First Drive: Volkswagen Midsize SUV Prototype
A seven-seat glimmer of hope, well overdue
CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee - After years of speculation, announcements, and what felt like a dozen concepts, Volkswagen's midsize SUV is here. Well, almost. As VW's Chattanooga plant prepares to start official series production of the still-nameless three-row seven-seater in the last week of 2016, we popped down to Tennessee for a chance to visit the production line and get behind the wheel of a prototype on some gravel roads and gnarly dirt trails.
It's hard to overstate how important this vehicle is for Volkswagen. One look at VW's stable reveals gaping holes in red-hot small, midsize, and large SUV segments that have long since moved on from the pricey Touareg and dated Tiguan. More than 600,000 square feet have been added to the Chattanooga plant to integrate production with the Passat line, and 700 jobs are on the way by January.
If it's done right, this midsize SUV could be the glimmer of hope VW needs to start chasing legitimate sales volumes that have been healthy breadwinners for Honda, Ford, and Toyota with the Pilot, Explorer, and Highlander. To that end, Volkswagen chief engineering officer and executive vice president for engineering and planning in North America, Matthias Erb, focused on meeting customer demand. "This is definitively an Americanized car," he says. "We took the family-friendly approach very seriously."
Multiple members of Volkswagen's team point out how rare of an opportunity this look behind the curtain was. You can imagine this degree of transparency feels a little new to some at VW, so the prototype we saddle up in is still camouflaged quite a bit. Both the front and rear bumpers are covered in black cladding, and most of the interior (which we were not permitted to photograph) is similarly disguised. We can see the doors, seats, steering wheel, instrument cluster, rear-seat climate controls, storage areas, and that's about it.
During our plant visit, we spotted a unit that had been left uncovered on the factory floor as well as one on the production line. A quick once-over revealed proportions and body lines very similar to the Volkswagen CrossBlue concept shown at the 2013 Detroit auto show, but with chunkier styling and sharper lines to appeal to the Chinese market. We can also look forward to a more interesting color palette than we've seen from VW in the past, including an outrageous gold color resembling that of the Sport Coupe Concept GTE from the 2015 Geneva show.
Like the CrossBlue concept, this midsize SUV is built on VW's tried-and-true MQB platform used for the Golf and its variants. But this thing is big. Really big. Volkswagen isn't revealing exact dimensions, but it says only the Chevrolet Traverse is longer within the segment. Overall it's roughly the same size as the last-generation Audi Q7.
Wisely, the interior has the space to match the SUV's sizable footprint. The back seat is substantial, with excellent head and legroom, but by far the most impressive innovation is the tilting trick engineered for the second row. You can actually tilt the entire second row forward on its axis and then slide it ahead to reveal a generous path to the third row, without ever folding the seat. For parents with car seats, this will relieve your blood pressure. The third row is actually inhabitable by normal-sized adults, owing to the SUV's usable headroom all throughout the interior. Overall, Volkswagen says its interior dimensions are among the largest in class. As VW spokesperson Mark Gillies notes, "We're a small-car company, so packaging is something we do well."
What Volkswagen has also done well is make the midsize SUV feel open and airy. An enormous panoramic sunroof will be offered, which definitely helps, but from the driver's perspective, it's all about visibility. The beltline isn't too high, revealing plenty of side glass and the A-pillars are thin and swept back out of the way to allow for clear sightlines all around. Bravo, VW. It's not easy to make a big car feel this manageable.
Although it's camouflaged, we could tell the prototype we're in is an SEL Premium model. The giveaways are the comfy and supportive leather seats, inlaid wood trim on the doors, Fender audio system, second-row heated seats and dual USB access, and buttons for parking distance control and automatic parking. The infotainment system is an evolution of the MIB II unit we know from the Passat, which can be had with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto as well as VW App-Connect. Like the Passat, expect the midsize SUV to be offered with lane-keep assist, blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, and automatic emergency braking.
The interior was still fitted with pre-production parts. It felt like it was assembled well, though the design is a bit uninspired. This restrained styling shouldn't be a problem compared to the Pilot and the Highlander, but for real premium or luxury feel, the Mazda CX-9 won't have to watch its back.
The prototype we snake along dirt trails and gravel paths features a 3.6-liter V-6 engine mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive (front-wheel drive will also be offered). For those more fuel-conscious and less likely to tow, VW will also offer a 2.0-liter turbo-four with exclusively front-wheel drive. The V-6 is the same mill used in the top-trim Passat (also built in Chattanooga), and it's not likely to get much massaging beyond the 280 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque it currently produces. Those figures are competitive with the Explorer, Pilot, and Highlander, none of which sell relatively significant volume with four-cylinder engines (the Pilot doesn't even offer one). VW's 2.0-liter turbo-four, the TSI engine used in the GTI, makes the same 258 lb-ft of torque as the V-6 although power may grow slightly compared to the 220 hp seen in the hot hatch.
Our biggest takeaway from our off-road romp is how quiet and refined Volkswagen's midsize SUV feels. Over nasty bumps and uneven sections the structure feels stiff and composed at all times, and the cabin remains particularly placid save for the faint purr of the V-6 up front. The crunch of gravel roads barely reaches our ears, although to be fair we didn't have the chance to spirit away the prototype to the highway to get a sense for how well it isolates wind and road noise at speed. The SUV stays flat and controlled at all times thanks to its relatively firm suspension, but impacts are impressively damped to rarely punish passengers.
Throttle response proves excellent and very precise, although the same cannot be said for the steering, which is alarmingly light and distant-feeling. Apparently CEO Matthias Muller previously decreed the steering too quick and heavy and engineers scrambled back to the drawing board in response. They overcorrected, but VW assures us that steering, suspension, and braking are all still being calibrated.
Perhaps intentionally, the Volkswagen midsize SUV drives much like a bigger, heavier Golf. That's not a bad thing at all, especially when you consider that this new SUV is meant to fill a key gap in the showroom. Familiar driving dynamics and interior touchpoints could be the hook VW needs to keep growing families from jumping ship to another brand.
A name has apparently been chosen, and we'll learn what it is when the vehicle is officially revealed in late September. Deliveries are scheduled begin in the second quarter of 2017.
Volkswagen still has a long way to go before the storm clouds are in the rear view, but for the first time in recent memory, it's entering a booming segment with a well-considered product to match. The recovery will probably be slow and steady—former dreams of 800,000 global units are now buried in the wishes of yesteryear—but Volkswagen might just be able to spur itself on if it can deliver this midsize SUV on the mark.