After a mere six decades of testing the waters, Volkswagen decided to get serious about the American car market. For the second time. To avoid a repeat of the Westmoreland debacle, this time they’ve designed a pair of sedans specifically for American tastes. They’re also building the larger of the two, intended to lure Americans away from their Camcords, in an entirely new, non-unionized American plant. And so, with the new 2012 Volkwagen Passat, tested here in V6 SE form (earlier, briefer drives sampled the other two engines), we learn what Americans really want—as seen through a German company’s eyes.
The difference between “bold” and “foolhardy” is not always apparent at first glance. While I was driving the GLI around Volkswagen’s Virginia test loop (insert standard narrative devices here: 11/10ths, drive like the wind, straining the limits of machine and man, et cetera) I saw a tall, lithe young woman by the side of the road. She was holding a dog and chatting with a rather fearsome-looking fellow in an old Toyota truck. Without thinking too much, I whipped the Jetta around at the next driveway and returned to the couple. Flashing my hotel room card very quickly and identifying myself as “Jonny Lieberman of Motor Trend magazine”, I convinced the girl to pose with the Jetta. This was intended to be a sort of homage to AutoSpies founder Donald Buffamanti’s habit of photographing all available women, and it was particularly amusing given the very rural circumstances.
At the time, however, there was a very real chance that the fellow in the Toyota would simply step out and maul me like a crazed bear working its way through a deer carcass. I never found out what his relationship to the young woman was — husband? father? cello teacher? dog trainer? — but he didn’t care for me one bit. In retrospect, that little impromptu photo shoot was less “bold” and more “foolhardy”.
The same fine line applies to “forthright” and “contrarian”. After driving the Beetle Turbo, Golf R, and Golf GTI, I steered two examples of Volkswagen’s new Jetta GLI down the same route. Why two Jettas, when I’d driven one each of the other cars? Two reasons: I wanted to try the DSG and the six-speed manual back-to-back, and I wanted to be sure. My drive of the DSG-equipped Jetta GLI suggested to me that it was a better, more enjoyable car than the GTI, but I knew that this “forthright” opinion would come off as “contrarian” to many of TTAC’s readers. After driving the standard-shift GLI, I was sure.
Will you, the reader, be as easily convinced as I was?
Everybody agrees that the Volkswagen GTI is a great car. Except for the US-market MkI, which was underpowered. And the Mk2, which was really underpowered. Don’t the forget the Mk2 16V, which was wayyy overpriced and over-complicated. And the MkIII, which had no business calling itself a GTI, not with that chunky VR6 under the hood and the super-soft factory suspension. The Mk4? I heard it was a bit of a wallowing pig, and everything fell off it. That Mk5 seemed to be a hell of a car, except it was down on power compared to everything else in the segment and it had a large magnet in the front bumper which inexorably dragged it to the nearest VW service department.
If I understand the conventional wisdom, the only GTI which everyone seems to like is the original round-light German-market MkI GTI. And since almost nobody in North America has driven one, it’s possible they are just fooling themselves.
When exactly was the GTI great, anyway?
Anybody here ever go to Catholic school? I sure as hell did. About six of them over the course of seven years. I learned really quickly how to distinguish the nuns who scolded from the nuns who slapped, paddled, or punched. (Sister Andrea! What’s up?) I also learned that kids rarely attend Catholic school alone. They have brothers. Sometimes they have big brothers. I remember one family — the Szolozsis — who had nine sons. Nine sons. If I’d been Papa Szolozsi, I’d have bought a lottery ticket. Anyway, I went to school with the third-youngest. Anybody who beat that kid up had to face the bigger brothers one a time until he either took a beating or whipped ‘em all. Alternately, he could get his bigger brothers involved. Happened all the time, this escalation of big brothers. High school sophomores would knock each other unconscious over fights that had started a week before in second grade, while the two second-graders, who were now best friends forever once more, would dispassionately observe the proceedings.
