New Passat marks VW’s return to U.S. production

  • 10-Sep-2011 04:10 EDT
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The U.S.-built 2012 Passat moves up in size and now conforms to the high-volume mainstream C/D-class size vehicles such as the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

The 2012 Passat marks Volkswagen’s return to U.S. production, and because it competes in the C/D front-drive mass market against well-regarded sedan competitors, it has to be virtually bulletproof right from the start. That simple fact was recognized by the company's Board of Management every bit as much as by the U.S production, marketing, service, and quality teams.

More than two-thirds of 2010 Passat sales, some 28,000 of 41,000, were for the CC, the coupe-like sedan that will continue to be imported from Germany. That leaves plenty of room for growth for the new U.S.-built Passat sedan line, which will be pitted against domestic, Japanese, and Korean competitors including the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Chrysler 200, and Dodge Avenger. The same room for growth also applies to the assembly line at the new Chattanooga, TN plant, which has a capacity for 150,000 units.

True, the U.S. Passat’s base of $19,995 plus destination is, like its competitors at that price, for a manual transmission car that may hardly be available (six-speed automatics are the “options”). But throughout the equipment/trim range, its pricing is certainly in line with C/D competition and seems to represent a price reduction of several thousand dollars vs. the European model.

VW board members have been on a shuttle to the U.S. to personally check out the product at every stage. With the car just having gone on sale, the commitment couldn’t be more clearly demonstrated than with an evaluation fleet that has reached the 60-car level. Cars are assigned to employees with driving patterns that replicate the general public and who reliably produce detailed reports. The fleet went into service starting as long as nine months ago.

The fleet was intended to do more than report on mechanical and electrical failures. It was to help create a system for reproducing faults, not all of which are apparent, “with the reporting driver, in the claimed vehicle and at the location where it occurred,” explained Marc Trahan, Volkswagen Group of America Executive Vice President for quality.

Perhaps a pilot car fleet doesn’t provide a “total” picture, but Trahan said it did identify hesitation complaints and gave VW experience with pinpointing and correcting causes. It also covered operating difficulties from non-intuitive designs, some of which will lead to engineering changes. Of course, VW was able to validate communication channels with the Chattanooga plant, which includes a computerized reporting program, not just for “did the call go through?” issues.

Fuel economy of the fleet has been running ahead of the EPA numbers, a reassuring result.

Styled in Germany, the U.S. Passat is brought into line with current VW design themes, but it’s not a flashy styling job either. It is a bigger package with a different engine lineup. The car is built on a 110.4-in (2803-mm) wheelbase and is 191.6 in (4868 mm) long overall. EPA number for the interior is 102 ft³ and for the trunk is 15.9 ft³. Legroom numbers are 42.4 in (1077 mm) front and 39.1 in (993 mm) rear.

All these dimensions are greater than the German-built Passat's, which was on a 106.7 in (2711 mm) wheelbase and had an 188.9 in (4799 mm) overall length. EPA number for the interior was 96.3 ft³, plus 14.2 ft³ for the trunk. Legroom numbers were 41.4 in (1052 mm) front and 37.9 in (958 mm) rear.

A key factor in the lower cost of the U.S. model is insulation from currency fluctuations. However, there’s also an important difference in the engine lineup.

The U.S. Passat base engine is not the European Passat’s 2.0-L four-cylinder turbo. It was replaced by the Jetta/Golf/Beetle 2.5-L five cylinder, a lower-cost (and lower-performance) powerplant, rated at 170 hp (127 kW) and 177 lb·ft (241 N·m). However, thanks to its high torque, the performance level is competitive with the Camry 2.5-L four, at 178 hp (133 kW) and 170 lb·ft (231 N-m), and the Accord 2.4-L four, at 177 hp (132 kW) and 161 lb·ft (219 N·m), and the Ford Fusion 2.5-L four, at 175 hp (131 kW) and 172 lb·ft (234 N·m). Higher achievers in the class are the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima with a 2.4-L four rated at 198 hp (148 kW) and 184 lb·ft (250 N·m), Chevy Malibu 2.5-L four, tentatively rated at 190 hp (142 kW) and 180 lb·ft (245 N·m), and Nissan Altima 2.5-L four at 175 hp (131 kW) and 180 lb·ft (245 N·m).

The 2.5-L five EPA fuel economy numbers are at the lower end of the competitive list at 22 MPG city/31 MPG highway, but with the real-world numbers coming in noticeably higher, that shouldn’t be an ownership issue.

The turbocharged 2.0-L four-cylinder diesel and 3.6-L VR6 gasoline engines from the German Passat are on the U.S. option list (and still on the imported CC). The 2.0-L gasoline turbo, rated at 200 hp (149 kW) and 207 lb·ft (280 N·m), is restricted to the CC, as the base engine.

Sales are just beginning, but a VW spokesman estimated that the 2.5-L unit will make up two-thirds of Passat sales. That leaves one-third for the two optional engines in the lineup.

The 2.0-L diesel is rated at 140 hp (104 kW) and 236 lb·ft (321 N·m), with 31 mpg city/43 mpg highway EPA fuel economy. It can be optionally mated to a six-speed DSG dual-clutch automated manual gearbox.

The 3.6-L VR6, the performance option, is rated at 280 hp (206 kW) and 258 lb·ft (350 N·m), with EPA numbers of 20 mpg city/28 mpg highway.

Ride tuning and handling characteristics of the cars are among the attributes that VW includes in what it calls “German engineering.” The Passat isn’t a sports sedan. It has a moderately firm but well-damped ride, with a turning circle diameter of just 36.4 ft (11.1 m).

VW also includes standard features that bespeak “well-equipped” even on the base Passat, such as dual-zone automatic temperature control, eight-way manual driver’s seat, power locks and windows, steering wheel audio controls, Bluetooth, and 3 yr/36,000 mi scheduled free maintenance. The automatic transmission package with 16-in alloy wheels adds $2700 to the base price.

The interior panels of the pilot cars we drove displayed a few small interior flaws that still needed tweaking, but no different, maybe better than many other pilot cars we’ve driven. With the push for quality coming from all directions, the U.S. production cars should match or exceed the results of the European plants.

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