Volkswagen’s “Americanized” Passat

2012 Volkswagen Passat.

The new 2012 VW Passat is pleasing to the eye, though not necessarily eye-catching. It has clean lines and a nicely sculpted chrome grill. It’s also fairly large compared to prior iterations of the car, to better compete with the likes of the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

Volkswagen is earnestly seeking to increase its share of the American automotive market. The push started a couple of years ago with the redesigned Jetta, made more affordable (which somewhat translated to “using cheaper materials”) and with some formerly standard content going onto the options list.

While auto critics tisk tisk-ed the new low-rent base model Jetta, VW must have known what it was doing, as sales went way up. Now, the second phase of their plan to climb the U.S. sales charts is here as well. America, say hello to the larger and roomier Passat.

When I say roomy, I really mean it. The interior is downright huge for a mid-size sedan. Even with the front seats moved all the way back (which is more than even tall drivers really need), there’s still ample leg room for rear passengers. Go back and pop the trunk open, and you’ll see that it’s gigantic.

Yep, this new Volkswagen is aimed squarely at American car buyers. It’s also built by American workers, at a state-of-the-art factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee. VW invested heavily in creating a green manufacturing facility in order to build cars here and avoid the problems of currency fluctuations. They also need production capacity if they’re to reach their goal of being the biggest car maker in the world.

Operating assembly plants on U.S. soil is nothing new for car companies from other countries. The Japanese got the ball rolling in the 1980s, followed by German brands in the ‘90s. In fact, every ML-Class that Mercedes-Benz builds and every X3, X5, and X6 that BMW makes — no matter where in the world they’re sold — are built at their respective American assembly plants.

Starting one from scratch is the way to go. Modern production techniques mean that a company can build the exact same car in places like Alabama, South Carolina, or Tennessee as it does in Germany. Volkswagen’s prior effort at building cars in America was a bit of a flop, after converting an aging former Chrysler factory outside of Pittsburgh.

Part of the criticism of the Pennsylvania-built VW Rabbits, Golfs, and Jettas (1979-1989) was that they were altered a little too much in order to fit in with American buyers’ tastes. The suspensions and seats became soft, and the cars had lost a lot of their German character. Build quality had also gone down a couple of notches.

With the 2012 Passat, Volkswagen has managed to strike a good balance between that Teutonic solidity that makes cars from das Vaterland so appealing to U.S. buyers, as well as comfort and convenience they can get from mid-size rivals. If you hit the local auto mall and try out all the popular mid-sizers, the Passat matches up very well.

But get it out on the road, and you do get a bit of that very German road behavior. The ride is not overly harsh, but it’s firm and controlled. The steering has a nicely-weighted feel to it too. Again, very German. Engine choices range from a 2.5 liter 5-cylinder, to a 3.6 liter V6, and even Volkswagen’s excellent TDI clean turbo diesel, making the Passat the only car in the segment with that option (for now, anyway).

Part of VW’s strategy for the 2012 Passat, as it was for the Jetta, is to offer an attractive base price. In this case, the stripper S model starts at $19,995, though that does include things like electronic stability control and Bluetooth connectivity. Top-of-the-line SEL Premium grade Passats, with either TDI or V6 gasoline power, start just above $32,000.

Many American buyers like the cachet of a European car. And many American buyers feel good purchasing a car built by American factory workers. VW’s new Passat offers up both those feelings in one car.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave

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