Since the WRX arrived in American parking lots, ditches, and tirewalls a decade ago, followed by its bigger brother STi and the brother’s rival Lancer Evolution, fans of Volkswagen’s GTI have been put in the position of a the wimpy grade-school kid hoping his European bigger brother would arrive to set things straight. The original R32 turned out to be the kind of reasonable, cultured sibling who would rather talk things out than fight. “Look, I have this wonderful leather interior. Do we have to settle this on the dragstrip?” The second-generation R32 was kind of like having a big brother from the special-needs classes; all the mean kids pointed and laughed whenever he showed up.
Welcome the newest big brother. No more messing around with six-cylinder refinement and nose-heavy dynamics. The new Golf R packs a spec sheet straight out of Japan: cranked-up two-liter turbo, six-speed manual, all-wheel drive. Tell the STi we’ll meet him next to the incinerator at lunch…
On Wednesday, your humble author had the opportunity to drive several of the newest Volkswagens on an identical 14-mile loop around rural Virginia. By adding a few unauthorized extensions to this loop, I was able to walk away from the day with a reasonable understanding of a few different VW models. Naturally, the four most interesting cars were the turbocharged compacts:
- 2012 Beetle Turbo
- 2012 Jetta GLI (tested in both DSG and manual form)
- 2012 Golf GTI
- Golf R (tested in Euro-market six-speed form)
None of these cars can be said to compete directly against each other, but I’ve decided to create an impromptu comparison test between the four. The ranking is solely my opinion and is not the result of collaboration, voting, free long-term
bribes testers or an utterly inexcusable blurring of the already thin line between editorial and paid content Special Advertising Section placement.
The podium positions will be revealed on Monday through Wednesday, but there’s a loser in every group, and today we are meeting that loser: the charming but ultimately outclassed 2012 Beetle Turbo.
“I mean, this car is dead, right? The only people who bought the last one were fifty-year old Sally Schoolteachers, and they’re all sixty years old now. There’s no volume in this car. Can’t be any volume. The buyers are almost dead. And it isn’t fun to drive AT ALL. What would you rather have, this or a MINI?” The fellow shooting the rapid-fire queries at me from the passenger seat as I drove a five-cylinder 2012 Beetle through Northern Virginia was one of those authentic American types: the Straight-Shooting Self-Styled Marketing Expert. I encounter a lot of S-S,S-SME’s on press trips, and most of them are also Self-Deluded Fools. Not this guy. He was smart, he was articulate, and I didn’t have any easy answers to his questions.
The 2012 Beetle is (much) wider and (fractionally) lower. The new styling is intended to appeal to male buyers as well as the aforementioned Sally Schoolteacher. Dynamically and functionally, it’s a massive step past its predecessor. If you liked the old New Beetle, you’ll probably really like this one. The question still remains, however: who’s going to buy one? And why?
Last Monday’s review of the new 2012 Volkswagen Passat 2.5 SE found the large, value-priced German sedan to be roomy but unpolished. Today: the TDI in SEL Premium trim. In this form the “from $19,995*” new Passat gets a bit far from the segment’s mid-twenties sweet spot, with a list price of $32,965. But perhaps the turbodiesel engine and top-of-the-line interior transform the car?
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Volkswagen intends to become the world’s largest auto maker. Selling far more cars in the United States would accomplish this goal. Euro-spec cars haven’t been doing the trick, as too few Americans have been willing to pay the resulting semi-premium prices. So VW engineered a new Jetta compact sedan and a new Passat midsize sedan specifically for American tastes and budgets. Confident of the latter’s success, they’ve even constructed an all-new factory in Chattanooga, TN, to assemble it. Should the UAW’s latest targets expect to be working overtime? Today’s review evaluates the 2.5-liter five-cylinder gas Passat in SE trim, while Wednesday’s will compare the 2.0-liter turbodiesel in SEL Premium trim.
