The cars we loved.
As late as the early O’s it was possible to trace the characteristic of any given car to a defining national trait. For example, generalizations like American cars were often seen as big and simplistic, Japanese cars small with origami like attention to detail while German cars were tough and Swedish cars were always safe had enough truth to them to be established traits. These generalized traits used to help define the differences in brands. You could almost distinguish a German car from an American or Japanese just from looking at photos of the interiors.
For Volkswagen, these differences were part of its marketing strategy with the Fahrvergnügen advertising campaign from the 80’s and 90’s. Fahrvergnügen described the feeling derived from Volkswagen’s version of German motoring. Intangibles like steering feedback solid construction even the feeling of the switch gear were all part of the robustness that became the unwritten rule of any German brand. As the automotive market goes increasingly global, many popular German cars like VW’s Jetta and Passat have found themselves in the middle of a transformation in the attempt to stay relevant in increasingly competitive markets. The quest for greater appeal has come at the cost of what made them appealing in the first place.
The 2011 Passat has emerged from market trends with two distinct versions. The one for America is now built-in Tennessee. Not since the 80’s has a VW been built-in the US. Unlike the factory in New Stanton, Pennsylvania, the new union free Chattanooga facility is state of the art. Its main purpose is to pump out new Americanized versions of the Passat. So important was the Passat to VW’s global sales goals, that it felt that a whole new car was in order for North America, even as Europe got a warmed over version of the 2005-10 model. The more upmarket CC is still made in Germany, sold in the US and is based on the previous Passat.
The new Americanized model loses some of what made it special in the past. Now larger (and cheaper), the Passat can boast of class leading rear leg room, the result of expanded dimensions in all directions to accommodate the ever-growing backsides of the typical Yankee. The new look is attractive, but not distinctive. It manages to look smart with just a hint of Audi influence, at the rear lights. The new corporate grille, may be the weakest link of the design, looking very plastic and cheap. Starting at around $20,000, the price of entry has been lowered from the 2010 model. Like in the new Jetta, the model list has shrunk and choosing options has been simplified. No longer can American buyers choose the Variant (wagon) model. The 170hp 2.5L that comes standard in the base Passat is sprightly in the smaller Jetta, but in the larger Passat, it’s less than enthusiast gear. Moving to the TDI model promises even less overall performance (except for torque), but delivers over 30mpg. The 3.6L V6 with its 6-speed DSG automatic transmission offers a healthy 280hp, by far the most rewarding to drive for the enthusiast. The American car loses out mostly in efficiency to Passat’s elsewhere. One of VW’s most advance engines, the 103hp 1.6L BlueMotion turbo-diesel will not be available in American made cars. At 55mpg, it makes the mid-sized Passat more efficient than most sub compacts. Another “not for America” engine would be the Audi developed high-efficiency petro powered 1.8L TSi. All Passat’s share a similar front McPherson and rear four link independent suspension with four-wheel disc brakes behind 16, 17 or 18’ alloy wheels.
The almost bland exterior gives way to a more interesting interior that tight ropes between cost cutting and looking more luxurious. Selectively well placed higher quality materials and better attention to detail makes the 2011 Passat’s cabin almost as appealing as the CC. Closer inspection reveals cost cutting due to the lack of buttons and controls of the European cars. American cars cover over these areas with hard plastic that’s less visible on the underside of the dash. The cost cutting gives way to some unique features in the American car. Tennessee’s rock and blues heritage may have affected the Passat’s development in other ways such as the option of a Fender sound system. The first such option in any car sold in the US. Elvis would be proud. Proud local people aside, the media has been rather timid about the new Passat. Like the Jetta, much of what made VW charming in the past has given way to the need to make a larger dent in the American market.
The effect of the globalization was more dramatic on the Passat. Now very much like an Impala or Toyota Avalon, the Passat tries hard not to offend by blending in. Now larger and better able to accommodate big Americans, Volkswagen hopes it will go a long way towards meeting its goal of selling 800,000 cars in America by 2018. Although one can never know how different both the European and American Passat are from each other without driving them back to back. I suspect the American car is softer riding and slightly less responsive, just what Americans seem to want. VW withheld the name of its then new American mid-sized project while it was in development. Although many wondered why they didn’t just call it Passat, they ended up using the name anyway after some speculation that the Passat would go away altogether.
The differences between the American car and Europe’s may have justified the hesitation. It will be interesting to see how far subsequent models diverge from each other. For now, Volkswagen builds the best Impala out there. If Volkswagen has its way, the new Passat will soon be a familiar fixture in Cracker Barrel and Wal-Mart parking lots across the country.