"Welcome to New Stanton," the sign cheerfully announces, but reality speaks a different language. Although the main drag is lined with many of the same franchises that were around in better days, prosperity has long since checked out and moved on to greener pastures. In the late 1970s, however, New Stanton, Pennsylvania, was a model of economic growth. A harbinger of the carefree life was Volkswagen of America, which had set up the nearby Westmoreland Assembly Plant to build the Rabbit, Golf, GTI, Jetta, and, briefly, the Rabbit pickup. Employing in its heyday some 5700 workers, VW's first foray into the automotive holy land ended ignominiously only ten years after it began. The crisis that caused the closure was due to a mix of ill-advised product planning, persistent labor problems, and a swing in buyer preference toward Japanese brands. Two years after VW moved out of the facility, Sony took over and began manufacturing TV sets until Westmoreland was mothballed in 2010.
Flanked by a once active but now slowly disintegrating rail network, the access road to the old Rabbit hutch turns out to be a modern two-lane highway that suddenly ends in no man's land, washing the occasional visitor ashore with a flashing final stoplight and a dozen No Entry, No Trespassing, and No Parking admonitions. In the middle of what used to be the vast loading and unloading area sits a Mark 1 Rabbit in Dakota beige with tan cloth seats. Featuring round, Euro-style headlamps; Armco-like U.S. bumpers; XXL side markers; a no-frills, single-instrument dashboard; and the base engine and four-speed manual transmission, the old Golf a la Americaine is not a particularly fetching sight. Totally devoid of any modern conveniences, this superbasic transportation device nonetheless was the class of the subcompact field when it debuted in 1975. Over the years, however, Volkswagen of America tried to make the Rabbit more like an American car, with monochrome interiors (worst was powder blue) and softer suspension tuning that alienated the faithful. VW attempted to add value and glitz with the Mark 2 that hit the U.S. market in 1985, but rectangular lights, chrome hubcaps, and velour seats were not enough to convince a clientele who valued the brand for icons like the Beetle and the Microbus.
As we accelerated away from memory lane and headed for Route 119, the boxy car that fell from grace faded away in the rearview mirror of the 2012 Passat that we were driving. Built in Chattanooga, Tennessee, this longer, wider, and roomier Passat has replaced the European Passat in the U.S. market and so far comes only as a four-door sedan. Although there are predictions that a wagon version will be available, a second body style has not yet been approved. The three-box, family-size Passat competes against the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu, and Hyundai Sonata, to name only its most prominent rivals. What makes the Passat stand out in this crowd is the combination of a frugal turbo-diesel engine with 236 lb-ft of low-end torque and a highly efficient six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. When fitted with the 140-hp oil burner and a manual gearbox, the five-seater clad in generic VW livery can average 43 mpg and allow a highway driving range of nearly 800 miles. The silver chariot manages to launch itself from 0 to 60 mph in 9.0 seconds. The top speed is 118 mph, but you need to go to Germany to relish it. On U.S. freeways, vrooming along at 2000 rpm in the 60-to-80-mph range is so effortless that one keeps wondering whether the Passat might be attached to the horizon by an invisible elastic cord.
Known internally as the New Midsize Sedan (NMS), this middle-class VW for middle-class America is not as middle-class -- in appeal or performance -- as the acronym suggests. Take, for instance, its stance and appearance. It is better proportioned and more modern than the Jetta, the European Passat, and the Phaeton. Check out the interior, which offers best-in-class rear legroom and superb ergonomics complete with available touch-screen navigation and a paddleshift transmission. The Tennessee-born Passat not only offers an easy-to-use and well-equipped driving environment, it also has a tastefully appointed cabin, is well made, and features decent-quality materials. No matter what you may have heard about decontenting, the wood doesn't come out of a tube and the leather has not been sealed with three layers of synthetic protection. What it lacks compared with its old-world sibling are such added conveniences as rear-seat air vents, a special remote-control trunk lid with integrated backup camera, and useful options such as xenon headlamps, all-wheel drive, and a bunch of driver assistance systems that are currently still vetoed by the product-liability squad. What that means is that American consumers save between $7000 and $10,000 on a more spacious car that is by no means $7000 to $10,000 less desirable than its predecessor.
With typical German efficiency, our friendly PR man and tour guide from Wolfsburg had booked a hotel room for the evening in Charleston, West Virginia. The day had begun twenty-four hours earlier at the Munich airport, but despite our fatigue, we decided to take the scenic route until the sun started changing color from molten magnesium to ruby red. We traveled over rolling green hills, along the bottom of sparsely populated valleys, and through lush farmland segmented by miles and miles of white wooden fences. Initial driving impressions were largely, but not unanimously, positive. For example, the ride on the extra-cost eighteen-inch tires is not as cushy and composed as on lesser footwear, but there is a positive trade-off in terms of grip, traction, and roadholding. The electrically assisted power steering feels light and lively, but it can't quite match the depth of response and the progressive action of a good hydraulically operated device. The brakes are strong and attentive, but their response is snappy, and the car nosedives when you drop the anchors. Throttle tip-in is also a little too prompt, but it does enhance the strong on-ramp performance of the torquey TDI engine. On a less critical level, we noticed a fair amount of wind noise, some suspension thump over transverse irritations, and doors that didn't shut with the same rich, suction-cup sound we know from other VWs.