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First Drive: Volkswagen Passat

VW says Americans want a big, smooth midsizer with nondescript styling. Is that true?

by on May.09, 2012

Volkswagen aims to take over the title of world's biggest automaker with cars like the new Passat.For decades, Volkswagens were the car you bought if you wanted something just a bit different than the Camrys, Accords and Malibus. If you lust after a more expensive German sedan, but you’re spending Chevrolet money.

For a long time, it worked well enough. The brand’s small, but loyal band of fans bought them because they had real German engineering at a much more manageable price than BMW, Audi or Mercedes and because they weren’t Camrys, Accords or Malibus.

But the objectives in Wolfsburg have changed. VW has made it very clear that it wants to be the largest automaker in the world. You may be thinking “Geez, I probably see eight Toyotas for every VW,” but Volkswagens are more popular throughout the rest of the world. VW also has nine other brands – a couple of which Americans don’t even know exist. Besides the eponymous brand, VW also has owns Audi, Bugatti, Bentley and Lamborghini. But it also has SEAT and Skoda – European brands that have never been sold here.

Anything But Nondescript!

While Europe and other world markets are far bigger to VW than is the U.S., the automaker still decided it needed to increase sales here to reach its goals.

So, the automaker decided that if it was going to increase U.S. sales, it would need to follow the script written by Toyota, one of the automakers it will have to surpass. It would make cars tailored to the tastes of the American majority, rather than the few who appreciated the slightly quirky VW of old.

One of the products of that effort is this Passat, a car that VW expects to help lead its U.S. sales surge. The automaker has made a $1 billion bet on the Passat with a sparkling new plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.


A Second Opinion: the 2012 Volkswagen Passat

In praise of the Passat Owner’s Manual.

by on Jan.03, 2012

Volkswagen's Passat is one of three finalists for North American Car of the Year.

Here we go again. Years ago, I wrote a column for Publisher Paul (at one of his previous enterprises), concerning the gems to be found in the world’s least read book of useful information: a new car or truck Owner Manual.

This time my particular candidate is the exceptional Owner Manual for the 2012 VW Passat, the new Chattanooga product that has made the cut as one of three finalists for North American Car of the Year. (The others are the Ford Focus and the Hyundai Elantra.)

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For me, the Passat—albeit the first VW I have encountered since a retro look at a Beetle some years ago—is pure Vanilla. Driving it for a week doesn’t leave an impression either favorable or unfavorable. It meets all the driver’s needs and pleasures for a solid family five-passenger sedan (except for the $34,000 sticker price including all the standard upscale goodies), plus it has exceptional rear seat legroom and trunk space. There’s nothing at all wrong with Vanilla—Passat should be a conservative buy for those who otherwise likely would lean Camry- or Accord- or Malibu-wise.


VW May More Than Triple Size of Chattanooga Plant

From bomb bunker to ground zero in the battle for automotive supremacy.

by on Jun.14, 2011

A nearly-completed 2012 Passat gets ready to roll off the line at VW's new Chattanooga plant.

If some of the early construction crews were a little nervous when work began on the new Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, three years ago, they had a good reason.  In an irony not lost on members of the team overseeing the project, the mounds dotting the abandoned site had once housed World War II – era bunkers where the U.S. military stored bombs that would eventually be dropped all over Germany – perhaps on the VW plant in Wolfsburg, in fact.

To everyone’s good fortune, the bunkers proved empty.  And the fact is, these days, relations are a lot friendlier between the two countries.  But the sprawling facility is still on a war footing of sorts.

After years of dithering over its role in the U.S. market, Volkswagen has made a commitment to more than double its sales by 2018, to at least 800,000 vehicles annually.  Meanwhile, it hopes to bump its worldwide volumes to more than 8 million, Volkswagen AG CEO Martin Winterkorn declaring, the company “continues to have its sights firmly set on capturing pole position in the automotive industry.”

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Chattanooga will play a critical role in meeting that goal – and that means that the plant that formally opened in the Southern heartland, last month, could very well undergo a significant expansion in the very near future.  Indeed, has learned, capacity could readily more than triple, according to a senior manager, “if it were appropriate.”


Low Pay Big Advantage as VW Opens New U.S. Plant

New factory could help Volkswagen double U.S. demand.

by on May.23, 2011

The first 2012 VW Passat will officially role off the maker's new assembly line in Chattanooga on Tuesday.

When Volkswagen opens its new U.S. assembly plant tomorrow, it will be a critical step in the maker’s plan to double sales by 2018 – in part by relying on low wages to help make models like the all-new 2012 Passat more competitive.

The average blue-collar worker at the new factory, Chattanooga, Tennessee, will earn just $27 an hour – including wages and benefits – or barely half the average $52 an hour for workers at Detroit’s union-organized plants.  VW will also have a significant cost advantage over other so-called transplant assembly lines operated by Japanese and other European makers.

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That could provide a significant boost for a company that has been saddled with a heavy premium on products imported from Germany, where high labor costs have been compounded by the weak U.S. dollar.

VW has been pressing hard to emphasize value – something that worked for the legendary Beetle nearly half a century ago – rather than focusing on German engineering as an excuse for higher prices.  When it launched an all-new Jetta, last year, it introduced a stripped-down model, the Jetta S, at just $15,995 — $2,000 lower than the starting price for the 2010 model.