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Volkswagen Passat (2011): the American one

Mon, 10 Jan 2011

Volkswagen has unveiled the US version of the Passat at the 2011 Detroit auto show. VW’s European customers won’t be able to buy it, but will be interested in the price: despite being longer and wider than the car offered in Europe it will start from just £13,000 before taxes for a 168bhp five-cylinder petrol. The nearest petrol Passat costs £19,529 in the UK.

The US Passat will be built at a new factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and will be the first Volkswagen to be built in the United States since 1988. It is the first major step in VW’s campaign to turn around its disappointing performance in the world’s second-largest car market.

CEO Dr Martin Winterkorn wants Volkswagen to overtake Toyota as the world’s largest car maker by 2018, and has tasked Volkswagen Group of America with trebling its sales to one million by then. It is making a total investment of $4 billion in the US market, including $1bn for the new factory.

In 2010, VW sold 256,830 cars in the US and Audi 101,629. By 2018 VW is planning to sell 800,000 cars and Audi 200,000. Volkswagen’s best year in the US was 1968, when it sold over 600,000 cars, almost all Beetles.

That's some turnaround.

The man responsible is British. Jonathan Browning is the chairman and CEO of VW America and is a former MD of Jaguar and chairman of Vauxhall. He faces a tough task. Although the decimated US car market is recovering, Volkswagen has been hit by a series of poor results in the influential JD Power Initial Quality Survey, and exchange rates make European-made Volkswagens expensive.

The new plant allows VW to source 90% of the US Passat’s parts in dollars, many from existing low-cost suppliers in Mexico, and worker’s salaries will start from $15 per hour. The plant is likely to build around 140,000 US Passats in a full year, but could be expanded to build 500,000 cars each year and at least three models.

A new mid-size SUV with three rows of seats is likely to be the next model to be built at the Chattanooga.

The US Passat will come with three engine options at first; the 168bhp 2.5-litre five-cylinder and a 276bhp 3.6-litre V6 petrols, and a 138bhp TDI clean diesel.

Six-speed manual, auto and DSG gearboxes will be offered. It is 99mm longer, mostly in the wheelbase, and 13mm wider than the European Passat. The styling is based on the European car but every panel is different and the front end has been made more aggressive.

Browning wouldn’t rule out bringing smaller Volkswagens to the US, including the Polo, but not the smaller Up. Fiat has started selling the 500 in the US, and Ford now offers the Fiesta.

'It depends on how gas prices and fuel economy regulations play out,' he told us. 'But the ability to leverage our global portfolio is a great asset.'

By Ben Oliver