by more than 50 per cent by the mid-1980s.
Based on the preproduction models I drove, though, the new U.S.-built Passat doesn’t suffer as much from its “Americanization.”
Except for the lower part of its dash, below knee-level, all its interior plastics are soft to the touch, and the level of fit-and-finish is — if not up to luxury car standards —right up there with the better Japanese branded cars.
And unlike some German cars (including other VWs), the new Passat’s controls are logically laid out and easy to understand.
The 2012 Passat follows the new Jetta’s recipe with an extraordinarily roomy cabin. Especially for rear passengers.
With a much longer wheelbase than the outgoing model, the new Passat offers more legroom than the Accord and Camry while the Chrysler 300 is within millimetres of most of the VW’s interior dimensions.
And at 450 litres, the Passat’s trunk space is larger than the Accord, Camry or Chevrolet Malibu.
Understandably, the new V6 Passat wasn’t available for the one-day media drive that arced its way northwest from the new VW plant in Chattanooga to Nashville, as VW Canada only expects the six-cylinder model to make up 10 per cent of sales, with the 2.5L and TDI diesel models splitting the rest.
Behind the wheel of the Passat 2.5L first, it came as no surprise the engine was its weakest link.
VW engineers have done a good job keeping its super-sized Passat’s weight down. At 1,461 kg, the 2.5L/auto combo comes in as light as a four-cylinder/auto Honda Accord — lighter than a Ford Fusion and Camry.
Even with a V6, the Passat is lighter than a similarly equipped Honda or Ford.
But with only 170 hp and 177 lb.-ft. of torque, the 2.5L feels less-than-enthusiastic in going about its business. The Passat TDI, though, with 30 less horsepower but 59 more lb.-ft. of torque, feels more urgent from start, and a benefits from the quicker-shifting dual-clutch gearbox.
In addition to its cavernous rear accommodations, where the Passat really sets itself apart from its classmates is by offering a diesel.
While the 2.5L/auto is rated at a respectable 9.6L/100 km in the city and 6.7L on the highway, VW estimates the TDI will chime in at a hybrid-like 6.5L city, 4.5L highway.
During my time in the car (a mix of freeway and first-to-the-coffee-beak two-lane mountain driving), I averaged a compact car-like 5.5L/100 km in a car that can chauffeur around NBA wannabes in its back seats.
Both the Passats I drove were American SEL models; similarly equipped to Canadian Highline trim specs with 17-inch tires.
And contrary to its über-sizing and front-drive chassis, the new Passat has retained much of the firm-yet-compliant ride and handling characteristics that German car fans loved so much about the last version.
There’s more off-centre steering feel in the TDI version which, along with the V6 Passats, receive the electric versus hydraulic steering setup found in the 2.5L.
But both cars can carve curves with accuracy that deny their buxom dimensions. Let’s be clear: The new Passat is no sports sedan. That’s the role of the Audi A4 in the VW Group’s empire.
But for most of its intended customers, driving at 8/10ths delivers predictable (i.e. safe) understeer and a knack for stringing together turns that’s rare in the family sedan segment.
As competitive as the Passat is, though, it will never be a big seller north of the 49th parallel.
While the Ford Fusion led the way with about 20,000 in sales in Canada in 2010, VW Canada is hoping to sell about twice as many Passats as before, or about 8,000 copies.
Based on its roomy interior, segment-exclusive diesel engine and inherent German road manners, I can see no reason why the new 2012 VW Passat won’t meet that goal.
John LeBlanc reviews cars for Wheels. Reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Transportation for John LeBlanc was paid by the automaker.
2012 Volkswagen Passat 2.5L/TDI/V6
2012 VOLKSWAGEN PASSAT
BASE PRICES: $23,975/$27,475/$33,575
ENGINES: 2.5L I5/2.0L turbocharged I4 diesel/3.6L V6
POWER/TORQUE: 170/140/280 hp; 177/236/258 lb.-ft.
TRANSMISSIONS: Five-, six speed manuals, six-speed duel-clutch/ automatic/six-speed manual/CVT
FUEL ECONOMY: L/100 km city, highway: 5M10.1, 6.5; 6A 9.6, 6.7/6M & 6A est. 6.5, 4.5/10.9, 7.4
COMPETITION: Audi A4, Chevrolet Malibu/Impala, Chrysler 300, Ford Fusion/Fusion Hybrid/Taurus, Hyundai Sonata/Genesis, Kia Optima
WHAT’S BEST: Aggressive pricing; excellent interior ergonomics and build quality; full-size interior space; TDI offers hybrid-busting fuel-economy.
WHAT’S WORST: Been-there, seen-that styling.
WHAT’S INTERESTING: VW’s new Tennessee facility has the capacity to build up-to-250,000 cars per year — or what the German automaker sells in the U.S. today.