Volkswagen has new neighbors at its new manufacturing facility in Chattanooga, Tennessee. And in the usual Southern style, it's gently calling out the flaws it sees in the Alabama-built Hyundai Sonata and the Georgia-made Kia Optima, leaving out only the usual "bless their hearts" punctuation, while it crows about its own 2012 Passat.
At the global press launch of the Passat earlier this year, VW execs professed admiration for the sales numbers the Sonata and Optima have racked up, grabbing share from the likes of the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord as they amassed best-of awards in the 2011 model year. But before they put CAD to CAM in designing the new Passat sedan--making it bigger, less complex to manufacture, and more accessible in price--VW says they studied the competition in depth, and saw an opportunity.
They "didn't like the ride or steering or design" of the competition, says Serban Boldea, the Passat's product manager, and didn't want a car that "after three years, looks old."What they've settled on as the hallmark of the new 2012 Passat, no surprise, is its "German-engineered" heritage. To that end, the powertrains pair up DSG with turbodiesels, and breathe one more life into the hoary five-cylinder. The hardware's not exotic by any means, but goes point to point with other family sedans on the spec sheet. And while there are no lithium-ion hybrids or other exotica in the works, the TDI's 43-mpg highway mileage and its 795-mile cruising capacity makes it "an outstanding alternative to hybrids," Boldea points out.
Like the Jetta before it, the Passat is being repositioned slightly downmarket from the upscale (read: expensive) marketing niche occupied by the outgoing car. The first vehicle built in the U.S. since it shut down Rabbit production in Pennsylvania in 1985, the new Passat forgoes some sophisticated frills like a five-link rear suspension, for features VW thinks Americans put in higher esteem. For one, it gets a huge new rear seat "sized for America, not just built for somewhere else," Boldea says.
It's all part of VW's mandate to sell 800,000 vehicles a year through its core brands in North America by 2018. To execute its piece of that mission profitably, the Passat's production base in Chattanooga comes standard with labor pay rates far below those of German factories, or even those of some American plants. Build complexity has been simplified, so only 16 Passat variations are possible, giving VW a tight rein over cost. A product-sharing arrangement with VW's Chinese arm means higher volume for the new sedan, kicking the profitability curve higher, sooner.
The grand vision means more Passat-based vehicles, too. By the time an updated sedan is ready for sale in 2016, it's to be joined by a second Chattanooga-built vehicle. A seven-passenger crossover seems like the most likely product, while a true Microbus replacement has vexed VW for most of the past decade. Whatever the final form, that new vehicle and the next Passat, will both be part of a mid-size vehicle family that truly will be global--built from component kits and modules shared around the automaker's empire.
The 2012 Passat goes on sale in October, with final pricing still to come but hinted strongly at about $20,000 base. Will the Passat be German enough, or is it too much, too late? Find out now in TheCarConnection's full review of the 2012 Volkswagen Passat.