Volkswagen's new billion-dollar factory on the outskirts of Chattanooga is ramping up to pump out 150,000 of its new mid-size 2012 Passat sedans a year, and with a few tweaks could up that to 250,000.
But then, says the facility's top guy Frank Fischer, "we could flip the plant," create a mirror image and expand capacity to 500,000 units of various models its flexible manufacturing approach would allow it to build.
That VW has considered this in planning its first North American manufacturing operation since its pioneering but short-lived Westmorland "trans-plant" operation of the 1970s, indicates it's taking very seriously its goal of selling 800,000-plus units a year in North America by 2018.
And a major factor in making that target a possibility will be the reception of the latest-generation Passat, designed exclusively for North American (and okay Chinese, where it will also be sold) tastes. When it arrives early this fall, it will tuck into the slipstream of the fast-selling new Jetta, both vehicles designed, and dramatically repositioned in the market, to make VW a much more serious threat to Japanese, South Korean and American rivals.
The new price positioning has certainly worked for the Jetta in Canada with sales currently running 180 per cent ahead of last year, helping to boost overall VW sales 19 per cent so far this year.
And pricing the new Passat $3,800 less than in 2010 and $7,000 less than in 2008 should help give it a shot at hitting VW Canada president John White's goal of 8,000 units, or more than double the 3,600 sold last year. Only the Passat CC was offered as a 2011 model, and it will continue in the line-up.
The 2012 Passat will be sold only in sedan form with three engine choices: a gas 2.5-litre five-cylinder and 3.6-litre V-6 and diesel-fuelled 2.0-litre TDI. The base manual transmission 2.5 Trendline will be priced at $23,975 and the step-up Trendline+ $24,875, with the Comfortline going for $27,975 and the Highline $31,475. The 3.6 FSI starts at $33,575 and the TDI at $27,475.
A 2.5-litre-engined automatic and a TDI with DSG automatic gearbox were sampled last week in Tennessee.
While up-sizing to appeal to mainstream American car buyers was seen as key, maintaining VW styling DNA was also deemed important and the 2012 Passat shares its front-end look with the new Touareg and the Phaeton. It presents a "big car" face, according to its chief stylist, combined with a more stretched out overall look to give it more physical presence. Which it definitely has, but accentuated by crisp folds in the bodywork that also lend it an edgy and athletic look. It's more aerodynamic and, despite its size, it's a bit lighter, too.
This more-full-than-mid-size Passat - a case of go big or stay home in Europe - is built on a new platform and is 104 mm longer than its predecessor and also boasts a 91-mm increase in wheelbase, which helps create a very spacious and comfortable rear seat area, for two anyway as there's a big centre hump to straddle. Interior volume just about matches the Chrysler 300, and trunk volume is 430 litres.
Up front, the dash treatment is a visually pleasing and is a simple horizontal layout with paired large round instrument dials under a curved hood, a row of four vents and below them a T-shape created by a cockpit-wide strip of faux wood or brushed aluminum that also frames the centre stack with its easy to figure out controls.
Bluetooth, trip computer, steering-wheel controls and an automatic climate control system are on a long list of standard equipment. And there's an audio upgrade available to a system created jointly by Panasonic and iconic guitar and amp maker Fender, which sounds pretty neat.
The cabin is open and airy, quiet at highway speeds, front seats are wide and comfy but also provide some lateral support, surfaces are covered in soft-touch material and the steering wheel and shift knob in leather. All very pleasant.
The familiar 2.5-litre, five-cylinder engine still produces 170 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque and with the six-speed automatic delivers adequate performance, but typically feels a little lethargic and a little less than enthusiastic. Fuel economy ratings are competitive at 10.1 litres/100 km city and 6.1 highway.
The 2.0-litre TDI motor makes 140 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque and with the DSG transmission makes the car a much more pleasant proposition with plenty of punch available whenever required. Its fuel economy ratings aren't yet available, but it recorded a rather amazing 4.5 litres/100 km while averaging about 70 mph (112 km/h).
Setting up the suspension for North American drivers must have been an interesting exercise but the compromise reached is a good one, with more than enough firmness and control built in (along with decent steering feel) to make the car surprisingly responsive, yet produce a high level of comfort.
Stylish, roomy and nicely done inside, with three engine choices to suit varied performance requirements - and competitively priced - the Passat will likely make it on to a lot more new mid-size buyers' shopping lists.
2012 Volkswagen Passat 2.5
Type: Mid-size sedan
Base price: $23,975; as tested, $29,375
Engine: 2.5-litre, DOHC, inline-five
Horsepower/torque: 170 hp/177 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.1 city/6.1 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Ford Fusion, Nissan Altima, Hyundai Sonata, Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Buick Regal