Here it is: the new 2011 Volkswagen Passat, the sedan VW wants to take America by sturm. How will it do so? By being $7,000 cheaper than the previous Passat, while getting bigger.
Just as it did with the new Jetta, VW has moved the Passat down the price ladder to what it thinks American midsize sedan buyers really want — more room for less money. While the outgoing Passat started at $27,000, VW will send in the new base model with a sub-$20,000 sticker, aiming directly for the masses testing the cupholders on four-cylinder Camrys, Accords and Sonatas.
The new Passat gets three engine options: the 2.5-liter 5-cylinder, good for 170 hp and 177 lb.-ft. of torque, the 2-liter diesel four-cylinder, and a 3.6-liter VR6 at 280 hp and 258 lb.-ft. The base Passat will offer the five-cylinder with a five-speed manual; six-speed automatics will go to the majority of buyers.
VW grew the Passat's body four inches to 191.4 inches, and now touts the most rear-seat legroom in the class. As for the interior VW promised it would show "the look of considerably more expensive cars" with a resemblance to the Tiguan's instrument panel.
But the grow-but-get-cheaper transformation on the Jetta hasn't been particularly welcome among its fans. It also goes against the steps every other automaker has been making to not only standardize their models around the world, but add higher-class features for ever-lower prices.
Here for example, is the new interior on the American Passat:
And here's what VW will offer Passat buyers in Europe, where it's still a near-luxury car:
The gentlemen from Wolfsburg didn't spend $1 billion on a new plant in Tennessee just to make a midsize sedan. Volkswagen wants to be the largest automaker in the world by 2018, and doing so requires it to nearly triple its U.S. sales from 360,000 last year to 1 million, 800,000 of which would need to be VW models — making VW as big here as Nissan is today.
In America, "frankly we lost our way," said Jonathan Browning, VW's U.S. chief. "We became a marginal player here in one of the world's most important markets. That's no longer acceptable."
He then handed the stage over to the band Train, whose lead singer Pat Monahan thanked the company: "Many of us were conceived in a VW bus, so thanks for life."
For all of the history VW made in the United States with the Beetle and other iconic vehicles, it has a history of expecting Americans to follow the commands from Germany and getting upset when they don't obey. It didn't work with the Phaeton; it hasn't worked with putting VW badges on a Chrysler minivan rather than reviving its own Microbus. Like Train, VW wants the biggest audience possible for its work. The trick is getting people to tune in rather than tune out.