Driving Today

Volkswagen Seeks Success in the U.S.

The brand that was once the most popular import in America is making a new effort to win back U.S. b...

Volkswagen has big plans for the American market, and its executives believe it can never achieve them without changing the way they do business in the USA. Once upon a time, VW was the most successful vehicle importer in America, but the rise of the Japanese in the 1970s left the German carmaker in the dust. VW tried to recoup by building a factory in Pennsylvania, but that eventually ended in failure. Now VW is trying a similar gambit and hoping for better results.

One key difference this time is in tactics. VW has not only built an American factory --this time in Chattanooga, Tenn. -- but also designed an all-new version of the Passat midsize sedan, with American tastes in mind. The car is bigger and has more trunk room than the European Passat, yet it retains the chiseled looks and European handling of the previous version and its Euro cousin. And even though the car is bigger, Volkswagen has equipped it with a much lower price. Now, for the first time, VW can go head-to-head with popular sedans like the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry and not have to apologize for anything. It has the size, price and array of features to win over a significant percentage of buyers.

While a 2.5-liter in-line five-cylinder engine is the power plant most will choose, we highly recommend taking a look at the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder -- the way our test car was equipped. It only offers 140 horsepower, but the real news is the 236 pound-feet of torque -- far more torque than the gasoline-powered versions. The result of all that torque is quick acceleration and sporty performance. Because turbo-diesels are so efficient, fuel economy with the six-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic is 40 miles per gallon on the highway. And it is more fun on twisty pavement than any 140-horsepower sedan has a right to be.

Inside, the Passat is well-tailored and conservative. Instead of the creative -- but often awkward -- control and dashboard designs favored by the Japanese manufacturers, the interior of the Passat is as straightforward as a mutual funds salesman. We give very high marks to the rear-seat legroom, which is almost limousine-like, and we like the giant-sized trunk.

The new-for-2012 VW Passat has a starting list price that is slightly less than $20,000. Our TDI test vehicle was much more expensive than that -- more like $30,000 -- but we think the money is well-spent.



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