Volkswagen’s “German Camry”

2014 Volkswagen Passat (Volkswagen of America)

2014 Volkswagen Passat (Volkswagen of America)

Volkswagen’s management in Germany has set lofty goals for the company in the coming years: to increase sales worldwide, and particularly in North America. And to do that, they need to offer the kinds of vehicles American buyers want.

A case in point is the mid-sized Passat. Some years ago, VW was happy with having their larger sedan (slotted above the Jetta) play in its own little niche. More expensive than cars like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, while not quite as large inside.

For that car in particular, it’s lineage to the Audi A4 model was purposely an open secret. Let buyers pay a premium for a car that was “almost an Audi.” But to generate sales numbers like the leaders in the segment, you have to conform. Offer buyers what they seem to want, even if it means tweaking your car just a bit.

And the current generation of Passat does just that. It’s roomy inside, offers a decent number of standard features, and comes in at a competitive price. Cross-shopping the Passat with the Camry and Accord (not to mention the Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion and several others), buyers will find that it measures up in every dimension, including the monetary one.

I recently got reacquainted with the Passat, sampling a Wolfsburg Edition model with a rather bare minimum of features. The seats are covered in synthetic faux leather. There is no sunroof or navigation system, and the overall feel of the car is “value for the money.” It’s slotted between the base S model and mid-level SE trim.

In other words, it’s set up just like the high-volume examples of other mid-size cars. No more, and no less. There are power accessories everywhere, cruise control, Bluetooth telephone connection, and even niceties like heated front seats and leather wrapping for the steering wheel, gearshift knob and handbrake.

The “Wolfsburg” part (a somewhat ironic name, since Volkwagen builds Passats for U.S. consumption in Chatanooga, Tennessee, quite far from Wolfsburg, Germany) is really a bonus trim and color package on top of a base model.

VW has done Wolfsburg editions in the past, but they were usually full of premium content. This one is aiming more for a price point, and even the handsome 18” wheels fitted to my test car were a $1200 option. The standard 16” wheels would be fine for most people, I’m fairly certain.

Under the hood is Volkswagen’s wonderful new 1.8 liter turbo four cylinder, making 170 horsepower in a very smooth manner, and a 6-speed automatic transmission is standard. Accelerating and passing maneuvers are a breeze, and the EPA mileage estimates of 24 city and 34 highway are impressive. And if the onboard trip computer is accurate, I was able to best that highway figure by quite a significant margin in light-traffic freeway driving.

One nice little bonus for this latest turbo-charged engine from Volkswagen: it doesn’t require premium fuel. The brand’s more-performance oriented engines still do, but it wouldn’t make sense to offer buyers a competitively-priced car, only to then pull the “gotcha” down in the fine print informing them that they’ll be paying more for gasoline the entire time they own it.

And even though it’s priced and equipped like the segment-leading mid-size sedans with which it competes, it does have an edge in handling feel. No, it’s not exactly a sport sedan, but in a simulated emergency maneuver that I did which involved hard braking and turning at the same time, this rather “vanilla” German car showed its Teutonic roots.

All told, the Passat Wolfsburg edition is a fine choice in its class. With a base price of $24,000 and just enough content to keep most buyers happy, it really does hit a sweet spot.

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: @ABC7DaveKunz, Facebook: ABC7DaveKunz

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