Bigger is better for new Passat

  • 14-Jan-2011 03:20 EST
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Volkswagen used a conservative style it terms "timeless" for the U.S.-market Passat, which it intends to sell in high volume to mainstream American drivers.

Volkswagen revealed its anticipated U.S.-centric NMS (New Midsize Sedan) in Detroit at the 2011 NAIAS, unveiling it as the new Passat with sternly conservative lines but an aggressive value proposition. The company’s goal was to slash the car’s price tag without undercutting its European appeal as critics complain happened with the U.S-market Jetta.

The Passat looks like it preserved more of the features Volkswagen shoppers expect in its pursuit of a price mainstream American car buyers demand. For example, the new Passat retains the independent rear suspension system of its predecessor and boasts a multi-adjustable driver’s seat, the gauge cluster and information display seen previously in the Touareg, automatic climate control, and a raft of safety features for its starting price of about $20,000. It also employs soft touch and low-luster materials inside, largely avoiding the abundance of hard plastics that garnered so much criticism in the Jetta.

The new car stretches to 191.7 in (4870 mm), almost exactly the same length as a Chevrolet Malibu and falling between the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, addressing the common complaint that the old Passat was more cramped inside than its key competitors.

The Chattanooga, TN-assembled Passat offers three drivetrains. The base engine is the company’s 170-hp (127-kW), 177-lb·ft (240-N·m), 2.5-L I5 using either a five-speed manual transmission or an optional six-speed automatic. VW’s 140-hp (104-kW), 236-lb·ft (320-N·m), 2.0-L I4 diesel is matched to either the manual transmission or the company’s dual-clutch automated manual transmission.

The premium engine option will be the 280-hp (209-kW), 258-lb·ft (350-N·m), 3.6-L VR6 engine, which has the dual-clutch transmission as its standard equipment. VW predicts the VR6 will achieve 28 mpg on the U.S. EPA’s highway cycle, while the diesel is expected to score 43 mpg.

That rating is particularly surprising considering that the much smaller Golf is rated at 42 mpg highway with the same engine. The difference is due to different emissions control schemes for the two cars, explained Hubertus Lemke, head of technical project management for VW.

The Passat employs a NOx storage catalyst, while the Golf relies on fuel injection and engine management programs to reduce pollution, the latter approach costing some fuel efficiency, he said. However, the approach used for the Passat is higher cost. About a quarter of U.S. Jettas are diesels, he said, adding that the company expects a similar number of Passat customers to opt for the diesel.

While the new Passat retains similar suspension hardware as seen previously, including a multilink rear suspension, the spring and damping rates and bushings have all been softened in anticipation of the preferences of the new customers, Lemke said. But he insists that, despite improved comfort, the new car preserves the engaging driving characteristics that attracted many VW customers in the past. “We have the same crisp feeling in the new Passat, too,” he promised.

Similarly, Volkswagen has long been seen as a leader in terms of cabin appointments, an attribute that seemed threatened under the new car’s cost-cutting effort. But Lemke said that VW recognized the customer expectation that the Passat’s interior should be superior. “The material which you can see and touch and feel must be attractive for the customer,” he said.

The company saved money by using a traditional manual hand brake mechanism rather than one of the increasingly common electric parking brake mechanisms, he said. While declining to quantify the amount of money saved by this substitution, Lemke insisted that it was a substantial amount. “We saved a lot,” he said.

Also Volkswagen only had a leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel in the corporate parts bin, but American customers expected multifunction controls even in models without leather, so the Passat team pushed for development of a less costly plastic-rimmed multifunction steering wheel, Lemke said.

Standard equipment even on the base model includes power windows, air-conditioning, ambient temperature, CD stereo with Bluetooth phone connectivity, hill climb assist (for manual transmissions), brake assist, electronic stability control, and six airbags.

Options include power seat adjustment, touch-screen satellite radio, leather seats and steering wheel, navigation, fog lights, and keyless start. To attract attention in the increasingly crowded premium audio segment, the Passat is the first car to carry an audio system wearing the brand of the famed Fender guitar company.

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