“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.
Day two started with a detour on the back roads of Kentucky, where the Passat proved that arrow-straight directional stability is not its only dynamic forte. It may take a while to adjust your inputs to the light effort and prompt action of the car’s controls, but once you’ve accustomed yourself to the proper driving style, the reward is a neat handling balance, a pleasant fluidity of motion, and enough feedback to enjoy the drive. At no time did this Passat feel like a cheap car — which is just as well, because it isn’t. Priced at $28,665 with the dual-clutch automatic but without add-ons, the Passat TDI is not inexpensive. But when you consider the exceptional fuel economy (in heavily policed terrain, the test car returned an impressive 40 mpg), the comprehensive warranty, and the three years of free maintenance, it is pretty reasonable. The latest U.S.-built VW is a lot more grown-up and complete than the first U.S.-built VW, the rudimentary Rabbit that was handicapped by skinny thirteen-inch wheels, low-grade materials, and the bargain-basement aesthetic that was pervasive in economy cars of the era. On the plus side, Volkswagen advertised that the car returned up to 56 mpg on the highway in knock-out-your-ears diesel form, and it was even available as an extended-wheelbase trucklet for farmers with miniature cattle and accordingly slim budgets. Although the Rabbit never aspired to be more than a bargain-basement Beetle replacement, the new Passat qualifies as a downsized, low-cost Phaeton.
After some 1.1 million U.S.-hatched Volkswagens, the final curtain fell in 1988, when the company drifted into a sales and identity crisis that not even the New Beetle with its cute dashboard vase could terminate. Twenty-three years later, the Germans are back with a new assembly plant in what not long ago was the world’s biggest new-car market. Having received $100 million in government aid for the $350 million Westmoreland project, VW can this time count on an estimated $575 million contribution to its $1 billion Chattanooga enterprise. Only six months after the Pennsylvania plant opened, workers went on strike in an eventually successful bid to reportedly increase pay from $7 to $12 an hour. The wage scale in the not-yet-unionized Tennessee factory ranges from $14.50 to $19.50 per hour. On top of that, there is health care, available low-cost car leases, a pension plan, and various bonus programs. Thanks to a much higher degree of automation, more modern assembly processes, and a growing number of parts from Mexico (five-cylinder engines), Poland (TDI), and Germany (V-6), the brand-new greenfield site needs barely 2000 workers to build 150,000 vehicles per year in two shifts. And that is only the beginning.
Westmoreland — which was originally built as a Chrysler plant — and its habitat are as different from the gleaming Chattanooga monument as the proud-to-be-basic 1970s Rabbit is from the slick new Passat. New Stanton was Boomtown America for exactly one decade, an unassuming point on the map of Pennsylvania that grew and shrank in a single ill-fated cycle. In contrast, the Tennessee facility is embedded in a more robust social and demographic environment. What unites the two locations is Volkswagen’s quest to build a car that is 100 percent right for North America. The Rabbit was, in essence, the right answer to the first energy crisis, but it didn’t take long before fuel again became less expensive and more plentiful and buyers began opting for bigger and more comfortable cars. And that is exactly what they are getting from Chattanooga, where the $20,695 Passat is rolling off the line at nearly full steam. “Everything is on track to reach the targeted 460 units per day by the end of 2011,” says Andreas Linke, head of quality assurance at the Tennessee plant.
The new volkswagen drive is again a proud two-lane highway laid out like its almost forgotten counterpart some 600 miles to the northeast. In grand sweeps, it leads to and circles a complex that is so big you can glimpse it in its entirety only from an elevated vantage point. But whereas the old factory was a compromised layout inherited from another carmaker, the new home is state-of-the-art. The acreage is clearly sufficient to double or even triple capacity. “Today, we can produce 150,000 cars a year,” Linke states. “Adding a third shift and streamlining operations would increase the output to 250,000 units. Midterm, it would only take a moderate investment to erect a duplicate plant and double production to half a million vehicles.” VW doesn’t say what other models it might build in North America, but in addition to the aforementioned Passat wagon, the Wolfsburg grapevine has repeatedly suggested a seven-seat crossover based on the Passat’s component set. Eventually, VW will probably also bring in the more advanced and more flexible MQB architecture pioneered by the next-generation Golf. Although local content is soon expected to reach 85 percent, it is worth mentioning that all stampings are currently sourced from outside suppliers. To keep complexity at a minimum, assembly is based on simple “one touch, one motion” steps. “It sounds extremely basic,” the director admits with a smile, “but so far, this approach has yielded a strong rating on the internal quality scale — which means that our model is on par with the Passat made in Germany.”
In Westmoreland, employee relations were strained and the product suffered in the wake of frantic cosmetic changes, compromised assembly methods, and recurrent labor unrest. The Rabbit was neither a Golf nor a substitute for the Beetle. It was a stopgap model that was designed to take on tough times and tough competitors, but it faltered because the company forgot to include traditional brand values like durability, longevity, street cred, and Fahrvergnuegen. The new Passat has all that and more. Although it is sufficiently German in design, character, and execution to please American tastes, it is sized right and priced right to suit American needs. Add to this a significant fuel economy advantage, and you have a formula that is likely to work much better in 2012 than it did in 1978. The one thing the new Passat needs is more emotion. It is definitely neither a soul-stirring handling champ nor a king of the fast lane nor a
g-force conquistador. But being able to let 750 miles elapse between pit stops does have a certain charm of its own in these difficult times, and in terms of value for money, square inches per pound of steel, and equipment for dollar, the new mid-size sedan from the Volunteer State has probably got all it takes to become America’s next favorite Volkswagen.
2012 Volkswagen Passat TDI
BASE PRICE: $28,665
ENGINE: 16-valve DOHC turbo-diesel I-4
DISPLACEMENT: 2.0 liters (120 cu in)
HORSEPOWER: 140 hp @ 4000 rpm
TORQUE: 236 lb-ft @ 1750 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed dual-clutch automatic
L x W x H: 191.6 x 72.2 x 58.5 in
WHEELBASE: 110.4 in
TRACK F/R: 62.1/61.0 in
WEIGHT: 3459 lb
EPA MILEAGE: 30/40 mpg