Deja vu, right? After all, it seems like only yesterday that crankandpiston was jetting off to the USA for an international car launch. Whilst ‘knackering’ was the most appropriate term for that particular journey to South Carolina, what really stole our hearts on that occasion was the slice of old world America that enveloped us upon landing. So when Volkswagen whistled an invite under our door for the launch of their new Passat saloon in the US, it didn’t take too long for our “yep, gimme gimme” to land on their desk.
This time our red, white and blue travels took us to Tennessee, a mere 28-hour journey away from Dubai if you include brief stopovers in Frankfurt and Atlanta and the details of which I’ll spare you. Instead, our journey kicks off outside our hotel in the heart of Chattanooga at a typically optimistic time in the morning.
Having been plied with toast, scrambled eggs and waffles (give it a go!) and made sure our newly acquired Stetsons fit, our media group sets off in convoy to the Volkswagen Chattanooga Assembly Plant, a celebratory group photo already safely ensconced in the photographer’s memory card. This may be a German manufacturer we’re talking about, but all Passats allocated for the Middle East market will actually be constructed in Chattanooga. Without doubt, VW’s latest saloon is very much on home turf in Tennessee.
The Chattanooga VW plant is the only automotive plant in the world to have achieved Platinum certification from the US Green Building Council, and our faithful VW reps waste no time escorting us around the facility, waxing lyrical about this and extolling the virtues of that. The sheer size of the place is enough to make even the most worldly-wise members of our group nod approvingly and offer an impressionable ‘huh’ every now and then. It’s not too difficult to see just how serious VW are about the newest member of their saloon range, and that’s given us something to think about as our convoy sets off for marker point number two.
Just 35 clicks later – give or take an errant left turn here or there, and a quick conversation with a rather bemused local bobby – we’re already putting the Passat through its paces as we hit the twisting stretches of tarmac on Lookout Mountain. At the top is Point Park, a National Military enclosure which dates back to the Confederacy. Aside from the Park’s historical significance, there’s a view that both takes the breath away and weakens the knees of the vertigo-sufferers amongst us.
Since vistas are the order of play at the moment, this seems as good a time as any to check out the Passat’s aesthetics. In an effort to emphasise ‘character’, the saloon’s already bold front end is now more muscular thanks to sharper bonnet contours, sleeker headlights and an enormous front air intake. Certainly there’s character, aided immensely by the 17-inch ‘Songma’ alloys, but one that’s not altogether sitting well with this particular reviewer. The back though is less shouty fortunately, the prominent rear lights the only embellishment to an otherwise elegant layout.
It’s much the same on the inside. The quality of both the instrument panels and leatherette upholstery is very good – the sweeping structure either side of the gearlever is a particularly nice touch – and the balance between space and cocooned seating is pretty much spot on. Just as well, since we still have a good 300km of our test route to go.
Fortunately I’m still behind the wheel as we begin the blast back down the mountain. And since the other members of our convoy have already dashed off to the next checkpoint on our route – Big Daddy’s Fireworks – I can afford to be a trifle more energetic into the corners.
Despite this being a mid-size saloon, weight and body roll do not make their presence felt until the tightest of corners, and even then they are unlikely to throw you from your seat. The steering – boasting plenty of heft on turn-in – is quite playful, and feel for the road is pretty solid.
One of the reasons for this newfound dynamism is the six-speed gearbox, from which the upshifts remain smooth and unhesitant throughout the day, even when changed manually. Good pick up by the engine in the low revs makes both entry and exit speeds surprisingly swift too, even if a bit more grunt further up the range wouldn’t go amiss. Hitting a tight corner at speed will cause the Passat to wash wide, but the brakes – which had proven a bit snatchy on the Chattanooga streets – have come into their own, and with less delicacy required, the Passat has proven surprisingly well-balanced on the back roads.
Even despite this charge, we’re already half an hour behind the rest of our convoy as we power onto the I-24 West towards Nashville, our final destination. The fact that neither my travel companion nor myself realize that we’ve swapped time zones on our jaunt across the Volunteer State helps much, and as we tour past almost certainly the largest fireworks ‘outlet’ I’m ever likely to see in my life, we’ve got some serious catching up to do.
It quickly becomes clear as I plant the right foot and head for the fast lane that the Passat’s 2.5-litre engine does not enjoy being hustled, the emanating burble sounding a little strained under heavy acceleration. Interestingly, VW has chosen to use the same engine across the Passat’s four packages, the 170bhp and 190kph top speed from which consequently staying the same for each. To expect uber performance from a mid-range saloon would be ridiculous, but the idea that the top of the range Sport package may not be quite as vigorous as it could be is a little disappointing.
And yet ironically, it’s on the Tennessee highway – plus a meandering side-turn here and there – that the VW plays its trump card. The drive is proving very comfortable and – yes, why not – easy. The centre console, for example, is uncluttered and well-laid out, making the infotainment system very user friendly. There are few buttons on both the steering wheel and the dash behind, the stop/start button taking up a new home next to the gear lever. The SEL model we’re testing may not include SatNav as standard, but limited road noise, good supportive seats and plenty of headroom makes up for that. Any passengers in the back, given the legroom at their disposal, would probably agree too.
This shouldn’t be surprising. Since the early stages of production VW’s unwavering objective has been on ‘premium’ quality in an effort to edge out principal rivals Toyota (with the Camry), Hyundai (the Sonata) and Honda (the Accord). Given the $24,900 plus Passat starting price, things are looking pretty good. We’ve already been on the go for a good few hours and covered well over 140km when we hit one of our next recommended photography points – the Vintage Cowan Texaco station, for those of you still keeping track – and I still do not really feel the need to get out and stretch my legs.
Nashville is still some 160km away as we enter Tim Ford State Park for our mid-day refuel. The rest of the group takes great joy explaining in meticulous detail just how many more minutes they have been at the lunch time stopping point, and I’m content to let them have their fun. For me the day has not been about ripping from point A to point B in the fastest time possible. Even with our comparatively lethargic tour after all, we’ve still barely scratched the surface of Tennessee.
More important than that though, hustling the new VW Passat is not the best way to showcase its relative merits. Yes, the steering can feel a bit numb at times, I can’t honestly say I have felt comfortable with the brakes throughout the day, and I’ve also been left wondering what the experience would have been like but for a few extra cylinders under the bonnet.
But I can’t deny that the Passat has been comfortable and practical, and an admirable choice for a miniature trans-State road trip. Quite how this will translate to the Middle East remains to be seen, but the Passat’s got off to a good start on its home turf. And here in Tennessee, that’s enough to keep VW smiling. For now.