Volkswagen is out to conquer the world. Executives have said publicly that they intend to knock Toyota or GM (or whoever it may be at the time) off the throne by 2018.
At last count, they were well ahead of schedule, but world domination requires a plan. China may be the largest up-and-coming auto market, but no carmaker can be king without big sales in the USA.
Thus the first shot fired in this war was last year’s US-edition Jetta, designed—some say dumbed down—to appeal to American drivers: It grew and got a softer ride, while its sticker dropped by a few dollars.
VW’s next offering for us is the Jetta’s big brother, this new Passat, “designed and engineered in Germany, but built in America [in a new plant in Tennessee] for Americans.”
The old Passat is still available in the rest of the world; ours is bigger, cushier and again cheaper—sort of. VW says we can own a fine mid-size German sedan for only twenty grand.
It is true that the entry-level Passat, mellifluously labeled the “S PZEV” and equipped pretty well, lists for $19,995, but most of us will forgo its five-speed manual gearbox in favor of the six-speed automatic and the Appearance Package.
Then we’re at twenty-three grand, and we’ve still got a somewhat harsh-sounding five-cylinder engine that puts out 170 horsepower and 171 pounds-feet of torque.
But wait, there’s more—in all, a dozen variations on the American Passat for 2012. The two premium Passats, one with a fuel-efficient four-cylinder diesel and the other with a 280-horsepower gas V-6, both start at $32,000-plus.
The mid-range SEL model shown here costs about $28,400, which includes satnav and satradio plus seat heaters. But I’m underwhelmed by the five-cylinder engine, so I’d buy the first model with the bigger motor, which is called the SE V6 and goes for just a few hundred more.
Not a bad price for a powerful, roomy, four-seat, front-wheel-drive Germanic car, if a far cry from “only twenty grand.”
My beef might not be the five-cylinder engine so much as the throttle. It takes a fair prod to get the SEL moving. Clicking the transmission to Sport clears up the initial hesitation, but then we’re plagued by more-abrupt shifting. Six-cylinder Passats have VW’s “automated manual transmission”—the DSG, or direct-shift gearbox.
This is a very trick unit with two electrically operated clutches, one that engages the next gear before the other disengages the current gear. The DSG can be shifted manually or left on its own, like an automatic. Gear changes are more pronounced, but since these are real gears, the DSG transfers power more positively. Passats with this high-power, high-efficiency drivetrain accelerate more than just briskly.
Four hundred miles in the five-cylinder SEL averaging 59 miles per hour used up a gallon of gas every 31.9 miles. The modest torque keeps the transmission busy when passing, but at speed the Passat is smooth, stable and confidence-inspiring.
Its cabin is spacious and elegant, and it looks and feels more costly than it is. The switches and controls feel European, and everything is easy to figure out and use.
There is no computer joystick. On the outside, the styling is so middle-of-the-road as to be bland, but the car is handsome in a discreet way, especially in silver metallic. (It looks like the love child of a Chevy Malibu and the previous Passat.)
The steering and brakes are reassuringly responsive and the ride is astonishing—potholes are felt only as distant disturbances and don’t disrupt the car at all. It’s hard to say without direct comparison, but the American Passat seems both more taut and more engaging to drive than the American Jetta. I am sure it will sell.
VW isn’t just Volkswagen, the People’s Car, any more.
On the passenger-car side, the VW group includes Bugatti, Audi, Bentley, Lamborghini, SEAT and Skoda, and is poised to swallow up Porsche next. Sounds like they’ve already conquered the world.