As I noted in an earlier piece on the macro-level issues with EVs, it’s dangerously misleading to assume that electric cars can simply replace internal combustion-engine vehicles without a basic re-think of nearly every way in which we relate to our cars. That’s true in terms of consumer-end issues like refueling grid impacts and “range anxiety” but it’s also true in terms of manufacturer-end issues like development and differentiation. It’s even true for the auto media.
One of the giant re-thinks spawned by EV development is in how manufacturers make their vehicles reflect their brand values and stand out in the marketplace, as the electric motor in (say) a Ferrari EV wouldn’t be as fundamentally different as an electric motor in (say) a Kia. This, in turn, makes reviewing EVs extremely difficult, as they all display similar power attributes, weight challenges, single-speed transmissions and battery ranges. So when you are asked to drive a pre-production EV from a major manufacturer, the major question in the mind of the conscientious reporter is the same as the question that drove the vehicle’s development: how is this vehicle different than any other EV? In the case of the Golf blue-e-motion, the answer to that question reflects the challenges of developing a major-market electric vehicle.
The Touareg TDI is not your father’s Oldsmobile. I know, because I unfortunately drove my father’s 85HP, 1983 Cutlass Cierra diesel when I was a kid. Since my dad was a glutton for punishment, this was not his first unreliable GM diesel; we also had a 1979 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser with the infamous diesel V8. After about 30,000 miles, both our diesels smoked like a 60 year old hooker. Since potential clean diesel shoppers seem to fall into the 30-60 year old demographic, this is still the image that diesel brings to mind for many, not the reliable but low-volume European diesels from the 70s and 80s. If sales numbers are any indication however, BMW Mercedes and VW have been changing the tide of public opinion.
General Motors, Hyundai, and Volkswagen are all hungry for a much bigger slice of the North American compact sedan pie. Their past offerings didn’t do the trick. So all three recently introduced cars much different than their predecessors. Having reviewed the Cruze a few months ago, and the Elantra last week, I was eager to see how the new Jetta, VW’s attempt to give North Americans what we seem to really want, stacks up.
As a longtime champion of clean-diesel technology in the American market, Volkswagen’s decision to launch its all-new Touareg with a hybrid version comes as something of a surprise. Not only does VW have a stable of proven, efficient oil-burners to choose from, but the firm has, until very recently, savored its role as a skeptic of EV and hybrid drivetrains. And with the GM/Chrysler/BMW/Mercedes Two-Mode hybrid system conclusively failing to build a market for large gas-electric Utes, it seemed that the era of mass-market hybrid SUVs was at an end anyway. So, does VW’s excursion from its comfort zone make more sense on (or off) the road than on paper?
We’ve seen the writing on the wall for a while: VW is dead set on finally making a profit in North America. In order be profitable, VW has to cut the manufacturing cost of its vehicles. As the Phaeton’s fate showed, America just isn’t ready for a VW that comes with sticker shock as a standard accessory. With the new “economized” 2011 Jetta in the wings, VW tossed us the keys to a 2010 Jetta TDI Cup Street Edition for a week as a farewell to the A5. Read More >
Quite of few of you have asked me to do a history of VW do Brasil’s most sold car ever: the Gol. No mean feat, considering the runner-up is probably still the Beetle. I’m currently working on a history of the car (that I hope will be up soon), but as an appetizer, let’s check out VeeDub’s latest Brazilian offering. If you happen to like it, it’s an intriguing piece of work. If you don’t, you’ll probably think it’s just confused. Read More >
In spite of its name and the fact that it’s the one of the largest automakers in the world, Americans tend to see Volkswagen as something of a niche manufacturer. Certainly Volkswagen’s reputation in this country is for making cars that conform to our ideas of “European-ness.” Unfortunately for Volkswagen, relatively few Americans want to spend extra for the taut suspension, high-quality interior and refined ambiance of a European car. So, with the 2011 Jetta, Volkswagen decided to give America what it was asking for: more car for less. Sounds hard to resist, right?