Let’s start with the good news: It’s still possible to purchase a German-made Volkswagen sedan with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine and a manual transmission. Your humble author did just that back in February of 1998, taking delivery of a 1998 Passat 1.8t and thoroughly enjoying the sleek sedan while it was in my possession. The current Passat is aimed at a different market, and quite successfully so; it’s the “CC” four-door koo-pay that is meant to carry the torch for all the old B5 Passat fans.
Which makes sense, because this is fundamentally an old Passat. An eight-year-old Passat. And that, as you might expect, is a bit of a problem.
The “B6″ Passat that underpins the CC debuted in 2005. In Volkswagen-land, that’s not really a problem; the company is just now discontinuing Brazilian production of the original 1950s-era Transporter van. Compared to that venerable vehicle, the B6 Passat is a spring chicken. Still. Just to give you some context, here’s a 2005 Kia Optima:
and here’s a 2013 Kia Optima:
You get the idea? In fairness, however, the current CC has a different front and rear fascia from the original CC, which debuted in 2008 as a variant of that 2005 Passat. Still, when you consider what’s happened in the market since then… it isn’t just the Optima. The Sonata, the Fusion, the Malibu — quite a bit of chump-to-champ transformation happening while Volkswagen sits still.
Enough of that. Let’s go drive. The loop on which I tested these cars was a 33-mile assemblage of twisting roads running up and down the side of a mountain-ish hill in Napa, CA. The CC impresses at first glance: the proportions are familiar but they’re still correct and the interior is tasteful yet substantially identical to that of the B6 Passat. It’s not luxurious but it’s not cheap-feeling either. The R-Line’s price of $33,000 and change isn’t undermined too badly here, particularly if you like German minimalism. Just try to stay out of the competition if you want to remain happy with the features on offer.
Yes, that’s a two-tone interior. The seats are familiar to anyone who’s been in the B6 but they’re outstanding in both fit and comfort. Everything’s pretty easy to reach and operate. I hadn’t driven a non-North-American Passat since I had them as service loaners in the last decade but I immediately figured out how everything worked. The head unit was unable to negotiate with my 160GB iPod Classic, however. Luckily the 1/8″ plug works fine.
Visibility isn’t as bad as it is in some of the other coupes-that-aren’t, but the “NMS” (New Midsize Sedan) Chattanooga Passat has it whipped six ways to sundown in that respect. Rear seat room was insufficient for your six-foot-two, thirty-two-inch-inseam editor and the trunk is unlikely to fit a serious guitar amplifier or a mountain bike with just the front wheel off. While the CC casts a larger shadow on the ground than the current Jetta, it feels less spacious inside. Compared to the aforementioned NMS, it isn’t even close.
With two hundred horsepower to pull 3400 pounds and a relatively precise-feeling (by VW and front-wheel-drive standards) six-speed manual transmission, the CC should be acceptably quick, and it is. While it struggled a bit to accelerate on Napa’s steepest grades, the CC is clearly stronger than the four-cylinder Japanese entries in this market. It would take a True Believer, however, to pretend that the V-6 Camry and Accord won’t leave it for dead. While VW has a third-generation 2.0T in the pipeline, this ain’t it, and even an artificially flat turbo torque curve isn’t enough to imbue the CC with any real sense of hurry.
Not that you’d want it to be any faster than it is, because the brakes are flat-out terrible. Soft, deep, and slow to bite, the CC’s stoppers are not even close to being up to par for fast road work. I was the first person to drive this car and I was on the first wave of the press event, so it’s hard to blame abuse or wear for the problem. It materially affected the amount of speed I was able to hold on the long descents because I was never sure how close I was to having the pedal touch the floor followed by having the nose of the CC touch a tree at Michael Hastings engine escape velocity.
Just as well, because if the brakes weren’t fast enough for the engine, the suspension probably wasn’t well-damped enough for the brakes. Of the six cars I drove around this loop, only the CC regularly exhibited what I think of as a “floating extension”, which is when the rebound damping goes on vacation and the body hovers near the long end of the suspension’s stroke while the unloaded tires fiddle around for a very small slice of road grip. Some of the “whoops” on the downhill sections of Howell Mountain Road were sufficient to first pull the shocks all the way out then slam them into the bumpstops. While it was possible to exploit this behavior to get a surprising amount of “loose” motion from the back end around curves, it’s not reassuring and it conspicuously fails to deliver on the promises made by the R-Line’s aggressive exterior.
I had thought that the CC might end up being the surprise winner of this comparison. As noted in the beginning of the review, it’s German-built (the Emden plant that built my ’98 also cranked this one out) and it has a third pedal that the competition has mostly stopped offering. Only the TSX and Buick Regal will let you have a stick-shift in this competitive set. The TSX punishes you for choosing the stick by limiting you to three color choices and base trim. The Buick punishes you for choosing the stick by being a Buick Regal. Guffaw. With that said, don’t think you’re going to see which way the retarded-sabertooth-grille Buick Regal GS went on a fast road from the driver’s seat of a CC — and the driver of the Regal won’t have paid any more for his considerably faster and more competent sedan. It’s tough to be a VW fan nowadays with Buick putting the boots to us like this. Not since the days of the Grand National have Buick sport sedans been faster than Volkswagens. Except for, um, all the years they sold the supercharged 3800 Regal. Okay, I take it back. Buick’s had the legs on the German brand more often than it hasn’t, and that’s just from the Seventies forward.
I’d still take the CC over, say, a Maxima, mostly because I can shift it myself and it looks cool. But against the non-VW competition it falls short. This being an Intramural League, however, we’re really only considering its merits against other Volkswagens. So here goes: Compared to other Volkswagens, the CC looks and feels old, it neither stops nor handles, and it costs more than other VWs that are more desirable and enjoyable. This old, bold soldier is ready for retirement — but what could possibly replace it? There’s nothing in the hopper at Wolfsburg. So if you want that list of qualities referred to above, this one is your winner and you might want to act while you still can. For everybody else: dead last.
Disclosure: Volkswagen flew me on Southwest Airlines to San Francisco and back for this test. Although I rented my own ground transportation and paid for all my own meals, those amenities were available to me courtesy of VW had I wanted or needed them. All expenses associated with operating the test vehicles were covered by Volkswagen, and I was put up for two nights in a very romantic little cottage.